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Chinese Language

Learning Chinese. (Ivan Walsch/flickr)

Learning Chinese. (Ivan Walsch/flickr)

Chinese is the most widely spoken language in the world. It is used by upwards of 720 million people in China, or 70 percent of the population of China (Grimes 1992). It is spoken in a huge area of the mainland running diagonally from the extreme southwest to the northeast, and also along the entire east coast north of Shanghai. To generalize, most of China with the exception of the southeastern provinces from Vietnam in the southwest to Shanghai in the northeast speaks Modern Standard Chinese, sometimes referred to as Mandarin. Other exceptional areas are in the far west. There are also non-Chinese speaking minorities in many areas of China.

Substantial numbers of speakers are in Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Russia, the USA, Mongolia, Vietnam, Brunei, South Africa, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Hong Kong. The total number of speakers in approximately 885 million (Grimes 1992). (Source:


Grimes, B. F. (ed.) 1992. Ethnologue, Languages of the World. Dallas, TX: Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Chinese has been listed as a critical language under the National Security Language Initiative because of our strategic business and security interests in the Chinese-speaking world, as well as a heritage language due to the number of American citizens of Chinese heritage.. The People’s Republic of China is the most populated nation on earth with the largest GDP. In 2007 the United States exported $65,236 million China. This amount has increased by 1,692% since 1985. In 2007 the United States has imported $321,443 million in goods from China, an increase of 8,323% since 1985.

According to the 2000 census there are two million Chinese speakers in the United States. In 2006, 51,582 higher education students were studying Chinese. In 2000 1632 students in grades K-12. Current K-12 numbers are not kept, but are arguably in the tens of thousands. 

Linguistic affiliation

Modern Standard Chinese belongs to an independent branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family. This includes several major subfamilies: Tibetan, spoken in Tibet; Lolo-Burmese, in Burma, and in discontinuous parts of southern China, etc.; and Karen, in lower Burma. Tibetan, Lolo-Burmese, and Karen are more closely related than the Chinese languages/dialects are to any of the other subfamily members.

The major linguistic distinctions within Chinese are Mandarin, Wu, Min, Yue (commonly known as Cantonese), and Hakka (Kejia). Wu, Min, Yue and Hakka are all spoken in the southern and southeastern provinces of China (Guangdong, Fujian, most of Hunan, Jianxi, and Zhejiang, and parts of Guangxi, Anhui, and Jiangsu) and on the islands of Taipei (Taiwan) and Hainan. Cantonese is more closely related to Min and Hakka; it is spoken in Guangdong and Guangzi provinces and in Hong Kong.

Role in Society

Chinese, under the term putonghua is the official language of the People's Republic of China. It is also the official language of Taiwan, where it is called guy, and is one of the official languages of Singapore where it is referred to as huayu. All of the official standards are based on the Beijing dialect. Since Mandarin was adopted in 1956 as the officially sanctioned language for the nation, it has been actively and zealously promoted through the media of education, broadcasting, television, and the press. It is steadily making inroads in traditional non-Mandarin areas, especially as a written language.


Three periods in the history of Chinese can be distinguished: Preclassical from 1500 to 500BC; Classical from 500BC to 200AD; and Postclassical from 200AD to the present.

The earliest attestations date from the first period, in the form of inscriptions on bone and tortoise shell; they are in the form of short oracle inscriptions; later on they were done on bronze. Also from later in this period there is an anthology of 305 poems, called the Shijing (The Book of Songs, or Classic of Poetry) from which scholars have been able to infer much about the structure and form of the language from that period.

The Classical period begins with the earliest writings of Confucius and ends with the Han dynasty (206BC - 220AD). Many prose works dating from this time exist. The language of the postclassical period was modeled on that of the Classical period, but in the meantime the vernaculars had evolved to the point that the writing of this period when read aloud was not comprehensible. Nevertheless it continued as a form used by administrators, scholars and the literate and some of the greatest literature of the Tang dynasty (618 to 907) and neo-Confucian works were produced during this period. This style endured into the first half of the twentieth century when there was a reaction against some of the highly stylized literature of the various historical periods. In the early years of the twentieth century serious efforts were undertaken to provide the masses with a form of the language that could be understood by all. This culminated in 1956 with the adoption of Modern Standard Chinese whose model for pronunciation is the Beijing dialect of Mandarin, and for grammar the regional variant of Northern Mandarin, and for its lexicon the modern vernacular literature. Part of the reform movement included the simplification of the traditional characters and the formation and dissemination of a phonetic alphabet, known as Pinyin. Both were motivated by the desire to eliminate illiteracy. (Source:
Language Materials Project

