Only 7% of people in China speak proper Putonghua: PRC MOE

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[This is a guest post by Mark Swofford.  N.B.:  Pǔtōnghuà 普通话 = Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM); PRC = People's Republic of China; MOE = Ministry of Education]

In the South China Morning Post this week:

"One-third of Chinese do not speak Putonghua, says Education Ministry".

I tracked down the Ministry of Education's release. It's here.

The Web-based e-mail system I'm using at the moment will scramble any Hanzi, so I'll write in Pinyin.

After reporting that 30 percent of China's population cannot speak Mandarin ("bu hui shuo Putonghua"), the ministry makes the very interesting addition that "lingwai 70% renkou zhong zhiyou 10% keyi yong bijiao biaozhun de Putonghua shunchang goutong de xianshi".  [Translation by VHM:  "…the reality that, among the other 70% of the population, only 10% can use relatively standard Putonghua to communicate smoothly / freely."]

My headline of "proper Putonghua" is perhaps oversimplifying. But, still, what exactly do they mean by that?

If one takes the population of China to be 1.357 billion, then according to the percentages the ministry gives those who can speak "bijiao biaozhun de Putonghua" number only 94,990,000. That's just 7 percent of the population!

Are they including at least some of Taiwan's 23 million people in that? If so, the percentage for the PRC would be *less* than 7 percent. Wow.


I should also mention these earlier posts, which discuss previous related announcements:

"Percentage of China’s population that can speak Mandarin remains at 53%: PRC MOE" (3/7/2007)

"Using Putonghua" (12/28/2004)

(As always, apologies for the scrambled Hanzi in those posts. [VHM: Mark sometimes refers to these as FUBAR Hanzi.])


  1. Victor Mair said,

    September 24, 2014 @ 10:23 am

    Two items:

    "400 Million People in China Can’t Speak The National Language"

    7% is less than 100,000,000, not much more than some of the other major topolects:

    Wu 6.5%

    Min 6%

    Cantonese 5.2%

  2. Coby Lubliner said,

    September 24, 2014 @ 3:03 pm

    I remember reading that, at the time of the unification of Italy, only 3% (or maybe 5%) of the population spoke Italian (i.e. the Tuscan-based standard). So perhaps that isn't so unusual in a country with many different topolects.

  3. Rubrick said,

    September 24, 2014 @ 4:41 pm

    If I were to guess at the mental prod for this (presumed inadvertent) transition, it would be the common "margin of error". But I wouldn't put much faith in my guess.

  4. maidhc said,

    September 24, 2014 @ 5:43 pm

    Coby Lubliner:

    I remember reading that, in the time of Napoleon, only 10% of the population of France spoke French, which was a problem when trying to run a big army.

  5. William Steed said,

    September 24, 2014 @ 6:20 pm

    So, contrasting this with the idea that other major Sinitic languages are losing ground to Putonghua, what do we have?

    I guess it leaves us with a huge population that have undergone language shift to something Putonghua-like, but still different (I guess 'xin bendi putonghua 新本地普通话' might be one term for it).

  6. JQ said,

    September 25, 2014 @ 5:25 am

    Do Taiwanese speak bijao biaozhun de Putonghua? Or is it biaozhun de Guoyu?

  7. lowai said,

    September 25, 2014 @ 7:52 am

    I gather, the situation is that

    (1) many Northerners speak a mandarin dialect that sounds close to standard mandarin but contains a lot of non-standard vocabulary. And this non-standard vocabulary causes problems in communication.
    (2) Outside the North China, people speak mandarin with different accents. If one has never been exposed to the other accent, it could be hard to understand. Many have a difficult time understanding each other when they first enter university but they'll get used to all sorts of accents soon.

  8. cameron said,

    September 25, 2014 @ 11:29 am

    What percentage of the Putonghua-speaking, but non-proper Putonghua-speaking, population can code-switch to a register of that tongue that will allow them to have a relatively sophisticated conversation with a native of Beijing?

  9. Lane said,

    September 25, 2014 @ 1:36 pm

    I've read several different numbers from Abbé Grégoire's 1790 census on language in France (like the one below) but I've never seen an estimate as low as only 10% of the population speaking French. French Wikipedia says that Grégoire found 1 in 5 French people had "active and passive" knowledge of French. But in any case, it's a lot lower than people tend to think, which is even more remarkable given the state's success in making French identity almost perfectly conditional on a mastery of French by today.

  10. Eidolon said,

    September 25, 2014 @ 5:55 pm

    The release indicates 30% do not know how to speak Putonghua, while 63% do not speak 'biaozhun' 标准 Putonghua. I wonder who makes up the standard for what is 标准 Putonghua, but I reckon it basically equates to the Putonghua you see from newscasters on CCTV. Given the source is China's MOE I imagine examination results are involved.

