Recognizing Languages Spoken in East Asia and Southeast Asia

Updated on March 6, 2020
Paul Kuehn profile image

Paul has spent a lifetime travelling around East and Southeast Asia. He has visited Japan, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Laos, and Thailand.

East Asian and Southeast Asian Countries

Languages Spoken in East Asia and Southeast Asia

Recognizing and differentiating among languages spoken in East Asia and Southeast Asia is a very difficult task. After all, don't most East Asians look the same until we hear them speak? The fact is that there are a multitude of languages spoken from Japan down to Indonesia. Knowing how to recognize the major spoken languages in this region will make the western traveler's journey that much more interesting and rewarding.

The most important languages spoken in East Asia and Southeast Asia belong to two classes: Tonal languages and non-tonal languages. The tonal languages include Mandarin, Cantonese, and Minnan dialects of Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, and Burmese. Non-tonal languages include Japanese, Korean, Khmer (Cambodian), and Tagalog which is spoken in the Philippines. By recognizing this fact and keywords spoken in all languages, you won't be overwhelmed by all the different languages you hear once you hit Narita Airport near Tokyo during your travel. In this article, the Malay and Indonesian languages will not be examined.

Key Words and Characteristics of Speakers of Tonal Languages

The major tonal languages of East Asia and Southeast Asia include:

1. The Mandarin Dialect of Chinese:

Mandarin is the national standard dialect of Chinese and it is spoken by about one billion people in China, Southeast Asia, and around the world. Mandarin is monosyllabic and has four tones. If a speaker is from northern China, there will be "r"s after many syllables, such as "nar" and "jer." Chinese traditionally answer the phone by saying "wei" (way), and common expressions are "Ni hao." - How are you? and "xiexie" (shayshay) - thank you.

2. The Cantonese Dialect of Chinese:

Cantonese is spoken by about 70 million people in Hong Kong, Guangdong Province of China, and throughout Southeast Asia. Cantonese is also monosyllabic and has eight or nine tones which make it sound like a "sing-song" language. "Neih ho?" is a common greeting. "Ngoh mh'sik gong Gwangdongwa." in Cantonese means I don't speak Cantonese.

3. The Minnan Dialect of Chinese:

Minnan is spoken by about 50 million people in the areas of Fujian Province of China, Taiwan, and throughout Southeast Asia. In Taiwan, the Taiwanese sub-dialect is spoken, and in Southeast Asia, you hear the Hokkien sub-dialect. Minnan is monosyllabic and has five to seven tones. Common expressions are "Li ho bo?" - How are you?, and "Gwa boe hiaoh gong bi-kok wei." - I can't speak American English. When traveling, a lot of Chinese are very loud.

4. The Thai language:

The Thai language is spoken by about 65 million people in Thailand. It is also monosyllabic and has five tones. A common Thai greeting is "Sawatdee ka" or "Sawatdee krap." This means hello. The Thai use particles of politeness at the end of sentences. Women use the "ka" particle and men use the "krap" particle. When Thais answer the phone they will usually say, "halo". They greet each other with a "wai" while holding the palms of their hands together like in prayer.

5. The Burmese (Myanmar) Language:

Burmese is spoken by around 42 million in Myanmar. It is also monosyllabic and has four tones. Common expressions are "ming ga la bar" - hello, "ho day" - yes, and "ma ho bu" for no.

6. The Vietnamese Language:

Vietnamese is spoken by 80 million people in Vietnam. It is monosyllabic and has six tones. Having been influenced by ancient Chinese languages, many of its words look like Cantonese words such as "dai" for big and "dian thoai" for a telephone. "Chao" means "hi" and "Cam on" is "thank you."

Chinese Mandarin Recording

Cantonese Introduction Lesson

Thai Language Recording

Burmese Language Recording

Vietnamese Lesson

Key Words and Characteristics of Speakers of Non-tonal Languages

The following languages in East Asia and Southeast Asia are non-tonal languages:

1. Japanese:

Japanese is spoken by 130 million people in Japan and on Okinawa. It is a non-tonal language characterized by different degrees of honorifics when talking with superiors or inferiors. Questions are made by adding the particle "ka" at the end of a sentence. Hence, "Genki desu ka?" would be "How are you?" in English. Common expressions include "Ohayo gozaimasu" - good morning, "domo arigato" - thank you, "hai" - yes, and "dozo" - please. Japanese are very polite and bow to each other when greeting.

2. Korean:

Korean is spoken by 78 million people in both North Korea and South Korea. When Koreans answer the phone, they say "yeobosayo". Common expressions are "kam-sa-ham-ni-da" - thank you very much, "yeh" - yes, and "ah-nee-yo" - no.

3. Khmer (Cambodian):

The Khmer language is spoken by tens of millions of people in Cambodia and Surin Province of Thailand. When Cambodians answer the phone, they say "Sua s'de." Common expressions include "suosday" - hello, "Sok sabai chea tay?" - "How are you?", "baat" - yes for a man speaking, "cha" - yes for a woman speaking, and "otay" - no for both men and women.

4. Tagalog:

Tagalog is spoken by about 22 million people in The Philippines. Common expressions include "magandang umaga" - good morning, "kamusta" - "How are you?", and "salamat" - thank you.

Russian and Lao are also significant languages in East Asia and Southeast Asia, but they have not been included because their number of speakers is smaller compared to the other languages. It is hoped that travelers will be able to identify some of these languages on their next trips to East Asia and Southeast Asia. Once again, I apologize for the omission of information about the Malay and Indonesian languages. In the future, I plan to address these languages in this article.

Japanese Language Recording

Korean Language Recording

Khmer (Cambodian)

Tagalog Language

Recognizing Languages Spoken in East Asia and Southeast Asia

Which language is the hardest for you to recognize?

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 Paul Richard Kuehn


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    • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Richard Kuehn 

      4 months ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      Thank you for your comments. I will review my translations and romanization of the Japanese section.

    • profile image

      Japanese Student 

      4 months ago

      You didn't translate or romanize the Japanese section correctly. "Genki desu ka" translates to "How are you?" or "Are you well?" Good morning is romanized as "ohayō gozaimasu" or "ohayou gozaimasu," thank you is romanized as "domo arigatō" or "domo arigatou," and please is romanized as "dōzo" or "douzo."

    • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Richard Kuehn 

      6 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      &Anonymous You ask a very good question. I don't know anything about Mongolian so I can't tell you whether it is tonal or non-tonal. Thanks for commenting.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      What about Mongolia? wouldn't that be considered an East Asian country? and is Mongolian non tonal or tonal

    • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Richard Kuehn 

      6 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      &greatstuff You make a good point. I didn't include Malay and Indonesian because I am not that familiar with these languages. If I knew more about them, I certainly would have included them!

    • greatstuff profile image


      6 years ago from Malaysia

      It is an interesting observation that you made that most 'East Asians look the same until we hear then speak'. That was exactly how I felt when I first went to the UK in the late 70's. They all looked the same to me until they speak. Even then I didn't realize that they were Brits as they were speaking in their Scottish or Welsh dialect, etc. That was how ignorant I was as young student in the UK.

      This is an interesting post Paul, but why Malay and Indonesian languages taken out from here? They are the easiest language in SEAsia!


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