Number of speakers worldwide: 885 million

Number of speakers in the United States: 2 million (2000 U.S. Census see: Language Use, English Ability, and Linguistic Isolation for the Population 5 Years and Over by State: 2000, 2/25/03,
American Community Survey puts the population at 1,550,574 speakers in 2005 (

Number of language learners in the United States

Modern Language Association data show that college and university enrollments in Chinese have increased by 51% between 2002 and 2006, from 34,153 to 51,582. Only 3.3% of students studying a foreign language in America higher education study Chinese.

Source: Enrollments in Languages Other Than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education, Fall 2006 by Nelly Furman, David Goldberg, and Natalia Lusin

FLAS Allotments for 2007:
There are 17 National Resource Centers and 21 FLAS INSTITUTIONS that have received FLAS funding for East Asian languages in 2007. 238 FLAS Fellowships have been allotted for East Asian languages at these institutions totaling a budget of $4,417,000. Chinese is a common East Asian language that is offered at 19 of the 21 FLAS INSTITUTIONS under the East Asian Studies Programs. (Source:

Just a decade ago, there was an estimated 1,000 K-12 students learning Chinese. Today, the number of Chinese language students is unknown, but given the explosion of schools offering Chinese, one can only surmise that the number of learners have grown very steeply. Report available at: According to the website of Less Commonly Taught Languages, 285 Primary and Secondary schools teach Chinese:

America’s business relationship with China

In 2007 the United States exported $65,236 million China. This amount has increased by 1,692% since 1985. In 2007 the United States has imported $321,443 million in goods from China, an increase of 8,323% since 1985.

To provide comparison, America’s exports for this same period to the five nations with English as their national language was $356,436 million, which has increased by 513% since 1985. In 2007 the United States has imported $434,481 million in goods from these countries, an increase of 446%. (Source:

National security measure relating to language

Over the last 50 years China has been a strategic security interest to American since it has been the largest communist nation.

Since the end of the Cold War, China’s importance to America is one of economic security. The People's Republic of China has the second largest economy in the world with a GDP of over $6.9 trillion (2007) when measured on a purchasing power parity (PPP) basis. In November 2007, it became the third largest in the world after the US and Japan with a nominal GDP of US$3.42 trillion. Since free market reforms in 1978 China's GDP has grown an average 9.9 percent a year. It is also one of the U.S.’s largest trading partners, with trade amounts that have been amongst the most rapid to increase in the last two decades.

Chinese language has been deemed a critical language under President Bush's National Security Language Initiative. The U.S. Department of Education states that more than 200 million children in China are studying English, a compulsory subject for all Chinese primary school students. By comparison, only about 24,000 of approximately 54 million elementary and secondary school children in the United States are studying Chinese.

Critical languages have been promoted by the National Security Language Initiative since 2002. Due to its status as a critical language there are many scholarships to study Chinese including Foreign Language Area Studies (FLAS) scholarships, National Security Education Program (NSEP) scholarships and the Fulbright Language Enhancement Award as well as government assistance to programs like the National Capital Language Resource Center and the American Counsel for Teaching Foreign Language as well as $24 million earmarked for the department of education’s Foreign Language Assistance Program (FLAP) in order to promote the teaching and learning of Arabic and other critical languages at the K-12 level. The US President requested $114 million in the national budget to promote critical languages in the US education system. It also benefits from funding promoting heritage languages due to population of U.S. citizens of Chinese Heritage.

NFLC advertises that knowledge of critical languages, including Chinese provides career opportunities such as communications (foreign correspondent, reporter, translator), international finance (international banker, international consultant, political risk analyst), industry (manager of government relations for oil company, market analyst for export company), government (foreign service officer, development program officer, intelligence analyst, government relations specialist, translator or interpreter, linguist), law (contractual and corporate consultant), and academia (teaching and research positions).

Chinese is also one of the six official UN languages.