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Asia and Pacific Region Forum

How many Chinese people speak English?

 3:30 pm on Jan 22, 2003 (gmt 0)

I've been looking for awhile for an answer to: How many Chinese speak english?



 3:35 pm on Jan 22, 2003 (gmt 0)

You want their names too? ;)


 3:47 pm on Jan 22, 2003 (gmt 0)

Apparently 16% of population, dont know if this is true, but apparently it is. Thats meant to be chinese people in china i think. I got this info of my boss who thinks he is the demographics god. so it might be complete **** :)


 3:47 pm on Jan 22, 2003 (gmt 0)

What's the defenition of "Speak" in this case?


 3:51 pm on Jan 22, 2003 (gmt 0)

What's the definition of Chinese? Just PRC, or PRC+Hong Kong+Macau, or including Taiwan, or including Singapore and expats, etc.?


 5:34 pm on Jan 22, 2003 (gmt 0)

Ok, read and write laz.


 5:42 pm on Jan 22, 2003 (gmt 0)

What's the defenition of "English" in this case? ;)


 11:26 pm on Jan 22, 2003 (gmt 0)

I really have no idea, but I will do some research and get back to you.

Slightly OT - When lecturing over there I would often ask the question "Which language is spoken by more people in the world than any other language?" The response was invariably English, whereas the correct answer is Chinese, simply because there are more Chinese people than any other race.



 12:48 am on Jan 23, 2003 (gmt 0)

This doesn't answer Brett's question either, but there are some interesting reports by the English testing organizations available. You can get a general feel for a language group's English aptitude by looking at these reports.

TOEIC Report on Test-takers Worldwide 1997-98 [toeic.com]
TOEFLŪ Test and Score Data Summaries [toefl.org]

brotherhood of LAN

 12:59 am on Jan 23, 2003 (gmt 0)

Might be useful to know if they teach English in mainstream Chinese education. In a few years time there could be magnitudes more!

Still doesnt answer the question though ;)

Visit Thailand

 1:17 am on Jan 23, 2003 (gmt 0)

Interesting question. I doubt even the Chinese know!

All my children will be learning Mandarin and English as I envisage within the next 50 - 100 years or so Mandarin will be a dominant word language.

China encoruages use of its mother tongue, and it is actively promoted even in countries such as Singapore.


 1:27 am on Jan 23, 2003 (gmt 0)

Our forefathers taught a big chunk of the world to speak English (Even the USA). It shows a lack of foresight to have missed out the Chinese.


 1:59 am on Jan 23, 2003 (gmt 0)


"Which language is spoken by more people in the world than any other language?" The response was invariably English, whereas the correct answer is Chinese, simply because there are more Chinese people than any other race.

I'm not sure that's true. There is more than one spoken Chinese language. The two main languages are Mandarin which is spoken in North China, Taiwan, and Singapore, and Cantonese which is spoken in South China and Hong Kong. But there are a number of others.

In theory there is only one written language, although for political reasons Taiwan and (until recently) Hong Kong ignored all the language reforms instigated on the mainland. Singapore has been more sensible and is in line with the mainland.

However Mandarin is the lingua franca of business, and I expect will begin to rival English as the mainland economy grows.


 2:35 am on Jan 23, 2003 (gmt 0)

>I'm not sure that's true.

Hmmm, open to a little conjecture, but the main accepted viewpoint is that Chinese is the main language, belonging to the Sino Tibetan Language famil, whereas Mandarin, Cantonese, Hakka, Shanghainese, and so on are but some of the many dialects within Chinese. The subdialects from the subculture number in the Hundreds.

Much the same as English is the Language, and US English, UK English, Aussie English are all dialects. The dialect that I find fasscinating is what is termed as the Colonial Asian Accent, found mainly in expatriate westerners living in Hong Kong and Singapore and attending Foriegn Schools there. A mixture of the Old country and local Asian Slang. I also find it fascinating the way Chinese is incorporated into English in Singapore to become Singlish.

Therefor, taking Chinese to encompass all Chinese Languages/Dialects, depending on your point of view, Chinese is spoken by more prople around the world than any other language.

The main differences between the main Chinese Dialects, eg., Mandarin and Cantonese, are pronounciation, with Cantonese using more of the soft pallete the more South you go, and Mandarin using more of the Reflexive "R" the more North your go, which was always a source of humour when people hear my accent and assume I am from Northern China.

There are also difference in the writing to a certain extent, but the the Core Characters common to Simplified and Traditional Character are sufficient enough to enable people froma all over the country to at least understand the overall content of the writing, if not some of the finer points. Similar to the difference between US and UK spelling and taken a little further.

In fact, the terms Manadarin and Cantonese are themselves now outdated and should be pronounced Putonghua and Guangdonghua. Interestingly, the name Cantonese is a left over from the old Wade-Giles Romanization of Chinese, which is also where words such as Hong Kong, Peking, and Tsing Tao come from. The correct pronounciation for Hong Kong for example is Heung Gong in Cantonese and Xiang Gung (sp?) in Mandaring.

Harry is correct though in saying that to do business with China, you need Mandarin, which is not as difficult to learn as you would think.



