Early in December 2021 the official Xinhua news agency in China reported Ministry of Educationintentions on the standardisation of Chinese language learning throughout the huge country. The number of Chinese people who speak Putonghua, or Mandarin Chinese, will be increased to 85 percent of China’s population by 2025.

The Ministry of Education circular stressed the fundamental role that schools play in the teaching of the standardized Chinese language and characters.

It also called for wider access to standardized Chinese education in ethnic minority areas, and urged the protection of the spoken and written languages of ethnic minorities as well as the improvement of their quality of education.

The study of and guidance over new words and expressions, acronyms and foreign language words will be strengthened, while the use of language on new media will be standardized.

How many languages are there in China?

This is a tricky one to answer. One site I visited states: “Officially, there are 302 living languages in China. Depending on your definition of “language” and “dialect,” this number can vary somewhat. The number of speakers of many of China’s minority languages and dialects has decreased in recent years, and some of them are now considered endangered.”

Officially, there are ten different varieties of Chinese, although some sources only list eight because the last two are only spoken by less than 1% of the population. These variants are written using Chinese characters and do not have their own written form.

 Another source has this to say:

 “As experts warned that the majority of the 130 languages spoken in China are now on the verge of extinction, both government and social groups have begun protection efforts, Beijing News reported.

Seven languages are being used by less than 100 people, while another 15 languages have just 100 to 1,000 speakers in China, according to a survey conducted by Sun Hongkai, a language expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The survey also showed that some minority languages have become extinct, such as Manchu and Khakas, while some like Hezhen have only a few elderly speakers.

The Hezhen ethnic minority in northeast China, with a population of 5,354 according to a 2010 census, faces severe challenges in passing down their language.”

According to “In a population of roughly 1.4 billion, China has 302 individual living languages. To put that in perspective globally, an astonishing 20% of the world’s population speaks some form of a Chinese language natively.” [i.e an teanga duchas]

Language endangerment is not confined to China. We know that in Cornwall SW England the last native speaker of Cornish died many years ago (there are archival tape recordings) and a Cornish language society has been teaching the language to persons interested in the culture. Many years ago the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language estimated that there were more than 6,000 languages across the world. Another source recently put the number at more than 7,000: “According to Ethnologue… there are 7,139 spoken languages in the world today. 1,514 of those have fewer than 1,000 living speakers. A little over half of the world’s languages are estimated to have writing systems.” 

Here is a list of the most spoken languages in China: [source:]

RankLanguages in China
1Standard Chinese (Mandarin)
2Yue (Cantonese)
3Wu (Shanghainese)
4Minbei (Fuzhou)
5Minnan (Hokkien-Taiwanese)

In politically sensitive areas where Han influx and settlement is obvious, speakers of local languages feel that their languages are under cultural and demographic pressure. Manchurian, Uighur and Tibetan are often mentioned.In the autonomous province of Inner Mongolia, for example, there has been considerable pressure through the educational system to get children and young people speaking and writing Putonghua. Are there echoes of the ‘tally stick procedure’ that happened in Irish primary schools during colonial times?

Garreth Byrne, former English teacher in China.

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