Cantonese vs. Mandarin, what’s the difference? It’s a question asked by many, if not all who are unfamiliar with Chinese culture. Both Cantonese and Mandarin are dialects of the Chinese language, and both are spoken widely in mainland China. They both share the same base alphabet, but they’re mutually unintelligible when it comes to how they’re spoken.
Which Language Should You Learn?
If you plan on doing business in China or just traveling around the country, Mandarin is the language you’ll want to learn. It’s the only official language of China, and it’s used for national TV and radio, so the rate of fluency for Mandarin far outpaces Cantonese.
However, if you plan on living in Hong Kong, you might want to consider learning Cantonese instead, as it’s the dominant tongue there.
If you’re really looking for a challenge and plan on learning both languages, it’s said that it’s easier to first learn Mandarin, then build up to Cantonese.
Where Are Cantonese and Mandarin Spoken?
Mandarin, the official state language of China, is the language spoken in most regions throughout the country, including Beijing and Shanghai, although many provinces do speak their own local dialect. Mandarin is also the main dialect of Taiwan and Singapore.
Cantonese is spoken by the people of Hong Kong, Macau and the wider Guangdong province, including Guangzhou.
Can I Speak Mandarin in Hong Kong?
Yes, but it’s not recommended. Roughly half of the Hong Kong population can speak Mandarin, but only because it’s a necessity for doing business in China. Nearly all residents of Hong Kong still use Cantonese as their first language. It’s worth noting – there is a bit of contempt at the attempts of the Chinese government to push Mandarin over Cantonese.
If you’re a non-native speaker, it’s preferred that you use English over Mandarin. This advice applies to Macau as well.
Watch Your Tone
Tones, tones, tones. Both Mandarin and Cantonese are tonal languages, meaning one word can have multiple meanings depending on how it’s pronounced. Cantonese has nine tones, Mandarin has just five. Nailing the tones is what makes these languages among the most difficult to learn.
What About the Alphabets?
Both Cantonese and Mandarin share the Chinese alphabet, but even that isn’t as simple as it sounds.
China is increasingly adapting to Simplified Chinese, which uses characters that employ simpler brushstrokes and a smaller collection of symbols. However, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore continue to use Traditional Chinese, which has more complex brushstrokes and therefore a slightly different collection of symbols. This means that those who use Traditional Chinese are able to understand Simplified Chinese, but those who use Simplified Chinese have a difficult time understanding Traditional Chinese.
Do All Chinese People Speak Mandarin?
Nope. Even though many in Hong Kong are beginning to learn Mandarin as a second language, they’ll rarely speak the language. And the same goes for Macau.
Due to the hundreds of different dialects, many regions in China speak their local language natively and actually have a limited knowledge of Mandarin. This is especially true in
This is especially true in Tibet, Xinjiang, and some of the northern regions near Mongolia and Korea. The good news, however, is that although not everyone speaks Mandarin, there’s usually always someone nearby who does.