Where Is Mandarin Spoken?

Young lady walking in harbor, against Hong Kong cityscape

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Mandarin Chinese is spoken by more than 1 billion people, making it the most widely spoken language in the world. While it may be obvious that Mandarin Chinese is heavily spoken in Asian countries, it might surprise you how many Chinese communities exist around the world. In the United States to South Africa and Nicaragua, Mandarin Chinese can be heard on the streets.

Mandarin Spoken Here

Mandarin is the official language of Mainland China and Taiwan. It is also one of the official languages of Singapore and the United Nations.

Mandarin is also spoken in many Chinese communities throughout the world. There are an estimated 40 million Chinese living overseas, mostly in Asian countries (about 30 million). Mandarin Chinese is widely spoken but is not the official language in Indonesia and Malaysia. 

Significant Presence Outside of Asia

There is also a significant Chinese population living in the Americas (6 million), Europe (2 million), Oceania (1 million), and Africa (100,000).

In the United States, Chinatowns in New York City and San Francisco contain the largest Chinese communities. Chinatowns in Los Angeles, San Jose, Chicago, and Honolulu also have a large population of Chinese people and thus Chinese speakers. In Canada, much of the population of Chinese people is in Chinatowns in Vancouver and Toronto.

In Europe, the UK has many large Chinatowns in London, Manchester, and Liverpool. In fact, Liverpool's Chinatown is the oldest in Europe. In Africa, the Chinatown in Johannesburg has been a popular tourist attraction for decades. Other large overseas Chinese communities exist in Nigeria, Mauritius, and Madagascar.

The presence of an overseas Chinese community does not necessarily mean that Mandarin Chinese is the common language spoken in these communities, however. Because Mandarin Chinese is the official language and lingua franca of Mainland China, you can usually get by with speaking Mandarin.

China is also home to countless local dialects. Oftentimes, the local dialect is more commonly spoken in Chinatown communities. For example, Cantonese is the more popular Chinese language spoken in New York City's Chinatown. But in New York City and Chinese-speaking communities throughout the U.S., the popularity of Mandarin has been growing. More recently, flows of immigration from the Fujian province have led to an increase in Min dialect speakers.

Other Chinese Languages Within China

Despite being the official language of China, Mandarin Chinese is not the only language spoken there. Most Chinese people learn Mandarin at school but may use a different language or dialect for everyday communication at home. Mandarin Chinese is most widely spoken in northern and southwestern China. But the most common language in Hong Kong and Macau is Cantonese.

Similarly, Mandarin is not the only language of Taiwan. Most Taiwanese people can speak and understand Mandarin Chinese but may be more comfortable with other languages such as Taiwanese or Hakka.

Which Language Should You Learn?

Learning the world’s most widely spoken language will open up exciting new opportunities for business, travel, and cultural enrichment. But if you plan to visit a specific region of China or Taiwan you may be better off knowing the local language.

Mandarin will allow you to communicate with almost anyone in China or Taiwan. But if you plan to concentrate your activities in Guangdong Province or Hong Kong you may find Cantonese to be more useful. Similarly, if you plan to do business in southern Taiwan, you might find that Taiwanese is better for establishing business and personal connections.

If, however, your activities take you to various regions of China, Mandarin is the logical choice. It is truly the lingua franca of the Chinese world.