China is currently the most populated and the third biggest country in the world. 1,4 milliards of people live on over 9,5 square kilometres, and 9% of them belongs to 55 ethnic minorities. Is it possible that in so populated country with this kind of cultural diversity there is only one language? And if there are more, which one is most often used by translators? Is it Mandarin language?

How many Chinese languages are there?

Officially, there are 302 languages in China, sometimes referred to as dialects. Most of them belongs to Sino-Tibetan family of languages, but despite some similarities, they can completely differ from each other. Moreover, some of them have their own variants. That is why several dozen years ago, Chinese people who only spoke their local language could not understand each other. There is no wonder why creating lingua franca of China was necessary.

Official language

Until the beginning of 20th century there were two official languages: Classical Chinese used in writing, and Guānhuà 官话 – “speech of officials”. Only the most educated individuals knew them. That is why this language system was not a solution to the problem of linguistic diversity.

Currently Standard Chinese, also known as Pŭtōnghuà 普通话 in China or Guóyǔ 国语 in Taiwan, serves as the official language in the country. It is an artificial language based on the Beijing dialect. And although it was not declared as official until 1956, it is now used by more than 1 billion of people, which makes it the second most used language in the world right after English. This is the language that we can hear in offices and schools in mainland China, as well as in Singapore and Taiwan. And this is the language that translators most often use.

Other important languages:

Other languages most commonly used in China include:

  • Yue, with Cantonese (about 85 millions of speakers in the world),
  • Wu (about 83 millions of speakers),
  • Min (about 49 millions of speakers),
  • Jin (about 47 millions of speakers),
  • Hakka (about 44 millions of speakers).

Knowledge of official Chinese language is usually enough to fully translate a given document, but such a big amount of languages surely do not make their job any easier. However, it cannot be denied that this kind of linguistic diversity is a very interesting phenomenon for linguists and culture experts from all over the world.

(translation M.W.)

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