Chinese (hànyǔ 汉语/漢語 or zhōngguóhuà 中国话/中國話) comprises many regional language varieties sometimes grouped together as the Chinese dialects, the primary ones being Mandarin, Wu, Yue, and Min. These are not mutually intelligible, and even many of the regional varieties (especially Min) are themselves composed of a number of non-mutually-intelligible subvarieties. As a result, the majority of linguists typically refer to these so-called "varieties" as separate languages. For ideological and political reasons, however, most Chinese speakers and Chinese linguists perceive them to be variations of a single Chinese language, and refer to them as dialects, translating the Chinese terms huà 话, yǔ 語, and fāngyán 方言. The neologism topolect has been coined as a more literal translation of fangyan in order to avoid the connotations of the term "dialect" (which in its normal English usage suggests mutually intelligible varieties of a single language), and to make a clearer distinction between "major varieties" (separate languages, in Western terminology) and "minor varieties" (dialects of a single language). In this article, however, the generic term "variety" will be used.
Chinese people make a strong distinction between written language (文, Pinyin: wén) and spoken language (语/語 yǔ). English does not necessarily have this distinction. As a result the terms Zhongwen (中文) and Hanyu (汉语/漢語) in Chinese are both translated in English as "Chinese". Within China, it is common perception that these varieties are distinct in their spoken forms only, and that the written language is common across the country, although this isn't true.
Chinese consists of several dialect continuums, with a diversity that has been likened to that within the Romance languages. Differences in speech generally become more pronounced as distances increase, with few radical breaks. However, the degree of change in intelligibility varies immensely depending on region. For example, the varieties of Mandarin spoken in all three northeastern Chinese provinces are mutually intelligible, but in the province of Fujian, where the use of the Min variety is dominant, the same variety has to be divided into at least 5 different subdivisions since the subdivisions are all mutually unintelligible to one another.
The Chinese term fāngyán (方言, literally "place speech") is used for all Chinese varieties, though linguists writing in Chinese often use more specific terms to distinguish mutually unintelligible varieties from local variations. All these terms are customarily translated into English as "dialect". However linguists have pointed out that under the usual criterion of mutual intelligibility the major varieties would be considered as separate languages. Some authors have proposed the alternate translations "regionalect" or "topolect" for fāngyán, but these are not widely used.
Standard Chinese (a form of Mandarin) is the dominant variety, much more widely studied than the rest. Outside of China, the only two varieties commonly presented in formal courses are Standard Chinese and Cantonese. Inside China, second-language acquisition is generally achieved through immersion in the local language.