The Difference between Mandarin and Cantonese

What is the difference between Mandarin and Cantonese? This is a common question people ask when deciding to learn Chinese. Many people assume that Mandarin and Cantonese are the same language. Although the two are both dialects of the Chinese language, there are many differences between the two.

Below we will go through the differences between Mandarin and Cantonese and Mandarin and also mention the similarities so that you can decide on which language to learn.

Where Are Mandarin and Cantonese Spoken

Mandarin is the official language of China, however it is also the most spoken language worldwide. Mandarin is also the main dialect in Singapore and Taiwan.

Cantonese, while also popular in China, is the official language of Hong Kong and Macau.

In general, when people are talking about “speaking Chinese,” they are most likely to be referring to Mandarin. However, it really depends on where you are, as to which of the two languages you will hear being spoken.

What is the difference between Mandarin and Cantonese?

Mandarin and Cantonese have many differences, contrary to what most non-Chinese-speaking people assume. Here we will go through the difference between Mandarin and Cantonese.

The Characters

The characters used for Mandarin and Cantonese share the same origins in ancient China. One of the main differences between Mandarin and Cantonese is that Mandarin uses simplified characters, which were mandated as the standard by the Chinese government in the 1950s. Cantonese instead still uses the traditional characters.

As the names suggest, traditional characters are more “complex”, being constructed on many more character strokes than the simplified characters.

Those who read in traditional characters will be able to comprehend simplified characters, but those who read simplified will have a difficult time comprehending traditional characters.

Here are two examples:

The word ‘dragon’
Mandarin: 龙, (simplified characters) comprises of only 5 strokes
Cantonese: 龍 (traditional characters) meanwhile comprises of 16 strokes
Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong Province
Mandarin: 广州
Cantonese: 廣州

The Spoken Language

In terms of verbal communication, Cantonese and Mandarin are notmutuallyintelligible. In essence, the same character-syllable base is used, the pronunciation varies and in some cases it varies radically. An individual who only speaks Mandarin will not generally be able to understand Cantonese, and vice versa.

Here are two examples:

The word “Hello”
Mandarin: Nǐ Hǎo, pronounced nee-haow
Cantonese: Néih-hóu
The question “Have you eaten?”
Mandarin: Chīfànle Ma?
Cantonese: Lei Sik Dzo Fan Mei A? (Intonation excluded)

The Sentence Structure

The written style for both Mandarin and Cantonese are almost the same with the same base characters. Even though there are some slight differences in vocabulary and grammar, native speakers can often contextually deduce those differences. For example:

Cantonese: 畀嗰本書我 bei2 go2 bun2 syu1 ngo5 “Give the book (to) me”  Mandarin 给我那本书 gěi wǒ nà běn shū “Give me the book”

The Tones

Another difference between Mandarin and Cantonese is the number of tones. Mandarin comprises of five tones, while Cantonese has nine different tones.

Intonation is vital when trying to convey your meaning hence making Cantonese harder to learn than Mandarin.

In Cantonese, three of the nine tones have merged, and so in spoken reality, there are only six tones at the moment. These six tones are named dark flat, dark rising, dark departing, light flat, light rising, and light departing.

Expressions and Idioms

Both of these Chinese languages use different idioms and expressions. In other words, even if someone from Hong Kong is able to read simplified Chinese writing, they may not be able to comprehend what is actually being conveyed by the writer if idioms or colloquialisms are used and vice versa.

Take a very famous and widely used Cantonese expression to help create a better picture and understand the above used in reference to Mandarin and Cantonese speakers trying to comprehend each other – “the chicken talking to the duck”. It basically means that while outsiders may think they understand each other, they don’t really.

The Difficulties in Learning Mandarin and Cantonese

Taking into account the differences between Mandarin and Cantonese, there are difficulties in learning both of these Chinese languages.

There are aspects of Mandarin that make it hard for foreigners and native Chinese speakers difficult to learn.  The most common known issue is Chinese characters. For alphabetic languages, there’s a virtuous loop between the writing, speaking and listening and those three categories are being constructed as one composite skill.

However, with the Chinese language, it breaks that loop. Speaking does not necessarily help your reading and reading doesn’t necessarily help your writing. Mastering the Chinese language means that you have to be able to command three different skills that have to be mastered in parallel, and separately.

Cantonese is a tonal language, which can be hugely challenging for non-native speakers who are used to speaking with emphasis (“I didn’t eat YOUR bread!”) and inflection, rising tones to pose a question. Cantonese can be difficult even for those who speak other Chinese dialects because of its tonal system. For example, Mandarin has four tones but Cantonese has eight comprises pitch and contour shaping a syllable’s meaning.

Which is more popular, Cantonese or Mandarin?

Mandarin is the most popular dialect among Chinese speakers. It is mainly used in Mainland China, Taiwan and Singapore. These areas represent a population of over 1.3 billion Chinese. Majority of TV and radio stations in Mainland China announce in Mandarin dialect. It has become the main “face” of the Chinese language ever since the Chinese government mandated that Mandarin is the official language of the country, and is becoming more and more widely spoken on an international level.

As for Cantonese, it is widely spoken in Canton (Guangdong) province of China, Hong Kong and with overseas Chinese in cities such as San Francisco and New York. The Chinese population in these areas is roughly 10 million. However, due to the inclination of Cantonese speakers, this has led to some Cantonese speakers feeling concerned that their language is being lost.

An article by the South China Morning Post  reveals that there is a decline in numbers of Guangzhou youngsters and teenagers are speaking Cantonese hence parents are forced to converse with them in Mandarin.

Which should I learn, Mandarin or Cantonese?

As we have mentioned, there are many differences between Mandarin and Cantonese. If you deciding which Chinese language to learn, or which language to teach your children, it is generally recommended to go with Mandarin because of the fact it is the most widely spoken language in the world, and said that it could be the language of the future.

However, if you want to dive and explore deeper into the linguistic history and culture of the Chinese language, it can’t hurt to pick up Cantonese as well.

Mandarin vs Cantonese, what is the difference?

Author: Vivien Kong is a writer who speaks Mandarin, Cantonese and Malay. She is passionate about everything concerning language and culture.