Language Diversity in China
Updated: May 19
Beyond Mandarin and Cantonese: Language Diversity in China
It’s no surprise to those living in ethnically diverse areas of the United States that Mandarin and Cantonese are among the top Chinese languages in the United States. Up to 500,000 people speak either Mandarin or Cantonese in the United States.
There is one similarity in the U.S. and around the world when it comes to the Chinese language. This similarity is that the most common Chinese language is Mandarin Chinese. With around over 900 million native speakers worldwide, Mandarin speakers are found in all corners of the world. Despite being so ubiquitous, other Chinese languages also live primarily in China and are also spoken by millions of people within the country. In China, Mandarin and Cantonese are only two of approximately 300 languages found in China.
Chinese languages you might not have heard about are spoken by millions within the country, such as those originating from Wu, Gan, and Min varieties. Further, a 2013 BBC article reported that 30% of China’s population could not communicate in the official language, Mandarin Chinese. While Mandarin continues to be the most widely spoken and Cantonese continues to be widespread across all continents, other varieties like those mentioned continue to have millions of speakers within China.
So, what are these Chinese languages you may not have heard about?
Here is an overview of other Chinese language varieties.
Around 90 million speakers of Wu varieties live in the East coast of China. This language variety includes languages, like Shanghainese. The variety is also spoken in Suzhou, Hangzhoi, Shaoxing, and other areas neighboring Shanghai.
Approximately 60 million speakers of Gan or Jiangxihua speak the language. The speakers of Gan mostly populate the Jianxi province, as well as Anhui and Fujian in the Southwest.
Around 75 million people speak the Min variety, but the people who speak it are a little more scattered than the varieties mentioned above. Speakers of Min are mostly found in Fujian, Jiangsu, as well as islands bordering the Southwest region of China. Min speakers can be found in: Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, the U.S. and among other Chinese diasporas.
Other non-Chinese languages (also known as non-Sinitic) are spoken in the large country of China. See maps of other language families, such as Tibetan, found in China on this Dartmouth page.