Different Dialects of Chinese.

Since the number of speakers in China is very large, it is not very surprising that Chinese has many different spoken dialects. These different dialects are spoken inside China itself and also abroad. Although all varieties of this foreign language belong to the same Sino-Tibetan family, the differences between some dialects are quite large, which means that they are not mutually intelligible. The difference is so large that it can be even compared to European languages. In areas where Mandarin is not so widely spoken, people also tend to use English if they want to communicate with people from other areas of Taiwan or China. It is also worthwhile to mention that these varieties even have their sub-dialects; although the differences between them is quite small so they are mutually intelligible. Separate dialects of Chinese can also have a different number of tones. For instance Cantonese dialect has 6-9 tones, while Mandarin only 4 different tones.

Most sources distinguish at least 7 main dialects of Chinese while others even 10 or more dialects. Bellow you can find a list of Chinese dialects that are listed based on the total number of speakers.

Mandarin.

mandarin-jin-dialectBased on the number of speakers, Mandarin is the most dominant spoken dialect of Chinese. It has about 1.3 billion of speakers who are mostly based in Southwestern and Northern China, which is about two-thirds of all Chinese speakers. Due to so many speakers in China and Taiwan, Mandarin is considered to be the main language in education, media and government. In Singapore Mandarin also has a status of official language (1 out of 4). Based on geographical location, Mandarin is also being categorized into sub-dialects – Southern, Southwest, Northern and Northwestern.

While there are differences between these varieties they are considered to be mutually intelligible. It is also worthwhile to mention that outside of China Mandarin has large communities of speakers in countries like Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Philippines, Laos and etc. Since Mandarin is the largest dialect of Chinese, the number of online courses and books available for studying it is also the largest. You can find a list in this article.

Yue (Cantonese).

Cantonese is considered as one of the main dialects of Chinese and it has about 70 million speakers. The main areas in which this dialect is spoken are south each China including Macau, Hong Kong, Hainan, Guangxi as well as Guangdong. Outside of China there are communities speaking Cantonese too. This includes countries like Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Philippines. This particular dialect is considered the main language of government, media and business in Macau and Hong Kong.

When it comes to written form, Cantonese has both colloquial and formal version. Formal written version is similar to Standard Chinese while colloquial version is closer to spoken Cantonese. Colloquial Cantonese uses Standard Chinese characters and also some extra characters that were specifically created for this this dialect. Due to this, many Mandarin speakers would be able to understand formal written version of Cantonese without too much difficulty. In case you are interested in learning how to speak and understand Cantonese, Pismleur offers audio based lessons for learning this specific dialect.

Wu.

wu-dialectWu dialect has about 90 million speakers, which accounts for about 8-9% of total Chinese speakers. Even though the number of speakers is quite impressive, it is being spoken in quite small area of China (densely populated). The main regions that Wu is being spoken are Zhejiang, Shanghai and some parts of Anhui & Jiangsu.

It is important to mention that Wu has quite a lot of subdialects and they are not always mutually intelligible. The main distinguished sub-dialects of Wu are considered to be Shanghai and Suzhou. Since Wu doesn’t have written form, it is not being used in education.

Min.

About 4% of Chinese uses Min dialect as their spoken language. The main regions of this dialect are Fujian, Hainan and eastern Guangdong. Min has quite a lot of sub-dialects – Amoy, Fushou, Swatow and others.

Xiang.

Xiang variety of Chinese is being spoken mostly Hunan area. A total number of speakers is close to 46 million, which accounts for 4.8% of speakers. Quite commonly this dialect is being categorized into two different varieties – Old Xiang and New Xiang. Old Xiang is mostly spoken in Shuangfeng province and it has similarities with Wu dialect.

When compared with other varieties of Chinese, Old Xiang tends to have more initial consonants. New Xiang has more similarities with Mandarin and it is mostly spoken in Hunan capital and Changsha.

Hakka.

Hakka dialect is being spoken by about 35 million people, which accounts for about 3.7% of total Chinese speakers. The main regions of Hakka dialect are South Eastern China, New Territories of Hong Kong as well as Taiwan.

The most prestige form of Hakka is considered to be Meixian sub-dialect. Outside of China Hakka has significant speaker communities in countries like Mauritius, USA and French Guiania.

Gan.

The main areas of this dialect are Jiangxi and a few surrounding areas (Anhui, Fujian, Hunan and Hubei). Gan has a total of 22 million speakers, which accounts for ~2.5% of all Chinese speakers. Gan some similarities with Wu and Mandarin and previously it was considered to be closely related to Hakka dialect.

Some sources also tend to distinguish Huizhou, Pinghua and Jin as the main dialects of Chinese. While other simply consider them as sub-dialects of the other varieties.