Mandarin is a Chinese language spoken by close to one billion people in the world and it’s the single most spoken first language in existence.
It originally came from Northern China, but has since become the foundation for the “Standard Chinese” spoken in Beijing. Despite Mandarin being considered a single language there are actually dialects that aren’t mutually intelligible across China.
Mandarin belongs to the Sino-Tibetan language family and more precisely the Sinetic group which also includes languages such as Wu, Jin, Hakka and many others like Yue to which Cantonese is a common dialect.
But where is Mandarin actually spoken? In the following, I’m going to run thorough some of the countries and areas that have significant Mandarin-speaking populations.
- 1 People’s Republic Of China
- 2 Republic of China (Taiwan)
- 3 Singapore
- 4 Myanmar (Burma)
- 5 Countries With Significant Chinese Minorities
People’s Republic Of China
The PRC is the biggest Mandarin speaking country in the world. It’s also the country where the language originally evolved from Old Mandarin over 1000 years ago as well as the place there the traditional Chinese writing system came into use after having developed from Hieroglyph-like characters several thousand years ago.
Today, the PRC’s official writing system is the Simplified Chinese Characters. They have been in use since the 1950’s as a replacement for the Traditional Characters which were more complicated to read and write, in an attempt to strengthen the national literacy rates. Even though the characters might be easier to write and, maybe, to remember, there are still thousands of individual morpheme-symbols that the learner needs to remember by heart, and both the Simplified Chinese writing system and the traditional one remain fairly complicated.
The People’s Republic of China is the home of the vast majority of Mandarin speakers in the world. In 2010, 955 million Chinese spoke some variant of Mandarin as their first language, making it the mother tongue of 71% of the country’s population. Around 200.000 people world-wide speak Mandarin as a second language, most of whom being Chinese citizens.
While there are numerous dialects of Mandarin in China, many of which aren’t mutually intelligible, since 1949, the Beijing dialect has been considered “Standard Chinese” and even though many didn’t understand the dialect in the beginning, today most Chinese use this version of the Mandarin language as a universal form of Chinese.
Republic of China (Taiwan)
The Republic of China, or Taiwan is an Island state to the South-East of mainland China. It’s one of the most densely populated countries in the world and its 24 million citizens almost all speak Mandarin Chinese (84% of them as their primary, home language).
In Taiwan, however, the traditional Chinese writing system is still used as opposed to the PRC, where the Simplified script is the standard.
Several other languages are equally spoken in Taiwan. Some are related to Mandarin, such as Hokkien, Hakka and Matsu, whereas others belong to other language families, such as several European languages, Japanese and the Formosean Austronesian languages spoken by the original inhabitants of the island.
Singapore is a multilingual society, and while the English language is the language that most people speak at home, as well as a functional lingua franca in the country, Mandarin is the second-most spoken language with about 35% of the 5,7 million inhabitants speaking it as a first language and many more as a second tongue.
Malay and Tamil are equally official languages on the island, Malay being the national language and the traditional language spoken by the country’s original inhabitants.
Several dialects of Mandarin as well as other Chinese languages such as Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese are spoken in Singapore, and while this is still the case, the city-state is seeing more people gradually switch to Singaporean Mandarin, and even in some cases, English.
Since 1969, Singaporean Chinese have used the Simplified Chinese Characters for writing.
In Myanmar, or more precisely, the autonomous Wa state of Myanmar, Mandarin Chinese is spoken as an official language by close to half a million people.
The Wa state is different from the rest of Myanmar in that it’s autonomous government resembles that of China more than it’s the case in the rest of Myanmar, and where Myanmar is a multilingual country with over a hundred different languages spoken, the Wa state is much less linguistically varied in that Mandarin and the Wa language are the only dominant languages spoken.
Countries With Significant Chinese Minorities
While many countries in South-Eastern Asia speak Mandarin Chinese as a primary language, an impressive amount of Chinese expats and migrants are present all over the world, meaning that there are many countries with significant Mandarin speaking populations. In fact, more than 50 million Chinese live outside of China and the mainly Chinese speaking countries today.
The Chinese have migrated to other regions since at least the 14th century, but it’s in the 19th century that the notion of overseas Chinese like we know it today really started. Because of famine and economical problems in mainland China, large amounts of Chinese started migrating, both to other South Asian countries, but also to European colonies where they took part of mining and railway-building activities.
Many of these were Cantonese speakers, but there were Mandarin speakers among them too.
In the USA, many Chinese tried their luck with gold-mining in California, where they founded one of the first China-towns in San Francisco. With time, the Chinese population succeeded in all fields from the retail industry to pharmaceuticals and academia.
During the beginning and middle of the 20th century, many Chinese fled the country due to political unrest and changes and many of these went to live in other South-East Asian countries.
While the first waves of Chinese migrants were mostly Cantonese speakers, Mandarin is more common among those who arrived in their destinations later.
In the following, I’m going to go through some of the world regions and countries with big Chinese populations.
Mandarin Speakers In Asia And The Middle East
South East Asia has the largest population of Chinese immigrants anywhere in the world. Thailand, for example has close to 10 million ethnic Chinese and over 25 million people of part-Chinese heritage. Despite of this, most ethnic Chinese in Thailand have long-since assimilated to Thai culture, and it’s estimated that only about 230.000 Thai actually speak Mandarin today.
