Chinese is a special group of languages that includes both Mandarin and Cantonese.
Chinese encompasses a unique set of languages, including Mandarin and Cantonese. As an English speaker, you're likely familiar with various dialects, such as British English, American English, and Australian English, among others. Although there may be some initial difficulty, you can generally understand speakers of these dialects without much effort, making them mutually intelligible. Does this same concept apply to Chinese dialects, where everyone can understand one another regardless of the specific dialect spoken?
The answer is somewhat complex. The majority of Chinese languages are not mutually intelligible, meaning that two individuals could both speak "Chinese" and still be unable to understand each other. Consequently, there are numerous types of "Chinese" that one can learn as a second language.
Why, then, are Mandarin and Cantonese regarded as the same language? This is due to their shared historical origins and the use of the Chinese writing system. Despite the vast differences in pronunciation, both dialects predominantly utilize the same characters to represent words.
If this all seems confusing, fear not. In the following sections, we will delve into Mandarin and Cantonese, examining the distinctions in pronunciation, characters, vocabulary, and grammar between the two dialects. Additionally, we will offer guidance on which dialect to choose if you're interested in learning Mandarin or Cantonese.
Let's dive in!
Mandarin vs. Cantonese Overview
|Where it’s spoken
|Mainland China, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia
|Southeast China, Hong Kong, Macau, and the Chinese diaspora
|4 tones (plus neutral tone)
|6 tones plus 3 entering tones
|Mostly simplified characters
|Mostly traditional characters
|Used across the Sinosphere as a common tongue
|Mostly useful in Hong Kong, Macau, and Guangdong
Mandarin and Cantonese can be found in different locations
Firstly, it's important to note that Mandarin is the most prevalent Chinese dialect. This is because it serves as the official language in mainland China, Taiwan, and Singapore, and is either official or recognized in Hong Kong, Macao, Malaysia, and even the United Nations!
Mandarin's vast geographic reach is largely due to its role as the lingua franca within the Sinosphere. Regardless of their native dialect, the majority of Chinese speakers can communicate in Mandarin to some degree.
In Chinese, Mandarin is referred to as 普通话 (pǔ tōng huà), which means the common language. Its designation as a common language has also boosted its prominence in educational settings throughout China, making Mandarin the predominant language in Chinese television programs, films, and literature.
Moreover, a significant portion of the Chinese population speaks Mandarin as their primary language. Some of the regions and provinces with the highest number of native Mandarin speakers include:
- Inner Mongolia
Conversely, Cantonese is predominantly spoken in the southeastern region of China. The name Cantonese is derived from the former romanization of the Chinese city of Guangzhou and the province of Guangdong as Canton. Although it might seem like a limited area, Guangdong is the most populous province in China, contributing to Cantonese being one of the top 20 most spoken languages globally!
In addition to those living in and around Guangzhou, Cantonese is widely spoken among the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia, Europe, and North America. Until the mid-20th century, Cantonese speakers constituted the majority of Chinese migrants.
Significant Cantonese-speaking populations can be found in these regions:
- Hong Kong
- Overseas Chinese diaspora
communities In total, there are approximately 75 million native Cantonese speakers worldwide.
Differences in pronunciation
Pronunciation disparities As established earlier, Mandarin and Cantonese are not mutually intelligible, with most words having distinct pronunciations. However, the phonetic differences extend beyond this— they also have unique tonal systems!
Mandarin employs four tones to distinguish words. Additionally, there is a fifth "neutral" tone, bringing the total number of tones in Mandarin to five.
|阴平 - yīnpíng
|阳平 - yángpíng
|上 - shǎng
|/à/ [à̤, a̤᷆, a̤᷉]
|去 - qù
|轻 - qīng
Cantonese, on the other hand, uses nine tones to differentiate pronunciation! Of these nine tones, three are known as “checked tones,” which are used exclusively by syllables that end in a stop consonant or a glottal stop (-p, -t, -k).
These are the nine tones in Cantonese:
|dark flat (陰平)
|high level, high falling
|dark rising (陰上)
|dark departing (陰去)
|light flat (陽平)
|low falling, very low level
|light rising (陽上)
|light departing (陽去)
|7 (or 1)
|upper dark entering (上陰入)
|8 (or 2)
|lower dark entering (下陰入)
|9 (or 3)
|light entering (陽入)
As mentioned earlier, written Chinese is mostly consistent across dialects. However, given the extensive pronunciation differences, you may be curious about how Mandarin and Cantonese utilize the same characters.
In reality, standard written Cantonese is largely based on written Mandarin. Consequently, Cantonese speakers typically use Mandarin for writing in non-informal situations. Cantonese actually exists in a state of digraphia, meaning there are two written standards for this dialect. In very informal situations and for Cantonese-specific words not found in Mandarin, speakers use a colloquial version of written Cantonese. In all other instances, Cantonese speakers employ a form of written Chinese more akin to Mandarin.
