Cantonese vs. Mandarin: 5 Key Differences
Did you know that there are actually hundreds of Chinese dialects?
But when it comes to learning Chinese, most people opt for the most commonly spoken dialects—Mandarin and Cantonese.
So how does one choose between the two?
This is when the big debate begins!
Let me give you the rundown of the differences between these two beautiful dialects and answer all of your Cantonese vs. Mandarin questions.
- Chinese Language vs. Chinese Dialect
- Cantonese vs. Mandarin at a Glance
- What Are the Differences in Tones?
- What Are the Differences in Vocabulary and Grammar?
- Where Is Cantonese Spoken?
- Where Is Mandarin Spoken?
- Simplified vs. Traditional Characters
- The Romanization Systems
- And One More Thing...
Chinese Language vs. Chinese Dialect
While there has been an ongoing linguistic debate regarding the distinction between a language and a dialect, you can think of the difference between language and dialect as the following:
Language is considered an umbrella term that includes dialects or variations of the language. Dialects are generally mutually intelligible, though there are many exceptions to this rule.
In the case of Chinese, Chinese is a language, while Mandarin and Cantonese are considered dialects. The dialects are not mutually intelligible when spoken, but written Chinese can be understood by speakers of all dialects.
Therefore, the Chinese language (in a general sense) exists in written form and can be more or less understood by speakers of any Chinese dialect.
For example, if a Cantonese speaker spoke to a Mandarin speaker, they wouldn’t be able to understand each other’s spoken language. However, if the Cantonese speaker wrote down what they wanted to say, the Mandarin speaker would likely be able to understand the written form.
Cantonese vs. Mandarin at a Glance
Cantonese and Mandarin are two of the most commonly used dialects in China.
As a result, they’re the two most studied Chinese languages. Both Mandarin and Cantonese also among the best languages to learn for business because of how commonly they’re spoken in certain parts of Asia.
Knowing the difference between the two, as well as where and by whom each one is used will help you choose the one that’s best suited to your specific language goals and needs.
So, let’s look at some of the main differences between Cantonese and Mandarin:
- Colloquial spoken Cantonese differs from colloquial spoken Mandarin—Cantonese has 9 tones, while Mandarin has four (or five).
- Cantonese and Mandarin don’t have the same vocabulary and grammar. Being fluent in one dialect doesn’t mean you’ll understand the other.
- People in Mainland China, Taiwan, and Singapore speak Mandarin, while those in Hong Kong and Guangdong province speak Cantonese.
- Mandarin uses simplified Chinese characters while Cantonese uses traditional Chinese characters.
- Cantonese uses the Jyutping romanization system while Mandarin uses Pinyin.
What Are the Differences in Tones?
Chinese is infamous for being a tonal language—meaning the tone, or pitch of the word determines its meaning. Not surprisingly, tones have a tendency to scare people away from learning Chinese because they’re commonly deemed too difficult to learn.
But Cantonese and Mandarin aren’t the only Chinese dialects with a tonal system.
In fact, every Chinese dialect has a tonal system.
The difference between the two tonal systems, however, is the number of tones each dialect uses.
Mandarin consists of four major tones, but some linguists count the neutral tone as a fifth.
- First tone (flat tone)
- Second tone (rising tone)
- Third tone (dip tone)
- Fourth tone (falling tone)
- Fifth tone (neutral tone)
Cantonese, on the other hand, has six major tones and three additional high, mid and low-level tones. Together, that comes out to a whopping nine tones—four more than Mandarin!
- High (level)
- Low-mid to high (rising)
- Mid (level)
- Low-mid to low (falling)
- Low to low- mid (rising)
- Low-mid (level)
What Are the Differences in Vocabulary and Grammar?
It’s no surprise that Cantonese and Mandarin adhere to their own set of grammar rules and vocabulary.
After all, they’re two different dialects.
Cantonese and Mandarin are mutually unintelligible—meaning, the speaker of one can’t understand the other.
Keep in mind, though, that Mandarin is the official language of China, meaning even Cantonese speakers are required to learn Mandarin in school. In fact, you can even find Mandarin learning programs in Hong Kong, where Cantonese is the main dialect.
Thus, most Cantonese speakers can understand Mandarin. But not many Mandarin speakers know Cantonese.
Let’s take a look at some examples of different Cantonese and Mandarin vocabulary words.
Cantonese Vocabulary Examples
你好 (néih hóu) — Hello
好耐冇见 (hóunoih móuhgin) — Long time no see
你叫做乜野名呀？ (néih giu jouh mātyéh méng a?) — What’s your name?
你係邊度人呀？ (néih haih bīndouh yàhn a?) — Where are you from?
Mandarin Vocabulary Examples
你好 (nǐ hǎo) — Hello
好久不见 (hǎo jiǔ bú jiàn) — Long time no see
你叫什么名字？ (nǐ jiào shénme míng zi?) — What’s your name？
你是哪国人？ (nǐ shì nǎ guó rén?) — Where are you from?
If you want to learn a few more expressions and differences between Cantonese and Mandarin, check out this fun video from Off the Great Wall!
Where Is Cantonese Spoken?
Cantonese is spoken in Hong Kong, Macau and Guangdong.
