Are you thinking of learning Chinese, but not sure which kind to learn? Unsure what exactly are the differences between Mandarin and Cantonese? You’re not alone!
Luckily, this post is here to clear things up and help you choose which one is right for you.
Together, Mandarin and Cantonese have over 1.2 billion speakers!
This makes “Chinese” (including Mandarin, Cantonese, and other varieties) the most spoken language/language group in the world.
So whichever you choose to learn, you’ll be opening a whole lot of doors for your future self!
There are a number of other regional variations of Chinese spoken around the world. But Cantonese and Mandarin are the most widely spoken and are the ones that most people choose to learn.
So, what’s the difference? By the end of this post, you'll know the main differences (and similarities!) between Cantonese and Mandarin. Plus, I'll share some ideas with you on how to choose the language variety that suits you best.
Mandarin and Cantonese are both spoken varieties of Chinese. Whether you define them as languages in their own right or Chinese dialects is a debate of its own. In this post, I’ll call them languages or language varieties.
So, the two spoken languages sound different and are mutually unintelligible. For the most part. With contextual clues, a Mandarin and a Cantonese speaker might be able to recognise some words or phrases of the other language here and there.
But though they sound different, both share the same basic structure, and a large amount of vocabulary. They also share the same writing system.
Now let’s dive in and take a closer look at the major similarities and differences between Mandarin and Cantonese.
So, though Cantonese and Mandarin are different when spoken, they share the same base writing system: Chinese characters.
This means that a Mandarin speaker and a Cantonese speaker won’t understand much (if any) of what the other person is saying. But they could both understand the same written language and could communicate just fine in writing.
That said, colloquial spoken Cantonese differs a fair bit from written Cantonese, while Mandarin is written how it’s spoken.
As a side note, both varieties use Chinese characters – but what about the difference between Traditional and Simplified Chinese characters? These two sets of characters do vary. But people who read either variety natively can generally understand both.
But the Simplified/Traditional character difference is independent of the Mandarin/Cantonese difference. Use of Simplified/Traditional characters varies by region. And so do Mandarin and Cantonese – but not always in the same combination.
Simplified characters were introduced in Mainland China in the 1950s, while places like Hong Kong and Taiwan retained the Traditional characters.
So a Cantonese speaker from Hong Kong and a Mandarin speaker from Taiwan would both write with Traditional characters. But both Cantonese and Mandarin speakers from mainland China use Simplified characters. (More detail soon about where each one is spoken!)
Now, let’s take a look at the main differences.
As I've said, Cantonese and Mandarin are distinct when spoken. Though they share a writing system, the pronunciation is quite different.
Here’s an example with a couple of words (the pronunciation here is given using official Romanisation followed by approximate guides):
Spoken Chinese is a tonal language. This means that changes in your voice pitch while pronouncing a vowel sound form part of the meaning of a word.
So, even if two words sound exactly the same except for the tone, a different tone = a different meaning.
Mandarin and Cantonese, as varieties of Chinese, are both tonal languages. So do they use the same tones, then? Nope!
The tone system differs between Mandarin and Cantonese. Mandarin has 4 main tones (plus a “neutral” tone, while modern Cantonese has 6 tones. (You’ll traditionally hear 9 tones mentioned, but some of them have merged).
So, Cantonese is somewhat more complex in this respect.
For more detail on tones in Mandarin, check out this post.
And for more on Cantonese tones, check out this one.
Since Chinese characters are not a phonetic alphabet, Chinese also has various transliteration systems to write the sounds using the Roman alphabet. (You got a taste of them just now in the Difference 1 section.)
These serve as a tool for learning the sounds of each language, both for children and second language learners.
These Romanisation systems differ between Cantonese and Mandarin, too.
The two most commonly used Romanisation systems for Cantonese are Yale and Jyutping. The common systems for Mandarin are Pinyin (in the PRC) and Bopomofo/Zhuyin (in Taiwan).
Here’s an example of what those systems look like using a well-known greeting that’s used at Chinese New Year. It basically means “wishing you a happy and prosperous New Year!”
To give an approximate pronunciation guide based on English sounds, they sound more or less like this:
And here they are in written/Romanised form:
While the written language is essentially mutually intelligible, Cantonese and Mandarin have a fair bit of variation in individual words, expressions, word order and local slang.
As a quick example, spoken Mandarin and Cantonese use different words for “to eat”:
Within each language, there are variations specific to each individual region, too. So Taiwanese Mandarin has its own words, expressions and slang that differ from mainland Chinese Mandarin.
Hong Kong Cantonese has its own unique slang too, and so on. Cantonese is particularly known for its colourful swear words!
Speaking of regional variation…
Mandarin and Cantonese-speaking populations can be found in many parts of the world. There’s a fair amount of overlap between the two.
In some areas, both languages are common and people may speak both (and likely other regional variants of Chinese, too – there are a lot of them!).
Very roughly speaking, there’s a north-south divide between the two. Standard Mandarin is based on the Chinese spoken in northern China and is the dominant language there. And Cantonese? It’s dominant in southern China, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia.
Here’s an overview of the main places where each is spoken:
What about the many overseas Chinese communities in non-Chinese-speaking countries?
Up until the last couple of decades, Cantonese was more common in overseas Chinese communities, since early migrants were mostly from southern China. But these days, with increasing mobility of people from all over the PRC, Mandarin is common in overseas communities too.
After reading this article, you’ll hopefully have a better idea of the differences between Cantonese and Mandarin.
Now if you’re hoping for me to give you a definitive answer – sorry! The right choice is whichever YOU are most motivated to learn.
For one thing, Mandarin is generally considered somewhat easier to learn, since it has 4 tones while Cantonese has 6.
That said, both varieties have their fair share of challenges!
Considering that you’re already game to learn Chinese, you might find that the cultural and regional differences are more relevant to your choice than the linguistic ones.
I’d encourage you to do some exploring of your own to figure out which makes more sense for you.
This might mean researching or visiting specific places, watching movies, listening to music or talking to people you know. Or even the most delicious kind of research: eating!
Whatever your choice, the important thing is that it’s YOUR choice.
As an independent language learner, no-one’s forcing you to wade through verb tables or write that pesky character ANOTHER fifty times.
You do it because you value the benefits that learning this language is going to bring you. (And of course because the process itself is rewarding and fun, when done right!)
So your best bet is to pick whichever one is most likely to motivate you to keep on going, be it Mandarin or Cantonese.
One added bonus is that these two Chinese varieties are related and share a lot in common (basic structure, vocab and writing system). So once you’re comfortable with either Cantonese or Mandarin, you have a much better foundation to learn the other!
Whichever you choose, you’re in for a fascinating journey. And with the massive influence of both Mandarin and Cantonese in today’s world, you’ll be sure to get plenty of benefit from learning either variety of Chinese.
Are you learning Mandarin or Cantonese? Or both? Leave a comment below and let me know how you decided!
People speak too fast?
Free email course teaches you advanced listening skills to understand native speakers at ANY speed.