Differences Between Mandarin and Cantonese

Where Cantonese & Mandarin Are Spoken國語(国语) = National Language or Mandarin vs 粵語(语) = Cantonese

Mandarin (國語 or 普通話) is the official language in Mainland China and Taiwan and is used by most of the Chinese schools, colleges and unversities and in most of the TV programs, movies, and radio stations all over the country (even in Guangzhou or Canton where people speak Cantonese in their daily life.) Mandarin is one of the five official languages in the United Nations.

Even Hong Kong schools are switching to Mandarin education from its Cantonese education after or even a little before 1997 (when UK ended its colony status there.) RTHK has added a Mandarin radio station and lots of Mandarin TV programs.You can even get different languages spoken for the same programs in the same channel with a special device built in their TV sets.

Cantonese (粵語 or 廣東話) is mainly spoken in Guangdong (where Guangzhou/Canton is the capital) and Guangxi provinces and most of the overseas Chinese communities in Australia, Europe, North America and other parts of the world. But the number of Mandarin-speaking overseas Chinese people is increasing rapidly in recent years as more Taiwanese and people from Northern China immigrated and have been playing a more active role in the world economy and culture exchange. Cantonese is the most extensively spoken Chinese dialect after Mandarin because of the strong influence of Hong Kong’s economy and culture( pop songs, TV programs and movies) and also because more Cantonese people went abroad in the early years.

Interesting enough, BBS of the UK and Voice of America in the US use both Mandarin and Cantonese in their programs oriented to the Chinese listeners (no other Chinese dialect is used). The same is true in California. One broadcasting TV channel has Mandarin programs and another has Cantonese ones in Bay Areas in North California. And similar situation is found with the radio stations there.

The Differences in the Languages Themselves

People who can understand only either Mandarin or Cantonese can communicate with each other by writing because they use the same written characters with a few exceptions. The Chinese words were united by Emporer Qin Shihuang around 221B.C. (more than 2220 years ago) in China. But the colloquial Cantonese written down in words is sometimes hard to understand for Mandarin speaking people because Cantonese use lots of different expressions in their daily oral Cantonese. This is why Taiwanese and other Mandarin speaking people prefer World Journal to Singtao. Both newpapers are the most popular daily Chinese newspapers in the United States and Canada while Singtao has more Cantonese readers and World Journal more Mandarin speaking readers.

The pronunciation of the two are totally different. Hong Kong people humorously call it “the chicken talking to the duck” — they cannot understand each other. Mandarin has four tones and Cantonese has more than six. The two are both tonal languages (different tones has different meanings for the same sound) and they also have different vowels and consonants too.

Which Is More Difficult?

For beginners, Cantonese can be more difficult because there are 6 (up to 9) tones in Cantonese while only 4 in Mandarin. Also more learning materials (radio programs, mp3, podcasts) are available in Mandarin and you may see more Mandarin speaking people than Cantonese, even in Canton(Guangzhou or Hong Kong).

Which Should You Learn?

If you have a choice, learn Mandarin. Because if you know Mandarin, you can even be understood even in Hong Kong, Macau and Canton(which is called Guangzhou now. (Guangzhou is the Mandarin spelling instead of a Cantonese one). If you need to learn TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine), Mandarin is recommended because the names of the acupoints and herbs are from Pinyin. But if you need to talk to a Cantonese who doesn’t know Mandarin at all, do you have any choice?

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