Unlike Mandarin, Cantonese isn’t spoken or understood throughout all of China.
But that doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s spoken by 73.4 million people.
Plus, it’s used in some of China’s most populated and tourist-attractive regions.
According to WorldAtlas, Cantonese is most commonly spoken in Hong Kong and the Guangdong Province, where it’s recognized as the lingua franca—the common language, but not necessarily the native language. It’s also spoken in Malaysia and Macau.
Like with Mandarin, there’s plenty of Cantonese media out there ready for enthusiastic learners to consume. The internet is full of Cantonese music, TV shows and other kinds of captivating content.
Just check out this fun video on YouTube where a Chinese boyfriend speaks only Cantonese to his girlfriend for 24 hours!
As with learning any language, learning Cantonese will allow you to connect on a deeper level with native Cantonese speakers.
Where Is Mandarin Spoken?
It’s no surprise that most Chinese learners choose to study Mandarin. It’s what most people automatically think of when they hear or say “Chinese.”
It’s also the most commonly spoken dialect in China, as well as the official language of Singapore and Taiwan.
While there are a few regional varieties of Mandarin, all of them are understandable to any Mandarin speaker.
Since Mandarin is the official language of three countries, it’s also the language used in most Chinese movies, TV programs and music.
Whether you’re studying Mandarin long-term or doing intensive immersion, you’ll need a lot of exposure and listening comprehension practice to identify different Mandarin varieties from one another, as well as to understand them.
One resource for this would be the FluentU program.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Simplified vs. Traditional Characters
There are two different Chinese writing systems: simplified and traditional Chinese.
I won’t go too deep into the history of each, but basically, traditional Chinese was the most commonly used writing system for centuries until the 1950s and 60s.
In 1949, the Chinese government declared simplified Chinese to be the new common writing system in order to reform the nation.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of people (or places) still using traditional characters today.
Cantonese speakers primarily use traditional characters. In fact, it’s the most commonly used writing system in Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan.
Mandarin, on the other hand, uses simplified characters.
But similar to many Chinese dialects, traditional and simplified characters are recognizable and fairly easy to read regardless of which system a person uses the most.
For example, native Mandarin speakers in China can read most traditional characters and vice versa.
Examples of Simplified Characters
我爱你 (wǒ ài nǐ) — I love you
我喜欢学中文 (wǒ xǐ huān xué zhōng wén) — I like studying Chinese
我是美国人 (wǒ shì měi guó rén) — I am American
Examples of Traditional Characters
我愛你 (wǒ ài nǐ) — I love you
我喜歡學中文 (wǒ xǐ huān xué zhōng wén) — I like studying Chinese
我是美國人 (wǒ shì měi guó rén) — I am American
The Romanization Systems
If you’re learning Mandarin, pinyin is a lifesaver.
It’s the romanization system for Mandarin words and tones that tell learners how to pronounce them.
However, it wasn’t created for that purpose.
In the 1950s, pinyin was invented to help improve literacy rates in China.
Examples of Pinyin
As we previously established, pinyin is the spelling of Chinese words with English letters.
If you haven’t already noticed, pinyin is the English spelling we put in parentheses and italics in our FluentU Chinese blogs.
我喜歡學中文 (wǒ xǐ huān xué zhōng wén) — I like studying Chinese
Did you spot the pinyin?
wǒ xǐ huān xué zhōng wén is the perfect example of what pinyin looks like.
Did you know, though, that Cantonese also has its own romanization system? It’s called Jyutping.
Just like pinyin, Jyutping uses the Latin alphabet to spell out Cantonese words and uses marks and numbers to symbolize tones.
There are three types of Jyutping: Yale, Sidney Lau and LSHK Jyutping.
- Yale Jyutping uses diacritics to mark tones (like pinyin) and is the most commonly used type.
- Sidney Lau Jyutping uses numbers to mark tones (eg. neih2 hou2) and used to be the most common type. It’s not as popular nowadays but it’s still used by many older textbooks.
- LSHK Jyutping is very similar to Sidney Lau as it uses numbers to mark the tones. However, it also includes a few refinements to certain pronunciations. It’s the newest type of jyutping and is being promoted and recommended by the Linguistic Society of Hong Kong.
Examples of Jyutping
Let’s take a look at the two most commonly used Jyutping systems in Cantonese:
你叫做乜野名呀？ (néih giu jouh mātyéh méng a?) — What’s your name?
Sidney Lau Jyutping:
你叫做乜野名呀？ (neih2 giu jouh ma1tyeh2 meng2 a?) — What’s your name?
Once again, you can spot the Jyutping by noticing the difference in tone marks and by the italics.
Now that you know the primary differences, you probably have a better idea of which Chinese dialect you’d like to learn.
But to be sure, it’s important to consider where you’re planning on using your newly acquired language skills and with whom you want to communicate.
So, what will it be now—Cantonese or Mandarin?
And One More Thing...
If you want to continue learning Chinese with interactive and authentic Chinese content, then you'll love FluentU.
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FluentU has a wide range of contemporary videos—like dramas, TV shows, commercials and music videos.
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FluentU's Learn Mode turns every video into a language learning lesson. You can always swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you're learning.
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