BEIJING, Reuters

Only about half of China’s 1.3 billion people can speak the national language, Mandarin, despite it being the official medium of education, Xinhua news agency said on Wednesday.

More men spoke Mandarin than women, and only 45 percent of rural residents could “effectively communicate orally” in the language, Xinhua said, citing a report by the Ministry of Education.

But two-thirds of urban dwellers and people aged between 15 and 29 were fluent, found the survey, which canvassed 500,000 people around the country.

Only around 30 percent of those aged between 60 and 69 were able to speak it, the survey found.

A senior Chinese education official told Reuters last year that the country was too large and had too few resources to get all its people speaking Mandarin.

China refers to Mandarin as “Putonghua”, or “common speech”, while in Taiwan it is called “Guoyu”, or “national language”.

Vice-minister of education Zhao Qinping said on the sidelines of this week’s annual meeting of parliament that the government would focus on promoting Mandarin in the vast countryside this year, Xinhua added.

“Lessons in Putonghua will be included in skills training for farmers wanting to migrate to cities to find work,” it said.

China has been promoting Mandarin for decades to ensure national cohesion in a country where there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of dialects.

But some dialects, such as Cantonese and Hokkien, enjoy strong regional support even if there is no official backing for their use.

Lack of money also means that some schools in poorer, more remote areas have to use teachers whose own Mandarin skills may not be up to par.