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.

15 thoughts on “How many speak Mandarin?

  1. I find to be a reasonably acurate and entertaining source for opinions on the state of Mandarin. They don’t fall into the “1.2 billion/thousand million/milliard (pick your system) Mandarin speakers” trap that others do. Seems like it’s usually a mistake to lump Chinese citizens together like that.

  2. The fact that most people in Europe and North America think that “Chinese” is a language probably doesn’t help either…

  3. The number of Mandarin speaker is only going to increase though, not decrease, in the near future.

    I am honestly surprised only 3/4 of those under 30 in China speak Mandarin. I would’ve assumed it would be at least 7/8.

  4. Weili: I’ll give you 13/16 and not a fraction more! I like your point though. In general, it seems like the majority languages (e.g. the UN officials) tend to supplant other languages for a variety of reasons including business, diplomacy, linguae francae, second languages at school, primary (first) school languages, etc.

  5. Honestly, one thing that bugs me is the very name “Mandarin”, as though (a) mandarins still existed and (b) there were no other name for the language. Pinyin, is it not? (Please correct me if I’m wrong)

  6. Pinyin is the name of the primary transcription/writing system. It is based on a modified Latin alphabet and is unique to Mandarin. The word “Pinyin” comes from the roots “pin” meaning “to spell” and “yin” meaning “sound”; so on an etymological basis, it’s name really refers to writing. I think it would be appropriate to refer to any writing in that script as “Pinyin”, and that such reference would necessarilly contain the meaning of “Mandarin”. I don’t think you’d find much purchase for refering to the whole language under that name, however.

    From my understanding, “Mandarin” enjoys somewhat of a favored status as a name: I believe it refers to the court language (language for “mandating”) of ages past and presently enjoys the status of China’s primary official language. To me, it seems appropriate.

  7. I agree that the name “Mandarin” should be replaced.

    In Chinese, “Mandarin” is known as Putonghua (Common Language) or Hanyu (Language of the Han) in mainland China and Guoyu (National Language) in Taiwan. I believe Hanyu would probably be the best choice for obvious reasons.

    BTW, the name “Mandarin” came from the old Chinese name for the language/dialect which was Guanhua, which literally means “Spoken Language of the Officials”.

  8. There’s a strong case to be made for ‘hanyu’ and for ‘zhongwen’. Mandarin is just silly: like hsiao and peking, it’s a joke that it’s still used at all.

  9. Hanyu is much more fitting than Zhongwen. 文 wen means the written-language while 語 yu means the language as a whole. I’ve always found it funny when someone asks if I spoke Zhongwen: 你會說中文嗎? ni hui shuo Zhongwen ma?

    Besides, Hanyu is much more respectful toward the Chinese ethnic minority as it just means language of the Han while Zhongwen implies that it’s the written script for all of China.

  10. “Mandarin” is indeed known as Putonghua (Common Language) in mainland China and Guoyu (National Language) in Taiwan. or Hanyu (Language of the Han) includes not only to Mandarin but also to “dialects” such as Cantonese.

  11. In Taiwan we also use “中文” (zhongwen) when we refer to Mandarin, even though this word refers to language in China, which, of course, is not limited to Mandarin……
    We switch to “國語” (guoyu) when we want to make things more specific, as in contrast to “台語” (taiyu) Taiwanese/Hokkien language that is also spoken in Taiwan, etc.
    We recognize “普通話” (Putonghua) as well, but “漢語” to our ears would more like languages of China in general.
    “華語” (huayu, language of Chinese) is also used, I believe, in Singapore and other places?

  12. I thought that since I’d be spending a month in Taiwan that I should learn Mandarin and I’d be fine. WOW was that wrong. It was my understanding that Mandarin and Taiwanese were nearly one in the same. Like American English to United Kingdom English. On my next trip I had my Taiwanese friends educate me on the differnece. As an outsider I was impressed by the diversity and even in Taiwan there is a great deal of difference between North and South. If you are an American do yourself and the people you encounter a courtesy and learn the difference.

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