One of the biggest mistakes people make when making the decision to learn Chinese is not understanding that the term “Chinese” does not refer to just one simple unified language. There are over 80,000 written characters in Chinese, although a working knowledge of 4,000 will make you extremely fluent, and even knowing just 1,000 can make you functionally literate.
However when it comes to speaking Chinese, what language is it you’re actually talking about? Mandarin is probably the widest spoken, and a “modern form” of Mandarin is the official language of modern China. Even Mandarin has dozens of dialects, but the Bejing form is what is seen now as “standard” Chinese moving into the future, and will make this dialect all the more powerful and important.
However there are still tens of millions of individuals who speak other dialects, such as Cantonese, including entire regions. If you’re doing business with a Chinese company from a region that speaks Cantonese, then learning that form of Chinese will do far more for you than learning Mandarin. Cantonese is the second most widely spoken form of Chinese.
When you’re answering the question of what are the Chinese languages, you need to look at Chinese as a general term for a wide variety of sub languages. Although not completely accurate, it would be like comparing Australian English with American English with Ebonics with British English. They’re all under the same umbrella, but there are a lot of words that are completely different or don’t translate.
While Mandarin and Cantonese are the two most recognized forms of Chinese by far, they’re also far from the only ones. Min Nan is the form of Chinese most widely spoken in Taiwan and several of China’s southern provinces, while Hakka and Shanghainese dialects might not be nearly as widely known, they are spoken by millions of individuals, making them quite large languages in and of themselves.
When looking at the different languages that the Chinese speak that will do you the most good, so much of that has to do with the location of the business or companies you’re doing business with. Mandarin is never a bad bet because it has been named the standard language, and is a slam dunk for around the Beijing area.
Cantonese is an exceptional follow up and probably the most influential form of the Chinese language in famous Guangdong Province, in addition to being the basis of a dialect of Chinese that is common in both Hong Kong and Macau, although those two forms are often fused to a degree with the language of those original colonies, English and Portuguese, respectively.
What are the Chinese languages? They are more than mere dialects, yet a shared character system makes writing across these languages simple and united. While there are dozens and dozens of forms of Chinese, it’s not hard to envision a future where the top four or five dialects will slowly absorb the others and become standard to a more unified Chinese language.