IWTYAL 205: Should I learn Mandarin or Cantonese?

Daco asks: “Should I learn Mandarin or Cantonese?”

Episode Summary:

Resources Mentioned In Today's Episode:

Full Transcript:

Good morning everybody, welcome back. This is the I Will Teach You a Language podcast. If you're learning a foreign language, you're in the right place, welcome home. This is where we talk about language learning and how to learn foreign languages quicker, better and have more fun in the process. At the time of recording or rather when this episode comes out, we're going to be nearing the end of July. In the end of August, so a few weeks away from when you're currently listening to this, we have a great event coming up in Montreal, Canada. It is the Montreal Language Festival. I'm helping to organize it along with Steve Kaufman, Tetsu, and Joey who are the main organizers. I'd love to see you there. If you are in Canada, especially eastern Canada or maybe you live in New York or Boston or somewhere like that and you fancy coming along, please do. We have tickets available still, it's at the end of August. You can go to LangFest.org for more information, or you can just search for Montreal Language Festival. We have a stunning lineup of speakers, we really do. I will just leave it at that, you can go to the website for more information if you'd like. I also mention that because today's question comes from Montreal as well. I want to make sure that Daco you're listening, I hope you're going to come to the event at the end of August.

Before we get to that, I'd like to thank the sponsors of the show, Italki. Now, there are different ways to practice the language that you're learning. You can get formal lessons with a professional tutor, or you can just have a tutor or a language partner that just helps you practice speaking. Different kinds of lessons that you can have. Whichever one you think you need, you can find that person on Italki. You can go and you can browse by language, by nationality, by dialect and find that person that's just right for you to help you get that all important speaking practice. To get a free lesson, go to IWillTeachYouALanguage.com/freelesson. Without any further ado, let's hear today's question from Daco.

Hi, Olly, this is Daco. I'm from Venezuela, but I live in Montreal, Canada. Thank you so much for your podcast, it's a great companion for anybody that is trying to learn any language. My question is the following; I want to learn Chinese, but I know there are two different Chinese I think, Cantonese and Mandarin. I have no idea what's the difference between those two and where to start. I heard you speak Cantonese, I think, so which one do you recommend? Thank you so much, bye, bye.

Hi, Daco, thank you very much for your question. I like this, because it gives me an excuse to talk about Cantonese, which is always welcome. Now, should you learn Cantonese or Mandarin? This question comes up surprisingly often, and I think it probably stems from people not realizing what the distinction is and what the relevant information is. I speak Cantonese, I don't speak Mandarin, but I know a fair bit about it because I have many colleagues who work with Mandarin and in Mandarin. I consider myself fairly familiar with the kind of relevant formats. You've got a lot of different Chinese dialects. It's not just Cantonese and Mandarin, there are many more. I can't really talk about them with authority other than if you do a search on the internet for varieties of Chinese you will find a lot. Some people consider Cantonese to be a dialect of Chinese, others consider it to be a completely separate language. It doesn't really matter, but they're very closely related although they're not mutually intelligible. If I speak Cantonese to someone from China or Taiwan, they won't understand. Likewise, if you go to Hong Kong and you speak Mandarin, some people might understand if they've studied or gone to school in Mandarin, but otherwise a native Cantonese speaker will only understand limited amounts of Mandarin. They are not mutually intelligible languages, although interestingly the written language is pretty much the same. We're not going to get into all that detail yet.

How can you choose to study Mandarin or Cantonese, how do you make the choice? Actually, it's really simple, you just need to know why you're learning it in the first place. It's really like asking should I learn English or French, the question itself is impossible to answer. You need to know why you're learning it. Is it because you want to travel to China? Is it because you want to speak with ethnic Chinese communities in your hometown? Is it because you want to learn a language that is internationally useful? If so, for what? Is it for trade, is it for online work, what's your reason? Daco, without knowing your reason, it's very difficult to respond to the question. Picking a language arbitrarily is something that I never recommend doing. We recently had a question from Turkey, which was like should I learn Japanese or Spanish? That's like what should I have for dinner, chicken or beef? If you learn a language for a reason that is just I think it will be useful, you're really going to struggle over the long term, especially with a language like Chinese that's really, really hard. The way that you succeed at a language over the long term is by having a real reason to use it.

