How many speak Mandarin?
Whenever Mandarin or Chinese are mentioned in the news reports and other articles – something that seems to be happening frequently recently – the number of speakers is often mentioned and is usually given as over one billion. The assumption that the vast majority of people in China speak Mandarin is very common both outside and inside China.
According to a survey undertaken by the Xinhua news agency however, ‘only’ half of the population of China, some 690 million people, actually do speak Mandarin. Urban dwellers are more likely to be Mandarin speakers than those who live in rural areas, and while approximately three quarters of those under 30 speak the language, only a third of those over 60 do.
Other varieties of Chinese (dialects/regionalects/topolects/Sinitic languages) are spoken by 86% of the population, which suggests that many people are bilingual in their local ‘dialect(s)’ and Mandarin. Non-Chinese languages are spoken by about 5% of population who belong to China’s 55 officially recognised ‘National Minorities’.
The other main concentrations of Mandarin speakers are in Taiwan, where about 20 million – the majority of the population – speak the language, and in Singapore, where about 1.5 million speak Mandarin, and the government is attempting to encourage more to do so. There’s another million or so speakers of Mandarin in Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Thailand and Mongolia, according to Ethnologue, and about 175,00 in the USA, according to the MLA.
That gives us a total of 712,675,000 speakers of Mandarin. A huge number, but not quite a billion.