Research topic: Chinese
Over one billion people speak Chinese as their mother tongue, making Chinese the world's most widely-spoken language.
Most Chinese speakers live in China, but there are also large Chinese-speaking groups in South-East Asia and the rest of the world. Chinese is generally subdivided into seven major dialect groups. The largest of these – with 836 million speakers – is Mandarin, which is the standard form of the language in China, Taiwan and Singapore.
Cantonese, which has 73 million speakers, also occupies a strong position and is the standard language in Hong Kong and Macao. Mutual intelligibility is often difficult even within each dialect group and many linguists think that these "dialects" are actually different languages.
Most linguists agree that Chinese belongs to the Sino-Tibetan language family and derives from the same ancient language as Tibetan and Burmese. There is greater controversy about the relationship of Chinese to Tai and Austronesian languages such as Malay and Hawaiian. Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese have many loanwords and loaned linguistic forms from Chinese, but do not belong to the same language family.
Chinese script reproduces words and morphemes rather than sounds. People who cannot understand each other's speech may nevertheless write using the same characters. The earliest known Chinese characters are found in prophecies dating from 1500 BC. The standard script has changed little in the last 2,000 years. Since the 1950s, Chinese characters have been somewhat simplified in China and Singapore, but not in Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan.