Languages of China


Most of the languages spoken by the ethnic groups living in China belong to three linguistic families.

1. Sino Tibetan family

2. Altaic family

3. Austronesian family

Besides; 4.- the Kirguiz who live in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region speak a language of the Indo European family.

1. The Sino Tibetan family is the family of languages with the biggest number of speakers. It comprises most of the languages spoken in China, Myanmar (Burma), Nepal, Thailand, Vietnam, etc.

It has two main sub-groups:

1.1. Sinitic languages: are the languages spoken in China, more or less related with the Mandarin Chinese. The called dialects in Chinese books, though mutually unintelligible between people speaking them. The main languages or dialects of this subgroup are: Mandarin, Wu, Jin, Xiang, Gan, Hakka, Min, Yue. All these languages have their dialects, some times very different. But as this web is dealing with the Chinese Ethnic Groups, we do not need to explain more about them.

1.2. Tibeto- Burman languages: are the languages spoken by most of the ethnic groups living in west and southwest China, including Tibet; also in Nepal, Myanmar, and North of India and among some of the ethnic groups living in the north of Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.

There are also two groups of languages that, though usually considered belonging to the Sino-Tibetan family, not all researchers agree on their affiliation.

1. 3. Zhuang Thai languages: most of the peoples speaking these languages live in south China, Thailand and Laos, with minority populations in Myanmar, India and Vietnam.

1.4. Miao-Yao or Hmong-Mien languages: most of the peoples speaking these languages belong to the broad category of peoples included in the denomination Miao and Yao in China. In Southeast Asia they are known as Hmong, Mien and related names.

2. Altaic family: most of the people who speak languages belonging to the Altaic family live in northern China, Mongolia, Siberia, several countries of Central Asia, and Turkey. In China we have three sub-groups of Altaic languages.

2.1. Turkish languages: spoken by the Uygur of northwest China and related peoples, and for some peoples living along Central Asia and Turkey.

2.2. Mongolian languages: spoken in China by the Mongols and related peoples, in the north and northwest of the country. Also by the Mongols of Mongolia, Buriats of Siberia and some peoples culturally related to them.

2.3. Man-Tungus languages are spoken by peoples living in the northeast of China, as the Manchu, Orogen, Hezhe, etc.

3. Austronesic family: spoken in China only by some ethnic groups of small population living in Yunnan Province. Most of them belong to the Mon-Khmer branch, though some small ethnic groups can speak languages whose affiliation has not been yet properly established.

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