With well over a billion native speakers, Chinese is the most-spoken first language in the world. Geographically, too, China is an immense country. It should come as no surprise, then, that there are several important regional distinctions in the Chinese language. Indeed, there’s a lot more to Chinese than just Mandarin: there are many important dialects with millions of speakers each. Here are some of the most popular ones.
Of course, it would be remiss to leave Mandarin out of any list about Chinese dialects. Spoken by about 70% of the Chinese-speaking population — as well as by almost everyone learning Chinese as a second language — Mandarin has a whopping 700 million native speakers. The Beijing dialect, a subdialect of Mandarin, is the phonological basis for Standard Chinese, and is thus well-understood throughout the entire country.
Spoken in the coastal area around Shanghai, the Wu has over 80 million native speakers, and is the second-most common variety of Chinese. Grammatically, Wu dialects can be rather complex; for instance, the pronoun for “we” is different when it includes the hearer (e.g., “me and you”) from when it does not (e.g., “me and them”).
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Unlike any other dialects on this list, the Yue dialects are often not mutually intelligible with other Chinese dialects, meaning that speakers of other dialects can’t understand Yue Chinese, and vice versa. It’s spoken by about 60 million people in the provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi. The most popular subdialect of Yue Chinese is Cantonese, which is the prestige dialect of Yue Chinese.
Min Chinese is spoken by over 70 million people in China’s Fujian province. Min Chinese combines vocabulary and grammar from several different periods in the history of the Chinese language. For this reason, it can be hard to find appropriate Chinese characters — which are developed specifically for Mandarin — to write Min words. As a result, written Min often relies on Roman characters to express some of its words that don’t exist in Mandarin.
Xiang Chinese is spoken in the Hunan province in Southern China. It is bordered on its north, west, and southwest by Mandarin-speaking territories. As a result, the Xiang dialect has felt substantial impact from Mandarin Chinese, and is more similar to Mandarin than most of the other dialects on this list.
The Hakka dialect is something of an oddity on this list, as it is spoken primarily in isolated regions with limited communication. For this reason, it has developed several variants that can be quite distinct from one another. The Hakka dialect is also spoken extensively in Taiwan.
About 20 million speakers, the majority of whom live in the Jiangxi province, speak a variant of Chinese known as Gan. Gan shares some similarities with the Hakka dialects, and contains many subdialects among its different populations. Gan dialects maintain many archaic words that are no longer used in Mandarin; for instance, the word “clothes” in Gan is 衣裳 while it is 衣服 in Mandarin.
With a language as enormous as Chinese, it’s important to note that these dialects are better classified as groups rather than individual dialects themselves. Indeed, each of the variants on this list contain a plethora of subdialects, spoken in individual cities and towns.
Regardless of which dialect you’re interested in learning, taking tailor-made Chinese classes from a native speaker is the best way to learn this beautiful language that can often pose a challenge for English speakers. Contact us to find out how we can best meet your needs to learn Chinese.