The exact numbers aren’t really known, but according to Wikipedia as of 2010 960 million people speak Mandarin as native speakers. Adding learners of Mandarin on top of that you easily get over the 1 billion people mark.
Even though English is still by far the most important language and also the one most people speak around the world when putting native and non-native speakers together, Mandarin is catching up and is giving English a run for its money – particularly in Asia.
Mandarin is the national language throughout China and among the official languages in China’s special economic regions like Hong Kong. The language is also one of Singapore’s four official languages, among the official languages of Myanmar and one of six official languages in the UN!
Mandarin belongs to the Sino-Tibetan language family. Broken down further, Mandarin is part of the Chinese language family, which is part of the Sinitic family. Other languages within this family include Old Chinese, Tibetan, and Burmese.
Mandarin is technical a dialect itself modelled mainly after the Beijing dialect. There are some “Northern dialects” still in use in some territories, which are often referred to as “Early Mandarin” or “Old Mandarin.” Other Chinese dialects are traditionally given their geographic name, including the Hebei dialect and the Sichuan dialect.
Due to the popularity of the language, you would think it would be easy to learn Mandarin. However, the U.S.’ Foreign Service Institute (FSI) ranks this as one of the hardest languages for English speakers to learn. It’s ranked in Category III with Japanese and Cantonese.
Category III means that it will take around 2,200 hours of study. This would mean about 88 weeks to become fluent in the language.
It’s worth noting that the length of time it takes to learn the language is dependent on your skills. If you’ve already learned one of the other Category III languages or you have a natural ability to learn new languages, you may find that it takes less time to pick up Mandarin.
The FSI also encourages students to spend half of their learning time in the country where the dialect is spoken.