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.
- Cantonese vs. Mandarin and Which One You Should Learn
- The Number of Tones
- Vocabulary, Grammar and Punctuation
- Where Each Dialect Is Spoken
- The Use of Simplified and Traditional Characters
- The Romanization Systems: Pinyin vs. Jyutping
Cantonese vs. Mandarin and Which One You Should Learn
Cantonese and Mandarin are two of the most commonly used dialects in China.
As a result, they’re the two most studied Chinese languages.
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.
The Number of 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 languages 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.
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.
Vocabulary, Grammar and Punctuation
It’s no surprise that Cantonese and Mandarin adhere to their own set of grammar rules and vocabulary.
After all, they’re two different languages.
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 it in school.
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 bù 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 Each Dialect Is 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.
Mandarin Is the Official Language of China
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. It’s also 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.
As a learner, all it takes is a bit of exposure, listening comprehension practice and ear-adjusting to be able to identify different Mandarin accents and dialects from one another, as well as to understand them.
Since Mandarin is the official language of three countries, it’s also the language used in most Chinese movies, TV programs and music.
The Use of Simplified and 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 Communist Party 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
Since there are several different factors to consider when choosing between the character sets, many Chinese language learning apps give you the option to learn either one.
With FluentU, for example, you can toggle between traditional and simplified by changing the question types under settings.
Although FluentU only focuses on Mandarin, the app does have a diverse library of authentic Chinese media clips, complete with interactive subtitles that include traditional/simplified characters, Pinyin and English translations. If you struggle with any particular characters in the subtitles, you can click on them to add them to a customized vocab list or flashcard set so you can review them before you take the app’s adaptive quizzes.
The Romanization Systems: Pinyin vs. Jyutping
As a Mandarin Chinese learner, 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.
But did you know 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 (foe example: 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 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.
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 who you want to communicate.
So, what will it be now—Cantonese or Mandarin?
Brooke Bagley is a freelance writer and a passionate language learner. She’s learned Mandarin Chinese for seven years, Spanish for three and Indonesian for one. Aside from languages, Brooke runs her freelance writing business, Writing & Thriving and specializes in B2B copywriting, content marketing and holistic health and wellness.