back to article 400 million Chinese people can't speak Chinese: Official

In very agreeable news for those who fear that everyone on homogenised Planet Earth will eventually end up speaking an unholy mix of English, Chinese Mandarin and Spanish – with a soupçon of Portuguese, Russian, Hindi and Javanese thrown in for good measure – the Chinese authorities have admitted that 400 million of their …


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      1. Michael Dunn

        Re: Doesn't matter much @LazyLazyman

        Mongolian may look like Arabic, I'll grant you (even though it seems often to be written vertically), but Tibetan surely bears more resemblance to Sanskrit. Can't comment on Manchu - never knowingly seen any.

  1. Len Silver badge


    While it is popular to believe that one day everyone will speak Chinese, most language experts doubt that will ever happen.

    The barrier to entry for Mandarin is relatively high, it takes an unusually large lexicon (necessary, not optional like English), minor pronunciation differences can change a meaning dramatically, and then there is the very large character set one needs to learn just to reach the level of a ten year old. Even the Chinese are very prone to making mistakes in their own language and take a relatively long time to master it.

    The future is more likely to be a dominated by languages with a low barrier to entry. This could be something akin to Spanish or combination of a number of languages which have become less complex than their original forms. If you compare modern Dutch to modern German for instance (two languages with a common ancestor) you'll see that Dutch has lost most of the complex grammar without losing the power or subtlety to express all important information. Not that anyone would be learning Dutch of course, it just shows that removing complexity doesn't have to negatively affect the usefulness. It might lose some beauty however...

    The future is to simpler languages.

    1. Aldous

      Re: Simplify!

      They tried that, didn't work, look up Esperanto. The future will be dominated by the most common language used by business AKA English.

      PinYin is the main simplification and its what the kids start with. It's not uncommon for mandarin speakers to not know all of the 3000 odd common characters. Also the tones are not quite as essential people think, its contextual as well.

      1. BillChapman

        Re: Simplify!

        I see Esperanto as a remarkable success story. It has survived wars and revolutions and economic crises and continues to attract people to learn and speak it. Esperanto works! I've used it in speech and writing in about seventeen countries over recent years. I recommend it to anyone, as a way of making friendly local contacts in other countries.

        There's a case for the wider use of Esperanto.

  2. Winkypop Silver badge

    "focusing on the countryside and areas with ethnic minorities"

    Historically, pogroms using such terms don't go very well.

    Just saying...

    1. Uffish

      Re: "pogroms"

      @ Winkypop

      Don't get too excited - pushing Mandarin in schools and state publications, job specifications or whatever may be wrong but it's not the same thing as a pogrom.

  3. Michael Jennings

    This map is enlightening.

    the people in China who do not speak Mandarin, are the people in the southern coastal provinces. These places are where much of the recent economic growth has occurred. That is, the non-Mandarin speakers are the rich people. That is, the richer parts of China are also the parts of country that have the least in common with Beijing culturally. This is not necessarily a positive thing for Chinese stability. One thing that Beijing is attempting to do by pushing Mandarin is to assert its culture over that of its provinces. (Most of the time it will deny that these provinces have any culture at all).

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Well, 400m "Chinese" people

    I wonder how many of them even want to be Chinese.

  5. Crisp Silver badge


    No! She went of her own accord!

  6. Jason Togneri

    Commenting here as a native English speaker from the UK. I learned German in school for a few years, but with no real purpose to the learning, I never really paid that much attention to it. I'm not a natural linguist. However, I moved to Finland a decade ago and found the language surprisingly easy. I've also learned a little Czech and a little Cantonese in that time, as well as bits and pieces of some other languages. I have to say, any variant of Chinese is a lot harder purely due to its tonality; having both tried many languages myself and see people from various countries trying English and other languages, it seems to me that the percieved difficulty of languages like Finnish come mostly from a point of view of unfamiliarity. People are wary of the unknown, and assume it will be hard because it's different. But really, anything with a Latin-compatible alphabet will be fairly easy for most English speakers. The single largest impediment to English speakers for learning *any* foreign language is how insular their own linguistic backgrounds usually are - in English-speaking countries, we don't get a lot of exposure to, and to be fair rarely have any real excuse to need, foreign languages. Books are translated, movies are dubbed, subtitles are 'too much effort', and you know, 'everybody speaks English anyway'.