 4:47 am on Jan 23, 2003 (gmt 0)

Brett.... you may need to refine your question. The level of English usage in mainland China would be very low in comparison to the millions of Chinese throughout SE Asia in places like Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore.

I don't know the answers but I'm pretty certain there will be a big difference in these 2 groups. If I am to guess, and it is a guess, there will be a miniscule number able to read and write English in mainland China and possibly upwards of 25-30% elsewhere.

Woz.... would you agree this is a reasonable appraisal?


 5:12 pm on Jan 23, 2003 (gmt 0)


I think our differing views are due to terminology which has arisen because of politics.

In Europe, Dutch and German (Deutsch) are officially separate languages, not dialects. But the Dutch and the Germans can understand each other. Similarly Norwegian and Swedish.

The same political considerations apply in mainland China, except in reverse. There is officially only one "Chinese Language", but the speakers of the different "dialects" cannot understand each other.

Some official terminology

China is a multi-ethnic society, and the majority population (who Westerners refer to as the Chinese) are known as the Han people. Their language is Hanyu (Han language). This is split into Beifanghua (Northern speech) and the southern dialects, of which the major dialect is Yue (Cantonese).

Ever since the Chinese capital has been in the north, Beifonghua has been the official language. It became known as Mandarin to Westerners because it used to be the official language spoken by the Chinese civil service (the Mandarins).

Mandarin is also known as the National Language (Guoyu/Kuoyu) both on the mainland and in Taiwan. Similarly in the early years of the PRC when the mainland authorities pushed for the elimination of the southern dialects they called Mandarin the "Common Speech" (Putonghua) - which it isn't. And with the incorporation of Hong Kong and the phenomenal growth of Shenzhen and Guangzhou, there is no way this is going to happen now.

But the political message is still the same. Unity, unity, unity. There is one Chinese language, and the southerners only speak dialects.

The reality

Written Chinese conforms to Mandarin and can be read anywhere. A few characters are different in each dialect,
but that poses no problem. An educated Japanese can also make sense of written Chinese because they share characters.

There is a small problem with the different scripts. Everything in the Mainland is published in simplified characters, which Taiwan still officially refuses to acknowledge. But the Taiwanese don't have any real problem in reading them. After all they are based on the simplified forms the Chinese have been using for centuries in handwriting.

But it's very different with speech. The difference between the south and the north, is as great as that between France and Spain. The southerners and the northerners truly speak different languages.

As an example "That man is an American" would be "Goh-goh yan hai yat-goh Mei-gwok-yan" in Cantonese (my transliteration) and "Nage ren shi yige Meiguoren' in Mandarin. You can see the similarities, but the sound is very different. You also have to consider the tones - 6 in Cantonese, but only 4 in Mandarin. A native Cantonese speaker would have to learn Mandarin as a second language.

However to get back to your main point. Yes, if you include all the Chinese dialects as one language, then Chinese speakers could well outnumber English speakers. However don't expect your local Chinese restaurant owner to understand Radio Beijing if he/she originally came from Hong Kong. :)

Visit Thailand

 9:23 pm on Jan 23, 2003 (gmt 0)

some very interesting posts.

Are there not nine tones in Cantonese though?


 12:49 am on Jan 24, 2003 (gmt 0)

Are there not nine tones in Cantonese though?

Had to look that up! It's years since I spoke any Cantonese, and although I thought I knew the answer I wasn't sure.

Dug out my "First Year Cantonese" Thomas A. O'Melia, Hong Kong, 1959 - that shows you how long ago it was! He states there are 9 "standard" tones, but some coincide, and in practice there are 6.

Upper even, rising, and going.
Lower even, rising, and going.

Of the three missing:

the upper entering coincides with the upper even.
The middle entering with the upper going.
The lower entering with the lower going.

The book was originally published in 1938, so I have no idea whether that's considered correct today.


 6:58 pm on Jan 24, 2003 (gmt 0)

>refine question

I'm just trying to figure out how big the english internet market is in China.


 12:18 am on Jan 26, 2003 (gmt 0)

Sorry Brett,

I was way off topic there!

I'm just trying to figure out how big the english internet market is in China

Perhaps it's posible to do some extrapolation?

It the answers are known to what percentage of (say) French or Taiwanese or Japanese speak English and what size the English internet market is in those countries, then it might be possible to make an educated guess about the potential size of the market in mainland China.


 8:45 am on Jan 29, 2003 (gmt 0)

HarryM I don't think it would be possible to extrapolate that figure the way you explained. It seems to me there are too many other factors that would get in the way unfortunately...cultural, political, educational...China is quite different from its neighbors.

I still haven't bumped into any stats for this market yet, but I am keeping my eyes open.


 9:32 pm on Feb 1, 2003 (gmt 0)

Most college educated people in China can speak some English, especially in large cities.


 1:55 pm on Feb 2, 2003 (gmt 0)

Could you give us an idea of what percent of the population these people would comprise? Is a large majority able to attend university in China now? I know that over the past 50 years or so there have been varying approaches to education there. Is higher education available to all and affordable?


 12:04 am on Feb 4, 2003 (gmt 0)

For the 300 mil urban population, my guess is that 10% of them can speak English. College education has been very affordable for the past few decades, but the price keep going up these days.

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