Daco, you said you're from Venezuela, you live in Montreal. I guess one of the reasons that your English is so good is because you live there and you have to speak it there. You may also speak good French, perhaps, not everybody speaks French in Montreal. Learning Chinese is a big undertaking and you need to have a reason why. Let me give you some of the reasons why you might choose one or the other. If you want to learn an international language that gives you access to Asia and allows you in general to spread your wings and communicate with more people around the world, then you need to learn Mandarin. There are in the world a total of 873 million native speakers of Mandarin Chinese, compared to around 59 million native speakers of Cantonese. So, there are 10 times as many native speakers of Mandarin. If you include second language speakers, it goes up even more, there's more than a billion native or second language speakers of Mandarin Chinese compared to Cantonese. Twenty times more people speak Mandarin than Cantonese.

As you travel around the world and you go to Chinatowns in various cities around the world, you will often find more Cantonese speakers than Mandarin. The reason is that there's a lot of migration from the south of China, where they also speak Cantonese. If you weren't aware, in the southern provinces of China, places like Guangdong, they also speak Cantonese. There's a lot of migration from there around the world to places like the US and Canada and Europe. Often when you go to Chinatown in places like London for example, you'll mostly hear Cantonese being spoken. I seem to remember it was the same in Montreal when I was there last year. Obviously if you go to Hong Kong in particular, and also Macao and Singapore to a certain extent, you will hear Cantonese being spoken. It kind of depends.

If you hang out in Chinatown, Daco, and you've been on holiday to Hong Kong, then you are likely to think to yourself Cantonese might be more useful. If that's the case, then you should learn Cantonese. For any other reason, assuming you don't have a particular reason or motive to learn the language, it's almost certain that Mandarin is going to be more useful for you, simply because that's the main language of China. It's what you'll speak if you ever meet a regular Chinese person and if you ever go to China. Without a deeper reason, it's impossible to say anymore, but those are the kind of things that you might like to think about. I hope that's useful for you, and if you'd like to give us a little bit more information about your reasons for wanting to learn Chinese, then go ahead and leave us a comment on the show notes; IWillTeachYouALanguage.com/episode205. Maybe a few of us can weigh in and give you some ideas there based on your specific situation.

I hope to see you in Montreal at the end of August, Daco, thank you for your question. If you would like to leave a question, please go to IWillTeachYouALanguage.com/ask. Also, if you have been enjoying the podcast, I would love it if you would leave a star rating and a review on iTunes, because it really helps other people find the podcast as well. If you'd like to do that, simply open up iTunes and search for I Will Teach You a Language. Click on leave a review and you can do that there.

At the end of every episode, I like to leave you with a resource of some kind on the topic of the show. For this one, I would like you go to back to episode 42 of the podcast. This may not be available on iTunes, because they don't make the older episodes available, but you can listen to it on the blog if you go to IWillTeachYouALanguage.com/episode42, then you can access it there. That podcast is called What Language Should I Learn? I think it's very relevant to you if you're kind of making a choice between a couple of languages, maybe weighing up the pros and cons. It will really help you make a decision. That's IWillTeachYouALanguage.com/episode42. Thank you for listening, I really appreciate it, and I will see you back in the next episode.

Thank you so much for listening to today's episode, I really hope you enjoyed it. One of the questions I get asked most often about language learning is how to improve your memory. Things get so much easier when you learn new words and you don't forget them later in conversation when you really need them. What I decided to do is put together a short email course. It's a three-part email course over three days that teaches you my favorite techniques for memorizing vocabulary and actually putting that vocabulary into your long-term memory. It's a short course, three days, and it's completely free. If you'd like to sign up for it, please go to IWillTeachYouALanguage.com/freememorycourse.

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