    All it takes is the right mindset and a little perseverence.

    1. M E H

      Well done that man

      I lived in Finland for 16 months and was just about getting used to it at the end.

      Not only is the grammar totally different to English but the letters are pronounced in the German rather than English manner.

      On top of that the Finns weren't very error tolerant of mis-pronunciation and it wasn't just me; other foreigners found the same. I lived in Hyvinkää, pronounced Hoo-vink-uh. Pronounce it Hi-vink-ah and the would look at you like you were from Mars. I tried ordering a beer once in a pub using "sanko olut" and they couldn't even guess what I wanted.

      And I got better at it than many of my ex-pat colleagues who had been there a lot longer. Finnish girlfriends became a bit a necessity.

      There's an English film maker who lives there and is practically bilingual so it can be done.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Well done that man

        The most important thing to remember about Finnish pronunciation: Never open your mouth.

  7. Rupert Fiennes Bronze badge

    I'm surprised the number isn't higher

    If you travel in China, it's remarkable how Mandarin is known in the north, and incomprehensible to many in the south :-)

    On the other hand, all the Chinese I know assume that Mandarin is the future on the basis it's easiest to type on a Western keyboard. Supposedly they attempted to convert the Chinese from using characters to the Roman alphabet in the 50's, but it failed :-)

  8. David Paul Morgan

    typing is hard!

    just had a look at this -

    The Wubi method allows computerisation of the pictograms - I suppose the information density is about the same as english et. al.

    I think a better analogy for the discrepancy might be, in the UK, English being the state language and other people being happy with Cymraig, Kernowek, Gaelic, urdu, hindi etc.

    I suspect that germans and british learning french, for example, are equally as bad as each-other.

    We can blame the french for the "ough"

    Compare Tochter, Gebracht, durch (german) with daughter, brought, through - the "ch" eliminated post norman invasion.

    I understand that modern english owes a lot to where the vikings met the normans and all the gender, case endings etc pretty much disappeared. Possessive s and some case endings from the german remaining. This explains the chaotic 'english' spellings!

    Mit wem? - with whom? The man's dog. Der Hund des Mannes

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: vikings met the normans

      The Normans were Franco Vikings. The Vikings met the Anglo Saxons.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Not 'widely' but 'commonly' perhaps?

    After all, whilst there are are a lot of Chinese speakers Mandarin itself is nowhere near as widely spoken as English.

    It is a difference of spread versus volume.

  10. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

    Likely Lingua Franca

    It used to be that French was the 'lingua franca', used internationally for diplomacy and trade. These days, English seems to have taken over. Interestingly though, it appears to be a subset of English, with simplified grammar, pronunciation and syntax that is used commonly between non-native English speakers, to the extent that native English speakers themselves find it hard to understand. Languages have a habit of obtaining words and phrases from each other (for example, English has 'beef' from the French boeuf, and French has 'le shopping'), so it is likely that if we do ever all end up speaking a common tongue, it will be a conglomeration of several languages, taking the grammar and words which are most useful, and easiest to master from each.

  11. David_H


    Enough said - or more usually not!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Hungarian!

      My hovercraft is full of eels - say no more

  12. Dr. G. Freeman



    1. JaitcH

      @Freeman said:

      Yes, it is good to know other languages, but forcing people on your language is not such a good thing, you know, they may be what you say before, and because of the loss of its own language in the background noise, and You will not notice that they can plan nasty things you want to replace the Hibiscus Lemon Chicken.

      But what do I know? Most people here talking about something that can be seen as a bad day in English, but Aberdeen you.

  13. Number6

    Teach them all English?