  11. John Chambers said,

    September 26, 2014 @ 9:57 am

    I'd wonder whether we couldn't make a similar claim about how Americans "speak English". There is, after all, a (semi-)standard "American" dialect, which nearly everyone understands fairly well. But the claims are about how many "speak" a standard dialect. Depending on how this is defined, the percentage could be much lower. Thus, my native dialect is West Coast (mostly Seattle), which is a dialect with the cot/caught merge. The loss of an entire vowel could easily qualify as speaking a non-standard dialect. Having lived for years in the Midwest and Northeast (and studied German), I can distinguish these vowels if I'm thinking about it, and usually get it right, but usually I don't bother. It causes few if any communication problems.

    Similar comments could be made about the speech of the rest of us. Here in the Boston area, the local speech is non-rhotic, and people notice this dialectism much more than the a/au loss, but it still doesn't seriously interfere with communication. English has enough redundancy to handle such phonetic variation.

    So do we have an estimate of how much of the Chinese population can understand the official dialect of Putonghua? I'd guess it's a lot higher than the percent that can speak it without communication problems. Both numbers could be interesting.

  12. Brian said,

    September 27, 2014 @ 1:33 am

    I'm surprised nobody pointed out a glaring error in the linked SCMP article:

    "Other minority ethnic cultures in China also have their own dialects, which in various degrees differ from Putonghua."

    Minority ethnic groups speak their own languages, not dialects of Chinese — this is commonly accepted both in China and abroad.

    Meanwhile, I suspect that many of the 63% speak Mandarin the way John Chambers's Bostonians speak English: with a marked local accent that does not interfere (much) with comprehension. For example, many southern-accented Mandarin-speakers pronounce "shang" like "sang," or "jing" like "jin," or "niu" like "liu," or "hu" like "fu" — a speaker who exhibited any one of these mergers could fail the MOE's test while still speaking perfectly intelligible Mandarin.

  13. Bruce Humes said,

    September 27, 2014 @ 6:10 am

    Many Chinese speakers are fixated on a standard of Mandarin that is almost mythical, i.e., something like that spoken by the airheads posing as news readers on the daily Xīnwén liánbō (prime-time news from another-blue-sky-day-Beijing). This prejudice is reflected in this news item.

    I would argue that if that is "standard putonghua," a higher percentage of foreigners meet that standard than do PRC citizens. Many foreigners learn Chinese outside China from snobby northerners who very carefully inculcate the notion that one simply must distinguish between "sh" and "s", "zh" and "z", etc. or one won't be understandable.

    For this reason alone, most Taiwanese speakers of Mandarin are constantly told that their accent is not "standard." Over the years, literally hundreds of Chinese have been informed by their (rude) compatriots that I speak a more standard form of Chinese than they, simply because my accent sounds closer to their imagined běijīng huà. Never mind that I have spent my entire time here in Shanghai or further south.

    But my understanding of the definition of "putonghua" is that it is based on northern Chinese pronunciation, and employs a grammar and vocabulary that is understand by most listeners, most of the time. During 7 years when I hosted export management training throughout 20 or so cities in the PRC, with 50-75 trainees in a large conference room, I'd say 75 percent of my trainees — under the age of 40 — who took the microphone to speak, met that standard . . . most of the time.

    This preference for (often pseudo) běijīng huà strikes me as just another way of making small-town and rural residents feel inferior.

  14. Bruce Humes said,

    September 27, 2014 @ 6:32 am

    Oops! Of course, in my next to last sentence, I was referring to how "understandable" their Chinese was to the audience at hand. Only a small percentage were speaking with what could be described as a standard northern accent . . .

  15. james said,

    September 27, 2014 @ 8:05 am

    Remember not all Taiwanese speak Guoyu. Go down south and many folks still use Taiwanese in daily life. And Taiwan Guoyu is not exactly standard putonghua. And … besides … Taiwan is not part of China, no matter what the PRC says.

  16. Endymion Wilkinson said,

    September 27, 2014 @ 7:42 pm

    Statistics identical to those of the Ministry of Education's of September 2014 regarding the spread of Putonghua were announced on September 6, 2013 by Xinhua.

  17. Dave Cragin said,

    September 28, 2014 @ 9:48 pm

    As Bruce noted, it is interesting from a cultural perspective that a standard accent is so important. It’s common to hear “ni de kouyin hen biaozhun 你的口音很标准)(your accent is very standard)。 Are there any other countries in which a “standard accent” is seen as so important such that people comment on it?

    It would be interesting to know how the “standard accent” in China was measured. If you hear a native Beijing cab driver speak, they seem to add "er" 儿 to the end of almost every word, whereas my educated native Beijing friends do so much less frequently.

    I was in a restaurant with my native Beijing student host and she called waitresses “fuwuyuan” 服务员. I asked “why not fuwuyuan er”? 服务员儿? (which I had commonly heard). She said “I don’t feel comfortable using er 儿 with people. It seems rude.”

    As to the point as to whether the redundancy in English makes different accents understandable: Traveling across England could give one a different perspective. Whereas American accents can be relatively subtle and stable over very large geographic areas and readily understood to Americans (except older cities such as Boston & NYC), English accents can differ significantly across short distances and can be a challenge to understand, even for natives.

    When I lived in England, there was a TV show that asked people on the street for the best joke. I often had trouble catching the punch line due to the accent & speed it was said. My English friends said they had the same problem (i.e., the redundancy in English was insufficient).

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