Mandarin Chinese is the official language of China and
Taiwan, and is one of the official languages of Singapore
and Hong Kong. In English, it is often just called
"Mandarin" or "Chinese". In Chinese, it is called Putonghua,
meaning "common speech". It has been the only language of
education in China (but not Hong Kong) since the 1950s.
Standard Mandarin is close to, but not quite identical with,
the dialect of the Beijing area.
The word "dialect" means something different when applied to
Chinese than it does for other languages. Chinese "dialects"
are mutually unintelligible, as different as, say, Spanish
and French and even English, which we would call "related
languages" rather than "dialects".
However, while there are different spoken dialects of
Chinese, there is only one form of written Chinese, with one
common set of characters - mostly. An exception arises where
in some spoken dialects, for example Cantonese as used in
Hong Kong, more informal phrasings are used in everyday
speech than what would be written. Thus, there are some
extra characters that are sometimes used in addition to the
common characters to represent the spoken dialect and other
colloquial words. One additional complication is that
mainland China and Singapore use simplified characters, a
long-debated change completed by the mainland Chinese
government in 1956 to facilitate the standardization of
language across China's broad minority groups and
sub-dialects. Hong Kong, Taiwan, and many overseas Chinese
use the traditional characters.
About one fifth of the people in the world speak some form
of Chinese as their native language. It is a tonal language
that is related to Burmese and Tibetan. Although Japanese
and Korean use Chinese written characters, the spoken
languages are only very distantly related to Chinese. Also,
the unrelated Vietnamese language has borrowed many words
Additional languages may have even borrowed so much from
Chinese that they have come to be considered Chinese
languages. Hokkien/Taiwanese/Ban-lam-gu and Teochew could
have "become Chinese" this way.
Note that travellers headed for Hong Kong, Macau or
Guangdong will almost certainly find Cantonese more useful