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01 July, 2007:
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Spoken Chinese 中国话口语

Learn Chinese
Learn Chinese

Broadly speaking, “Chinese” is the language spoken by the Han people, han4ren2 汉人, or ethnic Chinese. Several different terms are interchangeably to refer to Chinese: Often, it is called han4yu3 汉语, which literally means the “language of the Han.” Sometimes it is also referred to as zhong1guo2hua4 中国话, which literally means the “speech of China.” A more encompassing term for the Chinese language is Zhong1wen2 中文, which applies not only to spoken Chinese, but also to the written language and even culture—the character wen 文 means “writing,” “language,” or “cultural pursuits.” The distinction between Han language and other Chinese tongues is significant because there are many minority groups in China who speak their own Languages.

汉语 Han4yu3 and 中国话 Zhong1guo2hua4 are as broad as the term "Chinese" in that they describe the all the languages spoken by the Han Chinese regardless of regional variations. However, one of China’s defining characteristics is its size and the great diversity of its inhabitants. The varieties of Chinese spoken in various regions differ greatly from one another. The differences range from variations in accent, 口音 kou3yin1, to distinct dialects, 方言 fang1yan2. 

As a result of so much linguistic diversity, China utilizes a standard language for commerce, politics and any other form of general communication. This common spoken language is generally known in mainland China as 普通话 pu3tong1hua4, and in Taiwan as 国语 guo2yu3. Putonghua translates as “Common speech” and guoyu translates as “national language.” Essentially these two terms refer to the same language, known in the West as Mandarin. Taiwan's guoyu has a slightly more southern flavor than Putonghua, but the difference is negligable. For the sake of simplicity, and because we are based in Beijing, the following discussion will take the mainland variant to be the standard.

To learn more about Spoken Chinese languages, Select one of the topics below:

Putonghua 普通话

Click here for more detailed information about the pronunciation of Putonghua, the standard dialect of Chinese in the PRC. Learn about the sound system of Putonghua, how the sounds of Chinese compare to those of English, and how Chinese speakers think about the sounds of their language.

Chinese Dialects

China is known for having many Dialects. In the West, many people are aware of Cantonese and Mandarin. In addition to these two dialects, there are about 5 other major dialects of Chinese that are spoken today. Click here for more information on the dialects, where they are spoken and by whom.

Minority Languages

The People's Republic of China recognizes over fifty different minority ethnicities. While members of minority populations are all Chinese citizens, they also maintain their own traditions and culture. This section examines several languages still spoken by significant populations of Minority peoples in China.