Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Country Profile: The Languages of China

Exactly two years ago, we started a regular series of language profiles. Now we're replacing it with a new series in a very similar vein, country profiles. While the language profiles covered one particular language, the new country profiles will be a look at the linguistic makeup of one country in particular.

When we did language profiles, we worked our way through a list, starting with the language with the most native speakers. As we certainly missed a few of the world's many languages, we'll still occasionally do language profiles, just not weekly as we have been doing.

This week marks the first of our country profiles. We're starting with the languages spoken in the world's most populous country, China. After that, we'll work our way around the world, making sure to skip the places we've already covered during their national holidays.

The flag of the People's Republic of China
The Languages of China

Almost one fifth of the world's population lives in China, and Mandarin Chinese is spoken by around 840,000,000 people as a native language. Mandarin has de facto status as the national language.

However, with around 1.3 billion people in a single country, there are certainly more languages than just Chinese. In fact, China has 8 official languages: Standard Chinese, Cantonese, English, Portuguese, Uyghur, Tibetan, Zhuang, and Mongolian.

Sino-Tibetan Languages

Since the Sino-Tibetan languages are indigenous to most of what makes up modern-day China, you can expect plenty of these languages to be spoken in the country. Aside from Mandarin, Cantonese is also another Sino-Tibetan language with official status.

Cantonese is natively spoken by around 62,000,000 people in the world. In China, Cantonese is an official language in Hong Kong and Macau and used by the local governments in these places.

Unsurprisingly, Tibetan is spoken in the Tibet Autonomous Region. The language is spoken by over one million people and is written using a Brahmic script, a type of abugida.

Indo-European Languages

You may have spotted a couple of Indo-European languages in the list of official languages in China. These are the lasting heritage of European colonialism in China.

The English language has official language status in Hong Kong, which was a British colony for 156 years until it was handed back to China in 1997. Likewise, the Portuguese language is spoken as an official language in Macau, which was a Portuguese colony between 1557 and 1999, making it both the first and last European colony in China.

Turkic Languages

The Uyghur language is spoken around the world by up to 11 million people. Within China, it is principally spoken in Xinjiang, where it has official status.

Mongolian Languages

The Mongolian language is natively spoken by nearly 6 million people in the world. In addition to being the official language of Mongolia, it is also an official language of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in China.

Tai-Kadai Languages

The Zhuang languages are the last of China's 8 official languages. In total, around 16 million people speak one of the Zhuang languages in the south of China. However, the languages are not mutually intelligible to one another and in some cases are more related to another language from the Tai language family than each other. Perhaps they should be reclassified.

Other Languages

"Surely there are more than 8 languages spoken in China?", we hear you ask. You are right. In fact, there are apparently nearly 300 languages spoken in China, far too many for one post.