The second largest community of Chinese immigrants is in Malaysia, where 6.6 million Chinese live. Interestingly, Malaysia hasn’t seen the same assimilation to the local culture and language as it’s the case with Thailand, and today most members of the Chinese community still maintain their languages and culture, with the only exception of some of the first migrants who arrived multiple centuries back. The Chinese population in Malaysia speak many different Chinese languages, but most have Mandarin in common as a lingua franca.
Then there are countries such as Indonesia, where there’s been a Chinese minority since the 13th century. Today, there are close to 3 million Chinese in Indonesia, a little under half a million of whom are Mandarin speakers.
Next, the Philippines has over 1.3 million ethnic Chinese, but the majority speak Filipino as their first language and Hokkien as their ancestral language. Mandarin, while taught in Chinese schools, is mostly a formal language in the Chinese community.
Finally, Japan, Vietnam, South Korea, Laos, The United Arab Emirates and Cambodia each have over 100.000 ethnic Chinese citizens, many of whom speak Mandarin.
Mandarin Speakers In Africa
The Chinese have (almost) always been present on the African continent, but especially in later years, Chinese development projects have been brought forward in many African countries in what seems to be a Chinese push towards new and stronger ties with the continent’s different nations.
Especially in the infrastructure and construction sector, Chinese companies have brought its competences, workers and money into the new urban development projects in the region and it seems that this creates lasting relationships between China and the countries in question.
In addition to that, Chinese communities are growing all around Africa. Ghana, South Africa and Madagascar each have over 100.000 Chinese citizens, and Zambia, Ethiopia, Angola, Nigeria, Mauritus, Algeria, Tanzania, La Réunion and Congo all have more than 25.000 Chinese.
Some of the statistics available, however, are relatively old, some dating as far back as 2009. This means that some African countries might have even higher numbers of Chinese citizens today, especially since a large part of the Chinese developments in African countries are relatively recent projects.
Mandarin Speakers In Europe
Chinese merchants have visited Europe since the 17th century, although not in great numbers. Most Chinese citizens in Europe arrived at a much later time, however, the majority having settled in Europe in the 20th and 21th century.
France is the European country with the biggest amount of Chinese, with around 700.000 citizens belonging to the Chinese community. The United Kingdom follows with over 400.000 Chinese, Italy with 300.000, Spain and Germany with over 200.000 and the Netherlands with about 100.000.
Turkey, Sweden, Russia, and Portugal each have over 25.000 ethnic Chinese citizens.
Mandarin Speakers In The Americas
The Americas equally have a quite significant number of ethnic Chinese citizens and especially in later years, numbers have skyrocketed. In 1990, the USA had about 1.5 million citizens of Chinese origin. Today, that number is closer to 5 million.
The huge influx of Chinese immigrants to the states in the later years might be down to politics. The PRC is being more relaxed with the country’s foreign policies, meaning that more Chinese get the chance to emigrate. The newest numbers are from 2017, though, and who knows what the future brings.
While “Chinese” as a whole is the third most spoken language in the US, Chinese Americans speak a wide range of different Chinese languages.
The last few years, the number of Chinese Americans has changed rapidly, which means that it’s hard to compare statistics if they’re not from the same study or, at least, the same time-period. In 2009, however, roughly 20% of the American Chinese population spoke Mandarin. This number might be on the rise, however, since recent Chinese immigration tends to be from Mandarin speaking areas much more than areas that speak Cantonese and other Chinese languages.
Canada has an even bigger percentage of Chinese immigrants than the US. In fact, in 2016, close to 1,8 million Canadians identified as Chinese, which is more than 5% of the Canadian population. Much like it was the case with the US, Chinese immigration to Canada has picked up speed in recent years, although Canadian numbers began to accelerate a few decades earlier than in the US.
Cantonese is the most current Chinese language in Canada, but Mandarin follows closely behind.
Other countries in the Americans with large Chinese communities include Peru, Brazil, Panama and Argentina which all have more than 100,000 Chinese inhabitants.
Chinese Speakers In Oceania
So what about Mandarin in Oceinia? It might surprise you that a very significant amount of Chinese live in countries such as Australia and New Zealand as well as the smaller island states in Polynesia, Micronesia and so on.
In Australia specifically, 1,2 million people considered themselves Chinese in 2016. This is close to 6% of the population of the entire country, which is a big deal. It gets even more staggering when going to the big cities like Sydney, where 10% of the population is Chinese.
Like in the other world-regions covered, the Chinese immigration to Australia is relatively recent. From 2006 to 2016 the Chinese-Australian population almost doubled. This might be due to more lax foreign policies in mainland China, and it’ll be interesting to see the development in the future.
Linguistically, of the 1,2 million Chinese-Australians, some 600.000 speak Mandarin as their mother tongue. Historically, Cantonese has been the most common Chinese language in Australia, but this is no longer the case, and it seems that the number of Mandarin speakers in the country keeps climbing.
If we look at another country in Oceania, New Zealand, the situation looks very similar. In 2018, New Zealand had around 230.000 Chinese citizens which makes up close to 5% of the country’s population. Much like it’s the case with Australia, the percentage of Mandarin speakers is growing, but with 12% of the Asian immigrant communities speaking Mandarin, they haven’t yet overtaken the 16% who speak Cantonese.
Next, the smaller countries in Oceania like Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Tonga, Palau and Samoa all have Chinese communities, but due to the small size of the local populations, the number of Chinese present in these island-states aren’t very high.