According to this map, there are different Chinese "languages" (Sinitic languages) in the Chinese area.

Is my understanding correct that the "official" Chinese language is the Mandarin? In other words, if someone studies Chinese as a foreign language, is he taught the Chinese Mandarin?

Moreover, are the languages spoken by people living in non-Mandarin areas of the aforementioned map essentially the same of Mandarin, or are they very different?
In other words, if a foreigner learns Chinese (Mandarin) and goes to Hong Kong, or Shangai, or Taiwan, can he understand and speak with the locals, or not?

To try to make an analogy: in Europe there are different languages, like Italian, French, Spanish, etc. Even if they have something in common, an Italian can't speak with a French person, without proper previous study/training in French. In other words, Italian and French are different languages (even if with some "roots" in common), not just dialects. Is this the same for e.g. Chinese Mandarin and Chinese spoken in Hong Kong or Shangai or Taiwan?

Thanks for the clarifications.

  • For some analogies: Speakers of Italian, French, or Spanish will have some more difficulty communicating in Moldova or Romania, even though they speak a related language, but native speakers do a lot better than people who learned as adults. They will also have trouble reading Latin. Mar 17, 2014 at 0:44

3 Answers 3


Strictly speaking, the official spoken language in Chinese mainland is known as "Putonghua" (普通话) or "Modern Standard Chinese" (MSM, 现代标准汉语), while the official spoken language in Taiwan is called "Mandarin" (國語).

Both Putonghua and Taiwanese Mandarin are dialects of Pekingese (北京話). While there are differences among them, people who speak these three dialects can practically understand each other without difficulties. When no distinction is needed, English speakers often simply refer to all these three dialects as "Mandarin".

As you have pointed out, there are many other Sinitic languages apart from Mandarin. In practice, many of these languages are mutually unintelligible. So, yes, similar to your example of French vs Italian, Mandarin, Min, Hakka, Cantonese etc. are different spoken languages.

That said, since Putonghua is the official language in Chinese mainland and it is the teaching medium in schools, most Han Chinese people in Chinese mainland now speak Putonghua.

Ethnic minorities are also forced to learn Putonghua in schools. This policy has created some very serious tension between some ethnic minority groups and the Chinese government. But politics aside, many non-Han "Chinese" people do speak Mandarin nowadays as their first or second languages.

Foreigners tend to think that almost all people in China speak Mandarin, but in reality this is far from being true. If I remember correctly, according to official figures from the Chinese Ministry of Education, about ten to twenty years ago, only 58% of all "Chinese" people spoke Mandarin. The figure I read a few years ago was slightly lower than 70%, but I don't remember the precise number.

In Macau and Hong Kong, the majority populations are Cantonese speakers. Owing to close economic/cultural ties between these two cities and the Chinese mainland (and also Taiwan), many people in these two cities do understand Mandarin to various degrees. But there are also people who don't speak or comprehend Mandarin at all.

So, to answer your question, if a foreign learner of Mandarin goes to Shanghai and Taiwan, the chance that he can understand and speak with the locals is close to 100% (assuming that he speaks Mandarin well). But if he goes to Hong Kong, the chance that he can communicate well in Mandarin with the locals is significantly lower (I would say 50-50). Since the de facto official languages in Hong Kong are English and Cantonese, I would suggest him to speak English instead.

As for written languages, practically what Han Chinese people write are all dialects of each other, and is (IMHO) more appropriately called "官話" (also called "Mandarin" in English; now you see that there are many loaded meanings for the word "Mandarin"). While there are recognisable regional differences between the styles, vocabularies and grammars of these written dialects, such differences are not large enough to justify calling those dialects different "languages". Nevertheless, as in the case of English accents, the differences between dialects of written "Mandarin" are often large enough to alienate these dialects among themselves. For instance, suppose you ask an average Cantonese speaker in Hong Kong how he would classify his written language, and three choices are given: (a) 官話, (b) 國語 or (c) 普通話 (all these three terms can be called "Mandarin" in English). It is very unlikely that one would pick (c).

  • 1
    My understanding is that written Chinese is generally written Mandarin. Sometimes there are accepted ways to write local terms, and that's most common in Cantonese where you'll see characters with the mouth radical often in local words. In Taiwan you see more Latin (English) letters mixed in (such as Q). Except for Dungan, which is written in Arabic or Cyrillic and is not spoken in China. It's related to Mandarin though so probably still mutually intelligible in speech. Mar 17, 2014 at 0:51

From my experience, the talk between people living in non-Mandarin areas usually use their local dialects, which are very hard to understand for people only know Mandarin.

But When they talk to the people from Mandarin areas, they also can speek Mandarin. Especially the young people can speek Mandarin because the Chinese class were taught by the official Mandarin from their primary school.

I don't know much about the Europe language, but I think Chinese dialect is somewhat different because for a person who want to learn other dialect, he/she does not need to learn new grammar, he/she only need to remember the special pronunciation of words, and some special idioms.

The above I said is about Mainland, sorry I don't know much about Hong Kong and Taiwan.

  • So basically grammar rules and written Chinese are the same (modulo traditional/simplified characters) all over the Chinese area: what changes is just the pronunciation?
    – Mr.C64
    Mar 15, 2014 at 15:04
  • 2
    @Mr.C64 Written Chinese are almost same. That means if you can't understand a dialect's pronunciation, you can communicate with other people by writing. But there're also some dialect characters in each dialect, which are not used or not used in the same way by other dialects or Mandarin.
    – user4072
    Mar 15, 2014 at 16:41
  • Thanks for the great info. It's cool that a common written language can be used to communicate between probably one billion people speaking different dialects/languages.
    – Mr.C64
    Mar 15, 2014 at 22:08
  • 1
    @Mr.C64: Written Chinese is basically Mandarin. I don't think monolingual speakers of other Sinitic languages are often literate though, so people who can read and write Chinese know Mandarin as well as their local language or dialect. Mar 17, 2014 at 0:54

Is my understanding correct that the "official" Chinese language is the Mandarin? Yup.

