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Cantonese vs. Mandarin Chinese

Updated: May 18, 2020

It can be tough choosing a language to learn and the choice does not become easier when deciding on whether to learn Cantonese or Mandarin Chinese. Both languages are spoken in Mainland China and other parts of Asia and they both have their very own charms but which one should you learn and how should you go about learning it?

Mandarin Chinese

Mandarin Chinese is the official language of Mainland China and Taiwan. It is the most widely spoken language in most parts of Mainland China and can be heard on TV shows, the news and is taught at almost all schools in Mainland China. It is also spoken and taught across schools in Guangdong and Guangxi where Cantonese is more widely spoken. Some people have claimed that Mandarin is the hardest language to learn in the world because of its tonal nature (4 tones). The slightest faltering of your tone and you could be saying something not so innocent to your Chinese friend or boss. As China’s economic power continues to grow, many believe that Mandarin Chinese is the language of the future. But should this be your main reason for jumping on the bandwagon to learn it?

Cantonese Chinese

Cantonese is widely spoken in Guangdong, Guangxi and is the ‘official’ spoken language of Hong Kong and Macao. Although Mandarin is starting to have a more prominent standing in the Hong Kong schooling system, Cantonese still remains the main spoken language in Hong Kong. However in Mainland China, Cantonese is rarely used in the schooling system and as stated above, most locals in Guangdong and Guangxi (where Cantonese is more widely spoken) are bilingual and therefore will most definitely understand Mandarin Chinese. As a speaker of both languages myself, I was quite surprised when I made a small trip to Guangxi and found myself speaking more Mandarin than Cantonese. If you were thinking that there were too many tones in Mandarin already, you’ll be in for quite a shock when learning Cantonese because it has from 6 to 9 tones depending on which type of Cantonese you decide to learn (Guangzhou or Hong Kong). Although Cantonese is not considered as a ‘language of the future’ like Mandarin, it is still a main language in a leading international financial center such as Hong Kong.

Differences between Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese

Although both Mandarin and Cantonese originated from China, they do have their differences. It is said that if there was a Cantonese and Mandarin speaker on a train sharing a newspaper together, the Cantonese speaker would be able to read aloud the words to the Mandarin speaker but he/she would not be understood and vice versa. However, if they were to each read the newspaper by themselves, both would be able understand the content just fine. This is true to a certain extent but if you were to hand over a Hong Kong newspaper to a Mandarin speaker, there’s a high probability that they would not understand what is written. This is because colloquial Cantonese written down on paper is different to how Mandarin would be written down on paper. For example to express the verb ‘to eat’, in Mandarin one would write ‘吃’ but in Cantonese one would use the word ‘食’ instead which would mean ‘food/meal’ in Mandarin. Here is an area where Cantonese speakers will have an advantage because they’ll be able to read, write and understand both forms of writing. On the other hand, Mandarin speakers would be able to read the characters but will not have a clear understanding of what they are reading.

This stark contrast was seen recently during the period of protests in Hong Kong, where newspaper headlines were written phonetically in Cantonese so that only other Cantonese speakers could understand the true meaning of the headline.

Similarities between Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese

I spoke both Mandarin and Cantonese growing up so I felt that I learned both languages quicker than on average because of the similarities I noticed between both languages. Although tonal differences exist, there was a strong similarity in the pronunciation of the words in both languages and this was one of the main reasons to how I was able to pick up Mandarin quickly. For example, the word ‘明天’ (tomorrow) would be pronounced ‘Míngtiān’ in Mandarin and ‘Mingtin’ in Cantonese (Although ting1 jat6 is more widely said). Furthermore the differences in the grammatical structure of both languages are pretty minor. Therefore, the barrier was easily overcome.

So which one should you choose?

In today’s society, almost everyone would recommend learning Mandarin Chinese. China’s economy is growing rapidly and there are increasing opportunities for Mandarin speakers. If you are looking for the language with a more historic root, Cantonese would be the one because it has more historic roots than Mandarin and has more of a ‘wow factor’ to it since it is an extremely difficult language to learn (More so than Mandarin in my opinion!). At the end of the day, it’ll be down to your interests and goals. If you are looking to expand your career opportunities globally and want to work in Mainland China or Taiwan in the future, choosing Mandarin Chinese is a no brainer. If you are looking to find opportunities in Hong Kong or are a Hong Kong movie or music lover, then Cantonese may be more suited to you.

How to get started

Now that you’ve chosen, it’s important to remember that as with all languages there’s no quick route, practice is the key! However, Mandarin learners have the advantage of access to more resources on the web whilst it may be more difficult for Cantonese learners to find comprehensive resources. With regard to writing, due to the fact that there is no ‘alphabet system’ for writing Chinese characters, you’ll have to memorize the Chinese characters. Yes, this may sound like a pain but there are methods out there to make it easier. Download our how to free PDF on how to upskill your Chinese skills as a beginner here.

Happy learning!

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