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The People of Asia

Ethnology and Languages

Chinese, a member of the Sino-Tibetan languages family, is the most commonly spoken language in Asia. More than 1 billion residents of China, plus many of the ethnic Chinese who live throughout Asia, speak Mandarin Chinese or one of the Chinese variants.

Linguists consider Japanese, spoken by 125 million people, and Korean, which has 69 million speakers, to be isolated languages. Some linguists, however, believe they may be related to each other or to languages in the Altaic languages family.

Southeast Asia contains no dominant language. Mainlanders speak Thai, Malay, Khmer, Burmese, Lao, and Vietnamese. In the remoter highlands live tribes who speak other languages. The Hmong (Meo) of the highland regions in northern Laos are an example. Most residents of Malaysia and Indonesia speak a form of Malay, known as Bahasa Malaysia in Malaysia and Bahasa Indonesia in Indonesia. The majority of Indonesians also speak a local language. Residents of Java, for example, speak Sundanese in the western part of the island and Javanese in the center and east. With total speakers numbering more than 22 million, Malay belongs to the Austronesian languages family.

In South Asia, millions of people in Pakistan, Jammu and Kashmir, and northern India speak Urdu or Hindi, which are Indo-Aryan languages and part of the Indo-Iranian languages family. In southern India and in northern Sri Lanka, people speak Dravidian languages such as Tamil and Telugu.

In Southwest Asia, languages of the Afro-Asiatic languages family predominate. People throughout this large region speak Arabic, although in Israel, Hebrew is more widely spoken. Most Iranians speak Persian, an Indo-European language.

Speakers of Turkic languages, a division of the Altaic languages family, are numerous in Central Asia and in western China. Russian, a Slavic language, is the principal language of Siberia and many parts of Russian Asia.

European languages made some inroads from the 16th to the early 20th century when colonial powers controlled parts of Asia. At the present time, however, it is mainly people educated in colonial schools prior to independence who speak Dutch in Indonesia or French in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. English is the exception; increasing numbers of people in Asia speak it. English is an official government language in India, as well as the official language of groups such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which unites seven main Southeast Asian countries.

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