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Chinese Heritage LanguageChinese is a member of the Sino-Tibetan language family, which includes languages such as Burmese and Tibetan. By some classification systems, there are as many as 14 major varieties of Chinese (Lewis, 2009), with additional variation within the major varieties. The Chinese government recognizes seven major regional varieties of Chinese called Fangyan or dialects, each with its own sub-varieties – Mandarin, Wu, Xiang, Yue, Gan, Min, and Hakka. Most of these are mutually unintelligible (Xiao, 2010). Cantonese is a sub-variety under the Yue dialect group. If all varieties of Chinese are included, it is estimated that there are approximately 1.3 billion speakers of Chinese in China and that speakers of Chinese are approximately one fifth of the world’s population (Xiao, 2010).

Mandarin alone is estimated to have more speakers than any other language in the world. It is the official language of the People’s Republic of China (also called PRC and mainland China) and the Republic of China (also called RoC and Taiwan). It is one of the official languages of Singapore and one of the six official languages of the United Nations. Varieties of Chinese are also spoken by significant numbers of people in Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia (Java and Bali), Laos, Malaysia, Mauritius, Mongolia, the Philippines, Russia, Thailand, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Viet Nam (Gordon, 2005). The Modern Language Association provides an interactive language map that shows where Chinese (of all varieties) is spoken in the United States.

Characteristics of Spoken Chinese
Chinese is a tonal language: The same sounds convey different meaning depending on the pitch and contour of the intonation with which they are spoken. Different varieties of Chinese use different numbers of tones to distinguish meaning; between 5 and 10 is common. Several websites describe, contrast, and demonstrate tones in Mandarin. See the Resource Corner to the right for links to helpful websites with more information.

To represent Chinese sounds visually, two alphabetic scripts are used—Zhuyin Fuhao, developed in the 1930’s and still used in Taiwan; and Hanyu Pinyin, developed in the 1950’s and used in the PRC (Lam, 2005). Both Zhuyin Fuhao and Hanyu Pinyin are used by various communities, typically as an aide for teaching Chinese to learners or in computer-mediated applications.

Characteristics of Written Chinese
The Chinese writing system is logographic: In general, its characters represent words or parts of words. Logographic writing systems involve thousands of graphemes, whereas alphabetic systems use fewer than 100 (e.g., 26 letters in English). The Chinese Kangxi (K’ang Hsi) dictionary—arguably the most comprehensive in existence—lists nearly 50,000 characters. However, it is estimated that basic Chinese literacy can be achieved with knowledge of 2,000 to 3,500 characters.

After the establishment of the PRC in 1949, the government actively supported the simplification of Chinese traditional characters. On October 10, 1949, The Chinese Script Reform Association was established, to be succeeded by the Committee for the Reform of the Chinese Written Language on December 23, 1954 (Rohsenow, 2004). A complete list of 2,236 simplified characters, the General List of Simplified Characters, was published in 1964. This list was republished in 1986 with minor revisions and is now the official standard (Rohsenow, 2004). Figure 1 contrasts traditional and simplified characters. Simplified Chinese characters are adopted in the PRC and Singapore, while in Taiwan and Hong Kong, traditional characters are used.

Traditional Characters

Simplified Characters

English Language See Middle Silver Meal Fish Red

Figure 1: Traditional and Simplified Chinese Characters

Chinese in the United States
Chinese is the second most commonly spoken non-English language in the United States (after Spanish), with over 2.6 million speakers (U.S. Census Bureau, 2009). The majority of Chinese language education takes place in community-based programs, with over 600 programs and 140,000 students in 2005 (McGinnis, 2005, 2008). Two national organizations, the Chinese School Association in the United States (from the People’s Republic of China) and the National Council of Associations of Chinese Language Schools (from Taiwan) provide a center for information dissemination and resource sharing among chinese community-based schools. Recently, there is increased interest in developing Chinese learning opportunities in K-12 public and private school programs (Rhodes & Pufahl, 2009).


Gordon, R. G., Jr. (Ed.). (2005). Ethnologue: Languages of the world (15th ed.). Dallas, TX.: SIL International.

Lam, A. S. L. (2005). Language education in China: Policy and experience from 1949. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Lewis, M.P. (Ed.). (2009). Ethnologue: Languages of the world (16th ed.). Dallas, TX.: SIL International.

McGinnis, S. (2005). Statistics on Chinese language enrollment. Washington, DC: Chinese Language Teachers Association.

McGinnis, S. (2008). From mirror to compass: The Chinese heritage language
education sector in the United States. In D.M. Brinton, O. Kagan, & S. Bauckus, (Eds.), Heritage language education: A new field emerging (pp. 229-242). London & New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.

Rhodes, N., & Pufahl, I. (2009). Foreign language teaching in U.S. schools: Results of a national survey. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics. Executive Summary.

Rohsenow, J. S. (2004). Fifty years of script and written language reform in the
PRC: The genesis of the language law of 2001.
In M. Zhou & H. Sun (Eds.),
Language policy in the People’s Republic of China: Theory and practice since
(pp. 21-43). Norwell, MA: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

U.S. Census Bureau. (2007). American Community Survey. Washington, DC: Author.

Xiao, Y. (2010). Chinese in the USA. In K. Potowski (Ed.), Language diversity in the USA (pp. 81-95). New York: Cambridge University Press.

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