Beginners' Chinese
Beginners' Chinese

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Free course

Beginners' Chinese

1.1 Varieties of Chinese

Apart from Mandarin, the other six major varieties of spoken Chinese are Cantonese, Gan, Hakka, Min, Wu and Xiang. The map below shows the areas of China in which they are spoken and by approximately how many people, as well as the parts of China where non-Chinese languages are predominantly spoken.

(Adapted from ‘Chinese dialects in China’, 1987,, last accessed 29 May 2009, and Wu Yue, ‘Map of the Sinitic languages’, 2004,, last accessed 29 May 2009)
Figure 2 Varieties of Chinese

There is some debate among linguists about whether the different varieties of Chinese should be regarded as dialects or as languages in their own right. Interpretations depend on how ‘language’ and ‘dialect’ are defined. Furthermore, each dialect group consists of many sub-dialects, several of which are spoken widely enough to be categorised by some linguists as major dialects (or languages) that could justifiably be added to the list above.

The samples presented here teach Mandarin Chinese in its standardised modern form. Standard Mandarin Chinese is commonly referred to as 普通话 pŭtōng huà (common speech) in the People’s Republic of China, 国语 guó yŭ (national language) in Taiwan and 华语 huá yŭ (Chinese language) in Singapore. We will refer to Mandarin Chinese simply as ‘Chinese’ here.

Chinese is often perceived in the West as a difficult language, mainly because of its different character script and the fact that it is a tonal language – i.e. it uses tones to distinguish meanings. Chinese grammar, on the other hand, is quite simple compared to that of many European languages. There is no conjugation, number agreement or case change, so you only ever have to learn a word in one form.


Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to university level study, find out more about the types of qualifications we offer, including our entry level Access courses and Certificates.

Not ready for University study then browse over 900 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus