95% of the Chinese population speak one of the several variants of the Chinese language. Other languages spoken in China include Tai, Tibetan, Lolo, Mongolian and Miao. There are also considerable Chinese-speaking communities is South-east Asian countries like Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Chinese languages and dialects
There are several variants of spoken Chinese which are considered to be different languages by some and regional dialects by others. These are the most common:
Mandarin is the most widely spoken variant of Chinese in China.
Cantonese is spoken primarily in overseas communities, Hong Kong, Guangdong, parts of Hainan, Southern Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and Macau.
Xiang/Hunanese is spoken in Hunan, a south-central region.
Hakka (Kejia) is spoken in Guizhou, Hunan, Guangdong, Taiwan, South-western Fujian, Indonesia, Singapore, Yunnan, Guangxi, Sichuan, and several other communities.
Other Chinese languages/dialects are Min, Gan, and Wu.
A national Chinese language was established in 1913, although predominately based on Mandarin other regional dialects were incorporated in its development. In 1949 the language was renamed Putonghu (common language) and in 1956 it become the formal language of instruction in school rooms across the country. Today it is the most widely spoken form of Chinese.
Written Chinese is made up of characters rather than letters and is based on the standard spoken language so that speakers of all variants can read it. There are roughly 3,500 basic Chinese characters which when applied in combination create around 10,000 complex characters. Many of the characters are used in the written languages of Vietnam, Japan and Korea. Traditionally Chinese characters were written in vertical columns and read from the top to the bottom, right to left. This is still the layout used in much official documentation but today the westernised layout (horizontal rows, top to bottom, left to right) has become generally used.
As it is impossible to discern the pronunciation of a Chinese word by looking at the characters which represent it a phonetic spelling system was developed to help non-native speakers. The system is called pinyin and many Chinese products/signage show words in both characters and pinyin.
In order to type Chinese characters on a computer specialist software is needed. Specifically designed programs like NJ Star translate typed pinyin words to Chinese characters.
Learning to Speak Chinese
Chinese is a notoriously difficult language to learn, but don’t let that put you off! It may take you a long time and a lot of hard work to learn but the benefits outweigh the effort.
If you plan on living and working in China then learning the language will hugely improve your career prospects and allow you to get much more out of the country socially. A willingness to try learning the language of your host nation will make a big difference to how the Chinese perceive you. Having even the most basic grasp of the language will earn the respect and appreciation of locals.
How rapidly you are able to learn Chinese depends on how much commitment you give the endeavour. If you want to speak fluently quickly it will require constant practice and complete emersion in the language.
Mingling with locals, participating in a language exchange, watching Chinese television and practising with friends are all brilliant ways of using your spare time to absorb and learn. It’s also a good idea to speak your native language as little as possible, the more you have to rely on Chinese to communicate the more quickly you will learn to speak it properly!
Constant practise is fantastic but some people find they can only learn with formal instruction. Many Chinese universities and private language schools offer lessons, but cost and time commitment can vary significantly so doing a bit of research can really pay off. Private one-on-one classes are often the best way to learn quickly, but these are usually quite pricey. In the end it’s entirely a matter of preference whether you decide to learn at a steady pace over a long period of time or engage in intensive classes.
Across China the standardised test for speaking Chinese as a foreign language is The Chinese Proficiency Test or Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK). There are over 140 HSK test centres within China and overseas in which testing is frequently held. HSK certificates of proficiency are an almost globally recognised qualification and are issued by the State Committee for the Chinese Proficiency Test of China. There are several different HSK test levels; Basic, Elementary-Intermediate and Advanced. Within each level candidates complete sections for listening comprehension, reading comprehension and grammar and are then issued a score based on their knowledge. Whilst the HSK certificates are permanently valid the score report expires after two years.