Do I understand other Chinese dialects?

When I was studying abroad, there are 3 questions that I was asked the most.

1. What percentage of people speak Mandarin in China?
2. Is it compulsory for people who live in Tibet to learn Mandarin? Can they speak fluently Mandarin?
3. Can you understand other dialects?

To be honest, I am not sure about the answers to the 1st and 2nd questions, and my response is ‘no’ to the 3rd one.

It may surprise you, before going abroad, I don’t know any dialects but Mandarin and my local language, even though I was born and raised in China. After a long period of time, I started to realize the diversity of languages.

Ok, let’s me try to answer these 3 questions now.


1. What percentage of people speak Mandarin in China?

I did some research on this question, and I summarised a small table below showing the 7 major groups of Chinese dialects:

Language – Percentage – Areas – Notes
1. Officiel dialect: 71.5% of the population in China; Mainly used in northern part of China. Also known as the Northern dialect. Ex: Putonghua(Mandarin).
2. the Xiang dialect: around 25 million people, it is widely used in most part of Hunan province and Northern Guangxi province.
3. the Gan dialect: around 55 million people. Mainly in Jiangxi province.
4. the Wu dialect: More than 90 million people. Zhejiang, southern Jiangsu, Shanghai, southern Anhui, Eastern Jiangxi, and north of Fujian. Typical example: Shanghainese.
5. the Min dialect: About 80 million people. Fujian, Guangdong, Hainan, etc.
6. the Yue dialect: More than one hundred million. Guangdong, Guangxi, Hongkong, and Macao, etc. Also known as Cantonese. 
7. Hakka: About 50 million people. Mainly used in Guangdong, Guangxi, Fujian, Jiangxi, and some parts of Sichuan, Hunan, Taiwan, and Hongkong.

* Statistics are issued in 2015

As you can see, Chinese dialects can generally be divided into 7 big categories according to different areas. In fact, there are also many other sub-dialects below each group. For example, the Min dialect actually consists of 5 different local languages, they are respectively Northern Min Dialect, Hokkien (also known as Taiwanese), Eastern Min dialect, central Fujian and Puxian Dialects. It is the same case with other parts of China. Thus, if a Chinese person tells you that he/she can speak Shanghainese, it doesn’t mean he/she is from Shanghai. 😉

Apart from sub-dialects, there are also many ethnic group languages, such as the Mongolian, Tibetan, Naxi, etc.


2. Is it compulsory for people who live in Tibet to learn Mandarin? Can they speak fluently Mandarin?

As to this question, I want to correct it first: It is compulsory for CHILDREN to learn Mandarin AT SCHOOL, but NOT all people. If you travel to Tibet, it depends on the areas where you want to go. Normally, big cities tend to have higher possibilities to meet a guy who can speak Mandarin, especially young generations. Old generations can’t and prefer to speaking their local languages. Are they fluent in Mandarin? Well, I am not sure about the answer, but probably not, more or less with a sort of accent.


3. Can you understand other dialects?

Several Chinese dialects are so different that even a native Chinese speaker cannot understand. Take an example of myself, I was born in the south-east of China, my local language is Jiaxing Dialect (a small city is located in Zhejiang Province). As my city is really close to Shanghai ( it is in the middle of Shanghai and Hangzhou). But the strange thing is: I can understand all Shanghai dialect, but just a little bit Hangzhou dialect (Hangzhou is the capital city of Zhejiang Province). As to other cities, such as Wenzhou – the 3rd city in Zhejiang province – I don’t understand at all Wenzhou dialect. You see, in the south, each small area has its own local language. It really depends on which city was born a Chinese person, which determines how many dialects and to what extent he/she can understand.

Here are the normal rules: For a Northerner, he/she basically cannot either understand nor speak Southern local dialects, but only Putonghua(Mandarin). For a Southerner, he/she can speak both his/her local dialect and Putonghua(Mandarin). However, among different southern cities, people sometimes are not able to understand to each other by using their local languages.


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