Background and status
‘Chinese’ is not really a language at all. It’s a group of languages that share certain characteristics, but that can also be different to the point of being mutually unintelligible (much like romance languages). These days, when people talk about ‘Chinese’, they’re almost always referring to either Mandarin or Cantonese, two of the most widely-spoken sub-languages in the Chinese language family, but there are hundreds of dialects of Chinese that are spoken by smaller groups of people across the globe.
Mandarin is the most widely-spoken variety of Chinese, and in fact the most widely-spoken language on earth (at least in terms of native speakers – nearly a billion). It is the official language of both the People’s Republic of China, one of the four official languages of Singapore and one of the six official languages of the United Nations. In everyday English, ‘Mandarin’ refers to Standard Chinese, which is often also called ‘Simplified Chinese’. It is also one of the most frequently used varieties of Chinese among Chinese diaspora communities internationally.
Although there are other Chinese languages such as Cantonese (spoken in Hong Kong) that are very distinct from Mandarin, many of these languages use Chinese characters for their written form, so that Mandarin speakers and Cantonese speakers (for example) can understand each other through writing, even though the spoken languages are mutually too complex.
Growth and usage
Given China’s rise as a world power and its role in the world economy, business ties between China and the rest of the world are developing rapidly. An understanding of Mandarin has therefore become a key to commercial ventures based in China. As it stands, Mandarin is the language of government, commerce and pop songs in China and usage of the language is growing at a breakneck pace. Just seven years ago, state media reported only about half of China’s population spoke Mandarin, compared with about 70 percent today. China’s staggering economic growth is playing a big role in Mandarin’s expansion. Increasingly, Mandarin is the language of survival, and opportunity.