    If the Chinese would all learn English (preferably the proper version, just to annoy the Americans) then they'd find life a lot easier when it came to typing and dealing with the rest of the world. Being a third-party neutral language it wouldn't be quite the same as forcing all the other Chinese regions to speak the one preferred Chinese language.

    However, they're remarkably resistant, just like the Brits. I've been told that Chinatown in San Francisco has residents who cannot speak English but because they never leave their community, don't need to.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Teach them all English?

      "preferably the proper version, just to annoy the Americans"

      You know, for all that I see Brits say stuff like this, it's almost always they who rage against American English rather than the other way around. It's actually kind of amusing, given how much they mock the French for being lingually protective...

      But dang, ain't no place a mine ta tell nobody when they done right speakin', I allas say.

      1. Number6

        Re: Teach them all English?

        Hey, I married one. We have regular discussions about the language and its evolution over the years. It can be quite enlightening when delving into the origin of words.

        One example, which also shows how the English language steals words from other languages:

        zucchini v courgette - zuccha is Italian for squash, and courge is the French equivalent. What you end up with is the diminutive of both, and chances are it was introduced to the US by Italian immigrants rather than French ones.

  14. Kharkov
    Thumb Up

    I wouldn't worry about English...

    With the current widespread usage of English, I don't see it being usurped as the world's lingua Franca. That said, with making a living getting harder & harder in the Western world (& likely to continue so), learning a second language appropriate to areas with very high levels of economic activity (1.3 billion Chinese, that's a LOT of economic activity) can be the way forward for people with a little foresight.

    Writing Chinese, at least beyond the basic level, isn't going to be that useful & bloody hard & time-consuming too. The spoken part can be picked up, to conversational level, in less than a year if enough effort is made.

    You can't really blame the Chinese government for trying to do something that would tend to make all the people inside its borders think of themselves as Chinese though...

    1. Primus Secundus Tertius Silver badge

      Re: I wouldn't worry about English...

      A Roman in the year DCCLX AUC would have thought that Latin had an assured future, with perhaps a minor role for Greek. But the old Latin is gone, replaced with descendant languages that are at best partially mutually intelligible. I am told that Italians and Spaniards can follow about half what the other chap says, but French is more remote (because it has borrowed more from the barbarians).

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: I wouldn't worry about English...

      Ah but do all the people inside China"s borders think of themselves as Chinese? Most Tibetans and Uighurs probably don't.

      Isn't India doing the same thing with Hindi?

  15. Daedalus Silver badge

    Not all Chinese are Chinese

    The finding is like saying that many Soviets didn't speak Russian. The Soviet Union covered many regions with their own languages, that are now separate nations. Likewise China includes Uighurs, Cantonese etc. who never spoke the language of Beijing.

  16. Daedalus Silver badge

    And if you think imposing Mandarin is weird....

    The whole nation of China is on Beijing time. I think the country actually spans about 5 time zones, but east or west you set your clock to the same time.

    I guess the westerners just live from noon to 4 a.m.

    1. aBloke FromEarth

      Re: And if you think imposing Mandarin is weird....

      Yes, the time zones are a bit of a pain: apparently they also informally use local time in places far from Beijing. It's almost as much of an arse as the Russian train system: all timetables are in Moscow time, no matter where you are.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Most of the languages discussed are languages that have a close relationship with the race/ethnicity and culture of the people in the region where most of its speakers are.

    In North American, for many of us who have English as a first language, it isn't about race or ethnicity. Even though my family (of Celtic origins) has spoken English for seven generations, I feel have more in common with a Francophone of Celtic origins than I have in common with a seventh generation English speaker descended from Slavic or Cyrillic speakers.

  18. Richard Altmann


    I´ve been technically supervising a union conference until one hour ago.

    There was a guy using the same grammar like Yoda.

    In German, with an Austrian accent.

    16 interpreters got completly lost in the attempt to translate what this bloke was talking about.

    I had to run outside. Hilarious!

    To You Grammar Nazi Commentards: I´m Dschörmän and looking forward Your ´tars about my own grammar. Be with may you the encyclopedia britannica.

