Chinese is spoken by roughly 1.2 billion native speakers, making it one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. "Chinese" actually refers to a family of languages, of which the most widely spoken are "Mandarin" and "Cantonese". Which Chinese language is most useful for you to learn? Keep reading to discover the major differences between these two Chinese dialects so you can choose which one to learn.
Mandarin and Cantonese are not mutually intelligible, meaning someone who only speaks Mandarin will generally not be able to understand Cantonese and vice versa. This is the reason why Mandarin and Cantonese are said to be two different languages rather than different dialects.
While they are both tonal languages, meaning that one word has many meanings depending on the pronunciation and intonation, Mandarin has only four tones per sound, while Cantonese has at least six (and can have up to nine).
The characters used for Mandarin and Cantonese share the same roots in ancient China, however, while Mandarin uses simplified characters, Cantonese uses traditional characters. Those able to read traditional characters are able to figure out simplified characters, but those familiar with the simplified writing system will have a hard time understanding traditional characters.
For example, the word ‘dragon’ written in Mandarin using simplified characters looks like this: 龙, while using traditional characters in Cantonese looks like this: 龍. To further highlight the striking difference between the two languages, the Mandarin version above uses five strokes, while the Cantonese version has 16 strokes! To learn more about writing Chinese characters and learning Chinese online, have a read of our article.
The grammar is almost identical in the two languages, however, Mandarin often changes the sentence structure based on emotional meaning and the subject of the sentence. Cantonese, on the other hand, follows a more logical pattern. One thing that can get tricky in Cantonese is that more idiomatic expressions are used which requires a more advanced level of linguistic expertise.
In terms of vocabulary, Cantonese and Mandarin differ quite significantly. For example, the Cantonese word for “hello” is 你好 (néih hóu), while in Mandarin it’s 你好 (nǐ hǎo). Another example is “where are you from?.” In Cantonese, it’s 你係邊度人呀？(néih haih bīndouh yàhn a?), while in Mandarin it’s 你是哪国人？(nǐ shì nǎ guó rén?).
Mandarin has spread across almost all of China, as the “standardized” form of Chinese, and is spoken widely in Singapore and Taiwan. Cantonese, however, is spoken largely in Hong Kong, as well as in Macau and the Guangdong province, including the important industrial city Guangzhou.
Mandarin is the lingua franca and the sole official language of China, so if you plan on doing business in China or traveling around the country, Mandarin is the language to learn. If you’re wanting to communicate with the largest group of Chinese speakers, there are many more speakers of Mandarin than there are of Cantonese; 933 million Mandarin speakers compared to 63 million Cantonese.
With many Cantonese speakers having Mandarin as a second language, you are also even able to communicate with native Cantonese speakers to a certain extent. The same cannot be said about Cantonese though.
Well not quite…
You might consider learning Cantonese if you intend on settling in Hong Kong, Macau, or Guangzhou for example. If your goal is to learn the history of Chinese and connect with the roots of the language itself, then Cantonese would also be the best option.
Since the two Chinese languages use the same written characters, it’s not unreasonable to attempt to learn both Mandarin and Cantonese, as long as you gain a strong grasp of the Chinese characters first. We would recommend you to start learning Mandarin first since it's said to be easier to learn and then build up to Cantonese.
Tandem Language Exchange connects language learners with native Mandarin and Cantonese speakers all over the world through our web and mobile app. With millions of members, you will have a pretty easy time finding a language exchange partner who matches your interests and language learning goals.
Through two-way, open, and direct communication with your language partner, you are given a unique insight into the Chinese cultural identity. Use our in-app translation feature to help compose a message or translate an incoming one. Correct your Tandem partner's message or add a comment to help them learn and progress. Still not sure about Chinese pronunciation? Simply tap on the message you want to hear and choose the “speak” option and use the transliteration feature to convert Chinese characters into Pinyin.
Your learning preferences are covered on Tandem with options to practice your Cantonese, Mandarin (simplified and traditional), or Chinese sign language via text, voice notes, and video calling. Download the Tandem app or head to our web app and master the Chinese language now!