I'm thinking about learning Chinese for the future possibilities of the terrain work of linguistic anthropologist now. Don't you anyone have any views on the potential possibility of usage Chinese in thi manner? Or do the Chinese minorities take Chinese as a foreign language?

  • 2
    Which minorities? China is a big place, and even "Chinese" isn't a single language. I'm sure there exist minorities whose first language isn't a variety of Chinese, but that doesn't mean all minorities speak the same non-Chinese language.
    – Dan Bron
    Oct 11, 2016 at 13:43
  • Yes, I know but I'd just like to get an overall view.
    – Probably
    Oct 11, 2016 at 14:01
  • When you write "Chinese" do you mean Mandarin? Do you mean ethnic minorities, ie not Han Chinese? Do you mean Han Chinese who speak languages other than Mandarin?
    – curiousdannii
    Oct 12, 2016 at 1:51
  • Mandarin is the state language and is spoken at home, business, and school by the great majority in PRC. In the south though, people mostly speak a related but mutually unintelligible language at home, and Mandarin at school and business, but people are mostly bilingual in both. See wikipedia for more.
    – Mitch
    Oct 13, 2016 at 13:50
  • If you research "sinicization", this may be a good starting point for an answer. See, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sinicization for a start. Most ethnicities within China, I would propose, have more or less adopted Mandarin as their native language. This would be due to economic and social development reasons.
    – Imran NZ
    Feb 2, 2018 at 1:00

1 Answer 1


Note that China has fifty-something officially recognised ethnic minority groups and it's impossible to say anything about "Chinese minorities in general".

Let me summarise my experiences from several months of travel in Zhejiang, Gansu, Sichuan, Yunnan and Xinjiang. I don't know how generalisable they are, but they should give you some idea about differences between groups.

  • Hui. This is a minority group that doesn't have its own language, and a variety of Chinese is their native language. Most Hui people are Muslim, and therefore many of them learn Arabic to some degree, but it is clearly a foreign language for them.
  • Xibo. A small minority group in Xinjiang, stemming from Manchurians. In the case of the Xibo man I met, Mandarin seemed to be his second native language, and he was fully proficient in it. He was also fully proficient in the Xibo language, which included reading and writing its Mongolian-based vertical script.
  • Naxi. A minority group in Yunnan. As far as I could tell, they speak Mandarin very well, perhaps on a near-native level. Note that Naxi has an interesting writing system but the Naxi people I met could not read or write it, even though they spoke the Naxi language.
  • Uyghurs. Unlike Hui and Xibo, they don't speak Chinese as their native language. Most Uyghurs in Urumqi speak conversational Chinese, and some speak it extremely well. On the other hand, in Kashgar, a town with Uyghur majority, it's quite easy to find people who can't speak Chinese or can speak very little. In general, the greatest differences in Mandarin proficiency that I've met were among Uyghurs.
  • Kyrgyzs, Mongols. All members of these minorities I met spoke Mandarin well, even though it was clear that they spoke it as a foreign language.
  • Tajiks. Even Tajiks who lived in Tashkurgan, a remote town near the Pakistani border, spoke good Mandarin. Fun fact: Chinese Tajiks don't have their own writing system, and generally write Uyghur and/or Chinese. They are therefore often trilingual, and know three completely unrelated languages: Tajik (Indo-European language family), Uyghur (Turkic language family) and Mandarin (Sino-Tibetan langauge family).
  • Tibetans. I met a Tibetan nomadic family on the Gansu/Sichuan border, and the mother didn't speak Chinese at all. Her 7-year-old son, however, spoke perfect Mandarin.
  • Han Chinese. It's not a minority group, but it's worth noting that while the great majority of Han Chinese speak Mandarin as either first or second native language, there are some who only speak the local Chinese dialect and know little Mandarin. For example, in a small town in Zhejiang I again experienced the situation where the daughter spoke perfect Mandarin (she was, in fact, my Mandarin teacher), but I couldn't directly communicate with her mother, who only spoke Wu. In PRC such situations seem to take place in smaller towns and villages, with people from older generations. In Hong Kong, however, there are many people from all social backgrounds and generations who can't speak much Mandarin.
  • The OP explicitly said "Chinese", Mandarin being one of the varieties. The Han people will of course speak some variant of Han language as a native language.
    – Double U
    May 13, 2019 at 3:47
  • @DoubleU The adjective "Chinese" has several meanings in English, among others: "relating to ethnic Chinese people" and "relating to China". I assume the OP meant the latter here, given that there is an official classification of ethnic minorities in China and no classification of "ethnic Chinese minorities".
    – michau
    May 13, 2019 at 7:10
  • This is where it is actually helpful to use Han characters instead of English words. In the PRC, there is 中华民族, which includes Han people + non-Han peoples recognized as being natives of China. This is translated as "Chinese ethnicity" or "Chinese race". The Han people view themselves as one people/race with one written language and multiple pronunciations of that one written language, NOT as separate races, and part of the greater racial category Zhonghua minzu. "Ethnic Chinese minorities" would get interpreted as non-Han Chinese people.
    – Double U
    May 13, 2019 at 12:43
  • "Ethnic minorities in China" will get interpreted as non-Han, non-Chinese people (aka foreigners with or without a PRC citizenship and belong to NEITHER the Han people NOR the non-Han Chinese people).
    – Double U
    May 13, 2019 at 12:46
  • 1
    中国少数民族 may be translated as "ethnic minorities in China" or "Chinese ethnic minorities". They are still treated as part of the Chinese people (中华民族), hence 中国人 ("Chinese"), as opposed to the Han people (汉族). Foreigners are not ethnic minorities, and those who obtain a PRC citizenship will still be recognized as foreigners, not native Chinese, with the exception of re-patriation of Overseas Chinese.
    – Double U
    May 13, 2019 at 14:46

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