This concept isn't new, as Classical Chinese functioned as a shared written language until the early 20th century. Although not explicitly linked to any particular Chinese dialect, all literate Chinese speakers adhered to the rules of Classical Chinese writing. However, during the 20th century, written Mandarin gradually replaced Classical Chinese, largely due to national initiatives aimed at improving literacy rates across mainland China.
Simplified versus traditional characters
Another notable difference is the prevalence of traditional characters in Cantonese-speaking regions. Nowadays, simplified Chinese is almost exclusively used in mainland China and Singapore. However, Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong and Macau continue to employ traditional characters for writing. Owing to the success of the Hong Kong film industry, traditional characters are frequently encountered in Cantonese-speaking areas.
It's important to remember that Cantonese speakers in mainland China generally use simplified characters, while Mandarin speakers in Taiwan utilize traditional characters. Consequently, you cannot assume that traditional characters indicate Cantonese or that simplified characters signify Mandarin.
Although Cantonese adheres to the same grammar rules as Mandarin, some Cantonese words do not exist in Mandarin. As a result, a Mandarin speaker may not fully comprehend Cantonese texts, since certain characters are unique to Cantonese. Here are a few common Cantonese characters that are not found in Mandarin.
|He, she, it
|Possessive particle equivalent to Mandarin 的 (de)
|That as in “that one”
|To be at
|What or why
|了 or 过
|Puts the sentence in past tense
|So as in “so good”
Vocabulary & grammar distinctions
Apart from pronunciation and characters, Mandarin and Cantonese also differ in terms of vocabulary and grammar. At this point, you might wonder why they are even classified within the same language family given their vast differences. Fortunately, there are some similarities in addition to the differences in these aspects! Let's explore the vocabulary and grammar variations and commonalities between Mandarin and Cantonese.
In Mandarin and Cantonese, most words are written using the same characters. This provides a degree of mutual intelligibility, enabling Mandarin speakers to comprehend written Cantonese and vice-versa.
Nonetheless, this doesn't imply that both dialects always use identical words. Aside from the unique Cantonese words previously mentioned, some vocabulary words can differ between the two dialects.
The grammar of Mandarin and Cantonese is quite similar, as demonstrated by their basic sentence structures:
Basic Mandarin sentence structure: Subject + Verb + Object (SVO structure)
Basic Cantonese sentence structure: Subject + Verb + Object (SVO structure)
At first glance, both Mandarin and Cantonese follow the same pattern. However, this doesn't mean that their grammar rules are identical. Each dialect is a distinct language with its own unique grammar rules.
Here are the most common grammar differences between Mandarin and Cantonese:
Adverb order. In Mandarin, adverbs typically precede the verb, while in Cantonese, they follow the verb.
Double objects. In Mandarin, the indirect object always appears before the direct object, whereas in Cantonese, the reverse is true.
To better illustrate these differences, consider the following example sentences comparing Mandarin and Cantonese sentences.
|You go out first
|nǐ xiān chū qù
|nei5 ceot1 heoi3 sin1
|Where are you from?
|nǐ shì nǎ guó rén?
|nei5 hai6 bin1 dou6 jan4 aa1？
|He gives me money
|tā gěi wǒ qián
|keoi5 bei2 cin2 ngo5
|What’s your name?
|nǐ jiào shén me míng zi?
|nei5 giu3 zou6 mat1 je5 ming4 aa1？
|Long time no see
|hǎo jiǔ bu jiàn
|hou2 noi6 mou5 gin3
Choosing one to learn
Deciding between learning Mandarin or Cantonese largely hinges on your personal objectives. In terms of practicality, Mandarin offers greater utility than Cantonese, as it is the sole official language of mainland China and has over ten times the number of speakers. If your goal is to conduct business in mainland China, Mandarin is the ideal choice.
Mandarin also serves as the lingua franca in mainland China, with many individuals speaking it as a second language. For instance, while Shanghainese is often used for communication among Shanghai natives, nearly everyone in Shanghai can speak Mandarin. Therefore, even in non-Mandarin-speaking regions, knowing Mandarin may still facilitate communication with locals. This is not the case for Cantonese, as very few people outside Guangdong, Hong Kong, and Macau speak it unless it's their native language.
Nonetheless, Cantonese might be more beneficial if you plan to live in Guangdong, Hong Kong, or Macau. Although Mandarin will be helpful in Cantonese-speaking areas of mainland China, it doesn't hold true for the Chinese Special Administrative Regions (SARs). Thus, if your future involves Guangdong, Hong Kong, or Macau, learning Cantonese is likely the better option.