In other words, if someone studies Chinese as a foreign language, is he taught the Chinese Mandarin? Depends on your definition of "study". (I'll come back to this in a second)

Moreover, are the languages spoken by people living in non-Mandarin areas of the aforementioned map essentially the same of Mandarin, or are they very different? According to the map that you posted, I would even go as far as saying those that live in the 'supposed' Mandarin speaking areas will not necessarily speak Mandarin.

I know plenty of people who have, basically, been living with the in-laws in "Mandarin speaking areas" but who have only ever learned dialects.

I saw some mentions of writing systems aswell...and to be honest each place would most likely, originally, had their own writing system -- a lot of topolectical things people will tell you today "this is only spoken -- we can't write it" but that basically is an uneducated lie.

You can have a read of this: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=5961 here's a clip:

In my estimation, there is far too little genuine topolectal literature in China. Throughout history, nearly everything has been written either in one or another style of Literary Sinitic (Classical Chinese) or in the national koine / lingua franca vernacular (currently known as Pǔtōnghuà 普通话 [in Mainland China] / Guóyǔ 国语 [in Taiwan] / Huáyǔ 华语 [in Southeast Asian countries]), i.e., Mandarin.

I wish that there were vibrant, vital written forms for Hokkien, Shanghainese, Hakka, and many other varieties of Chinese, just as there are for Bengali, Gujarati, Oriya / Odiya, and so forth in India. Considering the plethora of spoken languages in China, I believe that the development of corresponding written languages for at least the major varieties would lead to mutual enrichment and invigoration, including of the national language. While there have been some sporadic efforts to write Taiwanese / Amoyese, a full-blown literary tradition has never developed for that language (see Sino-Platonic Papers #89, #92, and #172, as well as the works of Henning Klöter). There have also been occasional efforts to incorporate a few words of the local language in so-called Shanghainese literature, but it usually amounts only to a sprinkling of Wu lexical items in what is basically a Mandarin matrix. The situation for the other topolects is even less, with next to none or no written form at all.

It is only in Cantonese that there has been anything approaching true topolectal writing. I suspect that this has been possible mainly because of the special sociopolitical conditions that obtained while Hong Kong was a colony of the British Empire. Whatever the reason, I am always pleased when I learn of evidence that written Cantonese is clinging to life.

Consequently, I was delighted to learn about a recently published novel in written Cantonese, called naam4 jan4*2 m4 ho2 ji5 kung4 男人唔可以窮 ("A man Ought not Be Poor" or "A Man Must not Be Poor"). It’s interesting that the book originated in a series of posts on the popular HK web forum HKGOLDEN (gou1 dang1 leon6 taan4 高登論壇), which is part of a computer information portal.

and here: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=6501

  1. After 1949 over the last few decades of British colonial rule, Cantonese was regarded as one more desirable/useful barrier separating HK from China.

    As a consequence, the British treated Cantonese with benign neglect which allowed it to develop naturally and without interference, and this is why it has been doing as well as it has.

    A couple of years ago the fact that only a handful of people showed up at a demonstration in support of Cantonese in HK shows that most HK speakers do not see it as being under imminent threat.

    In Guangzhou people are told that "civilized people speak Mandarin" wénmíng rén shuō Pǔtōnghuà 文明人説普通話, which to me implies that uncivilized people speak "dialects" (topolects) such as Cantonese.

  2. Some people hold the view there is only one kind of "proper" Chinese and that is standard written Chinese (i.e., Modern Standard Mandarin). The "dialects" (topolects) are nonstandard or substandard and hence unimportant and uninteresting — except to linguists and dialectologists.

    Here in HK I've encountered people who have told me that Cantonese cannot be written and should not be written.

    I once told students in a sociolinguistics class I was teaching some years ago that I thought written Cantonese should be standardized and promoted as another Chinese variety. One of the students who was from the mainland and a teacher of Chinese language in HK could barely suppress her outrage, telling me if that were done then written Cantonese would challenge and compete with standard written Chinese and such a situation could not be allowed or tolerated.

    But in reality written Cantonese and standard written Chinese have already been in competition in HK for some time, although not on a large scale, and Cantonese could in no way be said to challenge the pre-eminent position of standard written Chinese. The standardization of written Cantonese has been evolving for some time on its own informal, ad hoc basis, but so far this phenomenon hasn't received much attention.

    A couple of observations:

    The other day as I was riding down the escalator in a train station I saw the phrase 啱晒 ngaam1 saai3 'thoroughly correct, absolutely right', a thoroughly Cantonese expression, written in an advertisement. I assume northerners who don't speak Cantonese would find it completely meaningless, and for the time being that doesn't seem to matter to the advertiser who rented that space, but such an attitude will likely change before long.

    The other night at a linguistics conference dinner the man sitting on my left said he was from Chongqing and couldn't understand anything Cantonese speakers in HK were saying. Earlier in the day I had come across the word 萬字夾 maan6 zi6 gaap3/2 which was said to be the Cantonese word for 'paper clip' and equivalent to standard Chinese huíxíngzhēn 回形針 or huíwénzhēn 回纹针, so I showed him the Cantonese word and asked him if it meant anything to him. He said 'no'. I think it may be an old Cantonese word, since most of my Cantonese-Putonghua dictionaries published in HK haven't recorded it, although three other references have listed and defined it.

  • +1 for the very interesting quotes you have included! Mar 17, 2014 at 0:56
  • Cantonese Wikipedia: 萬字夾 Mar 17, 2014 at 1:02

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