The Chinese languages are the languages of the Han people, the major ethnic group of China, including both the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China. The Chinese languages are spoken by over one billion people. Approximately 95 percent of the Chinese population speaks Chinese, as opposed to the non-Chinese languages such as Tibetan, Mongolian, Lolo, Miao, and Tai spoken by minorities. The vast majority of the Chinese-speaking population is in China (over 980 million), Hong Kong, and Taiwan (19 million), but substantial numbers are also found throughout the whole of southeast Asia, especially in Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. Important Chinese-speaking communities are also found in many other parts of the world, especially in Europe, North and South America, and the Hawaiian Islands.
Chinese, together with Tibetan and Myanmar (formerly known as Burmese) and the many tribal languages of South and Southeast Asia, belongs to the family of Sino-Tibetan languages. Besides a core vocabulary and sounds, Chinese and most related languages share features that distinguish them from most Western languages: they are monosyllabic, have little inflection, and are tonal. In order to indicate differences in meaning between words similar in sound, tone languages assign to words a distinctive relative pitch-high or low-or a distinctive pitch contour-level, rising, or falling.
Spoken Chinese comprises many regional variants, generally referred to as dialects. However, the mutual unintelligibility of the subvarieties is the main ground for classifying them as separate languages or dialect groups. Each dialect group consists of a large number of dialects, many of which may themselves be referred to as languages. The boundaries between one so-called language and the next are not always easy to define. Because each dialect group preserves different features of Middle Chinese (dating back to early or even pre-T'ang times), they have proven to be valuable research tools in the phonological reconstruction of Middle and even to some extent its ancestor, Old Chinese. Most Chinese speak one of the Mandarin dialects, which are largely mutually intelligible.