Is Cantonese more challenging than Mandarin?
You might be wondering whether Mandarin or Cantonese is more difficult to learn, which is a valid concern. Chinese is considered one of the most challenging languages for English speakers, so approaching it cautiously is reasonable.
Most individuals would agree that Mandarin is somewhat easier to learn than Cantonese. Cantonese has four additional tones compared to Mandarin, and traditional characters are more prevalent in Cantonese than in Mandarin. If you're seeking the dialect that requires the least effort to learn, then Mandarin is the choice for you.
However, the most effective strategies for learning Chinese characters involve a sustained interest in studying and mastering the language. Factors such as your personal interests, family and friends, business pursuits, and available learning opportunities can significantly influence your language learning success. So, if you have a passion for Hong Kong cinema or have discovered a lucrative business opportunity in Guangzhou, don't worry too much about Cantonese being slightly more challenging than Mandarin. Instead, trust your instincts and pursue what resonates with you!
Fun facts: Mandarin vs. Cantonese
Cantonese is prevalent in Chinatowns worldwide Cantonese is likely more familiar to those living near a Chinatown than Mandarin. The first Chinatown in the United States was even called Little Canton due to the majority of Chinese immigrants in the 20th century hailing from Hong Kong and Guangdong province, leading to the spread of Cantonese among the Chinese diaspora.
Mandarin has over 10 times more speakers than Cantonese With over 1.1 billion speakers globally and about 929 million native speakers, Mandarin is the language with the most native speakers and the second-most spoken language after English. In contrast, Cantonese has approximately 75 million speakers worldwide, making the Mandarin-to-Cantonese speaker ratio nearly 15-to-1!
Cantonese has more speakers than languages such as Korean or Persian Despite having significantly fewer speakers than Mandarin, Cantonese is still among the 20 largest languages globally, boasting more speakers than well-known languages like Korean and Persian.
Guangzhou locals never referred to the city as Canton While the city of Guangzhou was commonly romanized as Canton for centuries, locals never used this name. It originated from the Portuguese "Cidade de Cantão," with "Cantão" being a misinterpretation of a dialectical pronunciation of Guangdong.
The name Canton stuck among Europeans and later among most Western countries due to Portuguese establishing the first contact between Europe and East Asia in 1517. However, this name resulted from a misunderstanding and has since been mostly phased out. It might be time to consider renaming Cantonese to Guangdongnese or Guangzhousian!
Mandarin vs. Cantonese FAQs
Do all Chinese people speak Mandarin?
Not every Chinese speaker speaks Mandarin, but a vast majority do. It's estimated that around 80% of mainland China's population can speak Mandarin, with plans to raise this to 85% by 2025. The younger generation in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Macau is almost entirely fluent in Mandarin, as it has been incorporated into school curriculums.
Can Mandarin and Cantonese speakers understand each other?
Mandarin and Cantonese speakers cannot understand one another due to significant pronunciation differences. However, the written language differences are small enough for Mandarin and Cantonese speakers to comprehend each other when texting or writing letters.
Can I use Mandarin in Hong Kong?
About half of the people in Hong Kong (48%) can speak Mandarin, largely due to the rising number of mainland immigrants and tourists and the growing prevalence of Mandarin in education. However, if you’re a foreigner who speaks English and Mandarin but not Cantonese, your best bet is going to be to use English to communicate with the locals. English is still a very popular language and one of the official languages of Hong Kong, so you won’t run into any trouble with English.
Is Taiwanese Mandarin the same as Mainland China Mandarin?
Mandarin is the official language of both mainland China and Taiwan. While the Mandarin spoken in Taiwan and that on the mainland are very similar, there are key differences in pronunciation, grammar, writing style, and vocabulary. Most significantly, Taiwan uses traditional characters, while mainland China uses simplified characters. So, if you’ve learned simplified Chinese and find yourself in Taiwan, you may have some trouble reading signs on the street!
Learn your favorite of the sister's tongues
If you're considering learning Mandarin or Cantonese, it's important to weigh your personal interests, needs, and goals. Both languages have their advantages and unique characteristics, so your choice will depend on factors such as your travel plans, career aspirations, and cultural interests.
Remember that learning a new language can be a challenging yet rewarding experience. Although Chinese may seem daunting, there are millions of people studying it worldwide, proving that it's attainable with dedication and persistence.
If you're interested in exploring Mandarin and Cantonese further, check out language learning blogs and resources that offer insightful content to help you reach your learning goals. Many of these resources are free, so you can start learning about Chinese numbers, pinyin, or greetings in Chinese to get a feel for the language.
Whether you choose Mandarin or Cantonese, immersing yourself in the language and culture will not only enrich your life but also open up new opportunities and connections with people around the world. Happy learning!