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The Chinese Language Landscape

Population of China: 1,330,044,605 (July 2008 est.)

Language: Chinese

Internet country code: .cn

Internet users: 253 million (2008)

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Chinese or the Sinitic language(s) can be considered a language or language family. Originally the indigenous languages spoken by the Han Chinese in China, it forms one of the two branches of Sino-Tibetan family of languages. About one-fifth of the world’s population, or over 1 billion people, speak some form of Chinese as their native language. The identification of the varieties of Chinese as "languages" or "dialects" is controversial.

Spoken Chinese is distinguished by its high level of internal diversity, though all spoken varieties of Chinese are tonal and analytic. There are between six and twelve main regional groups of Chinese (depending on classification scheme), of which the most populous (by far) is Mandarin (c. 850 million), followed by Wu (c. 90 million), Min (c. 70 million) and Cantonese (c. 70 million). Most of these groups are mutually unintelligible, though some, like Xiang and the Southwest Mandarin dialects, may share common terms and some degree of intelligibility. Chinese is classified as a macrolanguage with 13 sub-languages in ISO 639-3, though the identification of the varieties of Chinese as multiple "languages" or as "dialects" of a single language is a contentious issue.

The standardized form of spoken Chinese is Standard Mandarin (Putonghua/Guoyu), based on the Beijing dialect. Standard Mandarin is the official language of the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China (Taiwan), as well as one of four official languages of Singapore. Chinese – de facto, Standard Mandarin – is one of the six official languages of the United Nations. Of the other varieties, Standard Cantonese is common and influential in Cantonese-speaking overseas communities, and remains one of the official languages of Hong Kong (together with English) and of Macau (together with Portuguese). Min Nan, part of the Min language group, is widely spoken in southern Fujian, in neighbouring Taiwan (where it is known as Taiwanese or Hoklo) and in Southeast Asia (where it dominates in Singapore and Malaysia and is known as Hokkien).

According to news reports in March 2007, 86 percent of people in the People's Republic of China speak a variant of spoken Chinese. As a language family, the number of Chinese speakers is 1.136 billion. The same news report indicate 53 percent of the population, or 700 million speakers, can effectively communicate in Putonghua.

Sources: CIA World Factbook and Wikipedia – Content available under GNU Free Documentation License

Note on spoken versus written Chinese

Mandarin and Cantonese are spoken versions of the Chinese language and should not be confused with the written versions of Chinese (i.e. simplified or traditional). In other words, Mandarin Chinese should not be considered as being equivalent to simplified Chinese, nor should Cantonese be considered the equivalent of traditional Chinese. In fact, combinations of written and spoken Chinese will vary by region.

Simplified Chinese is in use primarily in mainland China and Singapore. Introduced in 1949, simplified Chinese is a simplified version of traditional Chinese and is today the official language of mainland China and Singapore.

Traditional Chinese: is in use primarily in Taiwan and Hong Kong. With a history dating back some 3,000 years, weighed down by a broad range of characters (some quite complex), traditional Chinese remains in use primarily in Hong Kong and Taiwan as well as some overseas Chinese communities.

Related Article:
The Global Language Landscape – Languages in Use on the Internet

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