Mandarin vs Cantonese: Which One Should I learn?
Nowadays, it’s very common to hear people say “We should all be learning Chinese!” But what if we told you Chinese is not a language, but a big (big!) group of dialects? What if I told you there are enough differences between the Mandarin and Cantonese dialects to write a ‘Mandarin vs. Cantonese’ article?
To help you understand what we mean by “dialects”, think about the different variations of English: American, Irish, Australian, Canadian… They are all the same language, right? They have the same roots, most of their words overlap; they are completely intelligible to one another. Yet, as soon as an Irish person starts speaking in English, you can immediately tell where they are from!
What is special about China is that you don’t have to go to a different country to find linguistic variations. With almost 1500 million inhabitants as of February 2022, China is home to a myriad of diverse ethnic and cultural groups. But since many of these groups are geographically and culturally isolated from one another, many of their dialects have evolved independently. So independently, unlike English varieties, not all of them are mutually intelligible.
In this article, we will present an overview of the two most important Chinese dialects, and we will tell you which one you should learn in 2022 to access wider career opportunities in the global market.
How Many Chinese Dialects Are There?
Do you really want a definite answer? Suffice it to say that, between widely spoken dialects like Mandarin and Cantonese, and minority regional varieties, there are hundreds. And we are only talking about recognized, registered varieties! Can you imagine how many unrecognized Chinese varieties lie hidden in every corner of the Chinese hinterlands, waiting to be discovered among mountain ranges and mighty rivers?
Okay, back to reality.
Having made it abundantly clear that there are countless Chinese dialects, we have decided to focus on the most useful varieties you can learn for business purposes: Mandarin and Cantonese.
If someone tells you they’re learning Chinese, what they probably mean is that they are learning Mandarin. Spoken by more than a billion speakers, Mandarin is the official language of Mainland China and Taiwan, and it is also spoken by at least 40 million people living in Chinese communities overseas.
As you can imagine, Mandarin is also the language of the media: the vast majority of the series, news programs, and movies you will find on television are spoken in this dialect. Luckily for language learners, this means that it’s very easy for to get exposure to Mandarin Chinese.
Cantonese, the second most spoken dialect of China, can be heard in the Canton region of southern China. Also known as the Yue dialect, Cantonese is the official language of Macau and Hong Kong.
Since Hong Kong has a thriving film industry, it is easy to find examples of Cantonese in the media. If you’ve ever seen a film by Stephen Chow, a Chinese director from Hong Kong of international fame, then you’ve heard Cantonese.
Chinese may be positively full of dialects and subdialects, but these at least share the same writing system! Sure, speakers of different varieties have different ways of reading Chinese characters, but the characters are the same.
Something you should bear in mind about the Chinese “alphabet” is that it comes in two forms: simplified Chinese and traditional Chinese. While the traditional system is typically more complex and features more strokes, simplified characters are, as the name indicates, simpler and have fewer brush strokes.
As you can imagine, simplified characters make things easier not only for foreign learners but also for native Chinese speakers. In fact, this is why simplified Chinese was invented in the first place: to provide users with an easier and more standardized writing system.
Mandarin vs Cantonese: Main Differences Between the Main Chinese Dialects
Though the unfamiliar Chinese tones present in Mandarin and Cantonese may sound similar to untrained ears, a person who speaks Cantonese generally won’t be able to understand Mandarin and vice-versa.
If you are used to hearing different Chinese dialects, the main difference that you will notice between these two is the extreme tone shifts of Cantonese. While they are both tonal dialects—which means that the sense of a single word can change several times depending on intonation—Cantonese is much more…, well, tonal! While Mandarin has only four possible pitch patterns per sound, Cantonese has main six tones and can have up to nine in some subdialects.
The Characters of Mandarin vs. Cantonese
Just like we can find the roots of modern-day English in Anglo-Saxon and Latin, the symbols used for Mandarin and Cantonese have evolved from ancient Chinese. However, while Mandarin has a marked preference for simplified characters, Cantonese relies much more on traditional symbols.
Take the word ‘dragon’. In Mandarin, it seems quite easy to write even for inexpert hand: 龙. However, in Cantonese, the same word is “spelt” 龍. In other words, if you’re looking for a Chinese dialect whose writing system won’t give you a headache or make you throw things across the room, Mandarin seems to be the winner.
Imagine changing the grammar of your sentences to convey emotional meaning. Well, that is exactly what Mandarin does: it changes the order of the elements in a phrase based on the mood of the grammatical subject.
Cantonese may use 9 tones and ornate characters full of strokes, but when it comes to sentence structure, it is much more logical. It follows a Subject + Verb + Object pattern just like in English, no matter who anyone is feeling!.
Being two independent dialects, one would expect Mandarin vs. Cantonese to present no significant similarities in terms of vocabulary. However, linguists agree that the lexical overlap between Mandarin and spoken Cantonese is near 50%. In other words, almost half of the words in both dialects are similar, including a lot of common, everyday vocabulary:
Mandarin: 你好 (nǐ hǎo)
Cantonese: 你好 (néih hóu)
Where are you from?
Mandarin: 你是哪国人？(nǐ shì nǎ guó rén?).
Cantomese 你係邊度人呀？(néih haih bīndouh yàhn a?)
If you want to learn Mandarin or Cantonese vocabulary, however, we suggest you go beyond everyday phrases and start learning with inspiring Chinese proverbs and sayings.
So Which Chinese Dialect Should I Learn?
Though China has hundreds of dialects, it is undeniable that Mandarin is the closest thing to a lingua franca and the sole official language in this country. For this reason, if you’re looking for a language that will allow you to communicate with the biggest group of Chinese speakers, it’s an easy choice. No matter how we put it, the number of Cantonese speakers —63 million as of today— pales in comparison with the 933 million people who speak Mandarin online in China.
Plus, as most Cantonese users speak Mandarin as a second language, you should be able to communicate with most Cantonese speakers even if you don’t speak their main language.
“So, is Cantonese totally useless?”
Not at all. There are certain territories in which Cantonese will come extremely handy, including Hong Kong, Macau, and Guangzhou. Also, if the reason why you want to learn a Chinese language is to connect with the history of China and the roots of all these dialects, you will find that Cantonese is a much better choice than Mandarin. As you can see, this Mandarin vs. Cantonese dilemma does not have a single answer.
Does it sound like a plan, then? Mandarin and Cantonese instead of Mandarin vs. Cantonese?
Then let’s get started! Contact us now and we’ll pair you up with a Mandarin (and/or Cantonese) teacher for a trial lesson. Whether you’re looking for in-person Mandarin courses in Toronto or Cantonese courses in Montreal, you’ve got you covered. All you have to do is tell us what your learning objectives are, and we will come up with a personalized course based on your interests, goals, and current level. Oh, by the way, the trial lesson is completely free, with no string attached. What are you waiting for? Send us a quick message now!
This article was updated on June 28, 2023