    Still sniggering

  19. Daniel von Asmuth Bronze badge

    17 million Dutch people can't write Dutch

    Only one (1) person ever passed the great spelling contest with no (0) errors and he was Flemish.

  20. Brian2
    Thumb Up

    Esperanto - the international language

    Apparently President Obama wants everyone to learn a foreign language, but which one should it be?

    The British learn French, the Australians study Japanese, and the Americans prefer Spanish. Yet this leaves Mandarin Chinese, Russian and Hindi, out of the equation.

    Perhaps it's time to move forward and adopt a neutral non-national language, taught universally in schools worldwide, in all nations? That truly would be a courageous step.

    As a native English speaker, I would prefer the international language, Esperanto. Google the word "Esperanto" and find out how popular it is:)

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Esperanto - the international language

      See, the problem is that Esperanto is a lot like Linux: The biggest impediments to its being used by more people, are the people who use it now...

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Other observations...

    In Hong Kong, the infrastructure (e.g. escalators) are designed for walking on the left; this matches their UK based Rules of the Road. But the recent influx of Mainlanders from China (Righties) has led to utter pedestrian chaos. The HK noobies naturally tend to the right. So in-between the forced realignment of moving sidewalks and escalators, everyone heads for the exact same square inch. I've not seen such unnecessary chaos in what once an organized City State.

    I figure the sneaker-clad professional pedestrians of NYC would have a melt down if they parachuted into Tsim Sha Tsui without warning.

    For laughs, Google Earth your way to the todger-shaped driving direction reversing highway between Macau to China. You can't say that they don't have a (Top Gear) sense of humour.

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    A guy I know who does tech support for a small, consumer-focused software company had an interesting experience. He and his company are American, and at one point he received a rather garbled English email from a customer. After several exchanges, while he appreciated the customer's struggling to use an unfamiliar language, it became clear that he needed to change tactics.

    He emailed the customer and suggested that it might help if the customer used his native language, and he'd translate with help from coworkers and Google.

    This did not go over well with the now-enraged customer, who tersely notified the tech that he had been born and raised in the United States.

  23. Tom Cooke


    Branching out a bit; I believe it's true that following Indian independence, the Indian parliament debated what language to designate as the 'official' one for government purposes. But because Hindi is primarily spoken in the North, and one or more of the other proposed languages (escapes me temporarily which ones) were predominantly in use in the South, they couldn't agree on an 'indigenous' language for the whole country, so went back to English.

    Happy to be corrected on how this went down by others more knowledgeable.

  24. JaitcH

    "focusing on the countryside and areas with ethnic minorities"

    This statement reveals the 'problem' areas.

    Much of China is 'remote', particularly in the west, north-west and north-east.

    These rural areas have absolutely minimal 'services' from the Central Government. No electricity, no TV, occasionally a regional short-wave broadcast transmitter, no water, no sewage treatment, absolutely nothing.

    Houses are often made of grass sod (roofs are also do suspended on hand-hewn wooden beams). The people are dressed in 'clothing' made from a sacking-like material. When I visited the rural areas of GuangXi Province my camping gear looked like luxury accommodation. I had GPS and my Sony short-wave, along with cameras. My (unauthorised) satellite-phone, through satellite InterNet, let me show them ShangHai with it's tall, weird looking buildings which they couldn't accept as being real.

    A friend I know in NanNing, GuangXi Province, took me with her on her annual vacation to her home village and was an experience that made me realise, and appreciate, things we consider 'normal'. I tell you, hauling a plastic drum of water from the river makes you appreciate conservation!

    But with education comes demands for services and facilities. The question will be, Is the Chinese Government prepared to foot the bill?

  25. PeterM42

    I have a similar problem.........

    With Scottish Power - their operatives can't speak intelligible ENGLISH

  26. OrsonX

    i can cook

    as shown on CBeebies.

    There is no hope!

  27. signol

    If Dutch is derived from German with a simplified grammar, then Afrikaans is derived from Dutch with even less grammar.


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