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Spoken Chinese

Chinese is a family of closely-related but mutually unintelligible languages. These languages are known variously as fāngyán (regional languages), dialects of Chinese or varieties of Chinese. In all over 1.2 billion people speak one or more varieties of Chinese.

All varieties of Chinese belong to the Sino-Tibetan family of languages and each one has its own dialects and sub-dialects, which are more or less mutually intelligible.

Notable features

  • All varieties of Chinese are tonal. This means that each syllable can have a number of different meanings depending on the intonation with which it is pronounced. For example Mandarin has 4 tones, Cantonese has between 6 and 9 (it depends who you ask) and Taiwanese has 7 tones.
  • The major varieties of Chinese are mutually unintelligible, but most people in China and Taiwan who don't speak Mandarin as their first language, can speak or at least understand it a bit. However in Hong Kong and Macau few people speak Mandarin, so they tend to use English to communicate with people from other parts of China or Taiwan.
  • Each of the major varieties of Chinese has numerous dialects. For example, Mandarin can be divided into northern, southern and south-western dialects, which are more or less mutually intelligible.

Major varieties of Chinese include:

Pŭtōnghuà (Mandarin) Mandarin (pŭtōnghuà/huáyŭ/guóyŭ)

Mandarin is spoken by possibly more people than any other language: over 1.3 billion. It is the main language of government, the media and education in China and Taiwan, and one of the four official languages in Singapore.
Further details

Wúyŭ

Wú is spoken in Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces and in Shanghai and Hong Kong by about 90 million people. Major dialects of Wu include Shanghainese and Suzhou.
Further details of Shanghainese

Yuè (Cantonese) Cantonese (gwóngdùngwá/yuhtyúh)

Cantonese is spoken by about 70 million people in Guangdong and Guangxi provinces and Hainan island in China, and also in Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, Malaysia and many other countries
Further details

Mĭn Nán (Southern Min) mínnánhuà (bân-lâm-oe)

Mĭn Nán is in the south of Fujian province, Guangdong province, southern Hainan Island, in the south of Zhejiang and Jiangxi provinces, and also in Taiwan, Singapore and many other countries.
Further details

Jìnyŭ jìnyŭ/shānxīhuà

Jinyu is spoken mainly in Shanxi province and also in Shanxi and Henan provinces by about 45 million people. It used to be considered as a dialect of Mandarin, but is now thought to be a separate variety of Chinese.

Hakka hak ga va (kèjiāhuà)

Hakka is spoken in south eastern China, parts of Taiwan and in the New Territories of Hong Kong. There are also significant communities of Hakka speakers in such countries as the USA, French Guiana, Mauritius and the UK.
Further details

Xiāng (Hunanese) xiāngyŭ/húnánhuà

Xiang (Hunanese) is spoken by about 25 million people in China, mainly in Hunan province, and also in Sichuan, Guangxi and Guangdong provinces.
Further details

Gàn gànyŭ/jiāngxīhuà

Gan is spoken by about 20.5 million people in Jiangxi province and in parts of Hubei, Anhui, Hunan and Fujian provinces.
Further details

Mín Bĕi (Northern Min) mínbĕihuà

Mín Bĕi has about 10,3 million speakers mainly in Northern Fujian Province and Singapore. Mín is the Classical Chinese name for Fujian province and Bĕi means 'north' or 'northern'.

Mín Dōng (Eastern Min) míndōnghuà

Mín Dōng is spoken mainly in east central Fujian Province and also in Brunei, Indonesia (Java and Bali), Malaysia (Peninsular), Singapore, Thailand. The approximate number of native speakers is 250,000.

Mín Zhōng (Central Min) mínzhōnghuà

Mín Zhōng is spoken mainly in central Fujian Province.

Dungan (хуэйзў йүян)

Dungan is spoken by the Muslim Hui people in China, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. There are approximately 50,000 speakers. Dungan is the only variety of Chinese not with Chinese characters. Instead it is written with the Cyrillic alphabet.
Further details

Pŭ-Xián pŭxiánhuà

Pŭ-Xián is spoken by about 6,000 people mainly in east central Fujian Province and in Malaysia and Singapore.

Huīzhōu huīzhōuhuà

Huīzhōu is spoken in southern Anhui and northern Zhejiang provinces. It used to be considered as a dialect of Mandarin, but is now thought to be a separate variety of Chinese.

Links

Chinese Translation
中文翻譯
of names and phrases

An introduction to the major varieties of Chinese (in Chinese)
http://www.chinapage.com/language/dialect/dialect.html

Recordings in various varieties of Chinese
http://blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime/2013/06/13/getting-chinas-tower-of-babel-on-record/tab/interactive/
http://phonemica.net
http://www.pearstories.org/docu/chiPear.htm

Information about written Chinese

Learn Chinese with AIChinese

Recommended books

Books about Chinese characters and calligraphy
Mandarin, Shanghainese, Hokkien, Taiwanese and Cantonese language courses, dictionaries, etc.

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