China is home to a wide variety of people from diverse geographical and cultural backgrounds, which gives rise to a large range of languages. In fact, there are at least 10 main families of languages that are being spoken in China, some of which are so different native speakers would not be able to understand each other.
A family of language is a language group consisting of many types of language with the same roots. For example, Russian language is from Indo-European family whereas ‘Standard Chinese’ would belong to the Sino-Tibetan family.
The official national language of China is the ‘Standard Chinese’ (known as Putonghua in China), which is actually a form a Mandarin based on the Beijing dialect. Many regions have their own official languages and dialects as well. For example, Mongolian for Inner Mongolia and Cantonese for Hong Kong.
Here are the 10 known language families and the number of official ethnicities which speak these languages in China:
1. The Sino-Tibetan family: consists of 19 official ethnicities (including the Han and Tibetans)
2. The Tai–Kadai family: consists of several languages spoken by the Zhuang, the Bouyei, the Dai, the Dong, and the Hlai (Li people). 9 official ethnicities.
3. The Hmong–Mien family: consists 3 official ethnicities
4. The Austroasiatic family: consists of 4 official ethnicities (the De’ang, Blang, Gin (Vietnamese), and Wa)
5. The Turkic family: consists of Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Salars, etc. 7 official ethnicities.
6. The Mongolic family: consists of Mongols, Dongxiang, and related groups. 6 official ethnicities.
7. The Tungusic family: consists of Manchus (formerly), Hezhe, etc. 5 official ethnicities.
8. The Koreanic family: consists of the Korean language
9. The Indo-European family: consists of 2 official ethnicities (the Russians and Tajiks (actually Pamiri people). There is also a heavily Persian-influenced Äynu language spoken by the Äynu people in southwestern Xinjiang who are officially considered Uyghurs.
10. The Austronesian family: consists of 1 official ethnicity (the Gaoshan, who speak many languages of the Formosan branch), 1 unofficial (the Utsuls, who speak the Tsat language but are considered Hui.)
Let’s take a deeper dive into the different language families spoken in China!
1) Sino-Tibetan Languages
A collection of more than 400 languages (including Standard Chinese) that make up one of the largest language families in the world. Native speakers include varieties of Chinese (1.3 billion), Burmese (33 million), and the Tibetic languages (6 million). Old Chinese is the oldest recorded Sino-Tibetan language thus far, with inscriptions dating as far back from 1200 BC
2) Kra-Dai Languages
A family of languages congregated in Southern China (and elsewhere in the world, including Northeast India and Southeast Asia). This family also includes the national languages of Thailand and Laos. In China ethnic groups such as the Zhuang people in the Guanxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Dai people in Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture and the Hlai (Li) people at the south coast of Hainan Island.
3) Hmong-Mien Languages
Also known as the language of the ‘Hill people’ this group of languages are spoken in mountainous areas of southern China, including Guizhou, Hunan, Yunnan, Sichuan, Guangxi, and Hubei provinces. They have one of the most tonal languages in the world, with as many as 12 distinct sounds!
4) Austrosiastic Languages
The Austroasiatic languages are a large language family of Mainland Southeast Asia with around 117 million speakers. Native speakers in China may be found along the Southern border, and also scattered in countries such as India, Bangladesh and Nepal. This group of language includes Vietnamese and Khmer, which are official languages of Vietnam and Cambodia respectively.
5) Turkic Languages
The Turkic languages originated in a region of East Asia spanning Western China to Mongolia, and currently spoken as a native language of about 170 million people. This family of language is also spoken the Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Salars people living in China.
6) Mongolic Languages
The best known member of this family is the Mongolian language, native to about 5.7million speakers within Inner Mongolia. It is similar to Middle Mongol, the language spoken at the time of Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire. The family of languages are also spoken in Mongolia and in Kalmykia and Buryatia, federal subjects of Russia.
7) Tungusic Languages
Likely derived from a common ancestor spoken somewhere in Manchuria around 500 BC to 500 AD, the Tungusic family of languages is endangered. Currently, there are estimated to be only 75 thousand native speakers of the Tunguisc languages, scattered across the region.
8) Koreanic Languages
Most people are probably with the modern Korean language, official language of Korea and 17th most widely spoken in the world. The Chinese Korean language is spoken by ethnic Koreans in China, primarily located in Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning. Due to the People’s Republic of China having maintained favorable relations with North Korea, and due to close distance, Chinese Korean is similar to that of North Korea.
9) Indo-European Languages
Indo-European languages include Hindustani (Hindi-Urdu), Spanish, English, Portuguese, Bengali, Punjabi, and Russian, each with over 100 million speakers. Nearly 42% of the human population (3.2 billion) speaks an Indo-European language as a first language, by far the highest of any language family. 2 official groups speak this language in China – the Russian ethic and Tajik people.
10) Austroesian Languages
Major Austronesian languages with the highest number of speakers are Malay (Indonesian and Malaysian), Javanese, and Filipino (Tagalog). The family contains 1,257 languages, which is the second most of any language family. The Gaoshan people of Taiwan, are the main speakers of this language in China.
Mind-boggled by the multitude of languages used in China? Not to worry! With our experienced local guides to help you discover China, you’ll be in safe hands.
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