Difference Between Mandarin and Cantonese: Are They Both “Chinese”?

HSK 3 quiz

When talking about language, people often instantly assume that when you say “Chinese” you mean “Mandarin.” This is because “Mandarin Chinese” is the standard language of China, the world’s #1 spoken language (in terms of native speakers), and the most common language to learn right now for foreign learners of Chinese. However, “Chinese” doesn’t necessarily only mean “Mandarin.” The word “Chinese” collects all 200+ spoken languages in China and in Chinese communities abroad. Saying “Chinese” is a bit like saying “animals”, with all the 200+ dialects being the different species of animals, a more specific answer.
After Mandarin Chinese, the most useful and commonly-spoken dialect of Chinese is Cantonese, spoken in southern China’s Guangdong Province(referred to as Canton in the old days), Hong Kong, Macau and in many Chinatowns throughout the world. Cantonese is a completely different spoken language than Mandarin, and uses nine tones instead of just four, as Mandarin does! Although the past few decades has seen a huge rise in Mandarin Chinese learners, decades ago, due to film and Chinese abroad, Cantonese used to be the more popular language internationally a generation ago.
普通话 (Pǔtōnghuà) = Mandarin

粤语 (Yuèyǔ) = Cantonese


Wǒ néng jiǎng biāozhǔn de pǔtōnghuà hé yuèyǔ.
我     能     讲     标   准    的 普  通   话   和  粤 语。
I can speak standard Mandarin and Cantonese.

Tā suīrán shì guǎngdōng rén, què kěyǐ shuō liúlì de pǔtōnghuà.
他  虽然   是     广    东    人, 却  可以  说   流利的  普 通   话。
Although he is Cantonese, he can speak fluent Mandarin.

So, anyway, what are the main differences between Mandarin and Cantonese? Here are four main differences:
1. 地区 (Dìqū) Region

Mandarin is now the official language of mainland China, even in regions where families may speak a local dialect such as Shanghainese at home. Mandarin Chinese is the official language of education, business and government. Cantonese is mainly used by people in southern China’s Guangdong province, Hong Kong, Macao and some overseas Chinese communities.

2. 口头形式 (Kǒutóu xíngshì) Spoken form

Because they have different pronunciation, grammar and lexicon, the two languages sound totally different. Mandarin has only four tones per sound, while Cantonese has six to nine tones, depending on how specifically the tones are being counted.
There are six different tones in Cantonese, or even nine if you count the historical nasal tones. You must rise, maintain or lower the relative pitch of your voice to “sing” each word. For example, in English we naturally use a falling tone at the end of a statement (You came.) and a rising tone at the end of a question (You came?). To be understood in Cantonese, it is essential that you master the six tones. If you use the wrong tone, you are probably saying a completely different word and the speaker will have to make an educated guess as to what you are trying to say. Cantonese also has different vowels and consonants from Mandarin Chinese.

3. 书面形式 (Shūmiàn xíngshì) Written form

Simplified written characters are more associated with Mandarin Chinese, while traditional character writing remains for classical purposes in Cantonese-speaking regions and abroad. The simplified characters that are today more associated with Mandarin Chinese are based on the traditional characters still used in Cantonese-speaking regions.

4. 发音 (Fāyīn) Pronunciation

Below is a chart with key and commonly-used phrases in both Mandarin and Cantonese dialects.

HSK 3 quiz
Q 1: I am interested in learning “Chinese”! Which language should I learn, Mandarin or Cantonese?

It depends on what you are planning to do with your language after you’ve learned it! If you plan to do business in China or with a Chinese-speaking company, then Mandarin is definitely the way to go. If not, you plan to settle in Hong Kong or Macau, then it would be worth it to learn Cantonese. Many foreigners living in Cantonese-speaking regions are learning Mandarin Chinese, but also learn some phrases on Cantonese to charm the locals in the southern regions. Since Mandarin is also understood by most people in Cantonese-speaking regions, it is applicable in all regions.

Q 2: Which is more difficult to learn, Mandarin or Cantonese?

You do not have to worry about the form of verbs changing in Chinese. There are no verb changes, no plurals, no tenses, no subject-verb agreement, and no conjugations in Mandarin. There are over 80,000 Chinese characters but generally only 3,500 are used in conversation or to read a newspaper. In fact, it could be regarded as a more logical language. Cantonese is by far the more challenging of the two languages, particularly for a beginning-level Chinese language learner. This is because there are more tones used in Cantonese.

Q 3: What is the future trend for the two languages?

As for being the official language of the whole country, Mandarin is the language for education, so almost everyone can speak it. In southern regions, Cantonese is also very common, especially in local shops, restaurants, markets, etc. Guangdong is one of the few Han ethnic groups that have their own television and radio stations operating in their local dialects, therefore it has a strong cultural identity with Cantonese. Some people in these southern regions may look down on those who cannot speak Cantonese, typically those from other provinces in the country, but foreigners are usually forgiven and any attempt to throw in some Cantonese phrases is much appreciated! However, you can speak Mandarin Chinese in daily life and also be understood, especially with young people. Since Mandarin Chinese is applicable to every part of China, even in the south, the overwhelming trend in Asia and abroad is to learn Mandarin Chinese for your future benefit.
So, the next time one of your friends asks “What’s the difference between “Chinese” and “Mandarin”?, you have an answer (even a very complicated answer).

HSK 3 quiz

1. Friends in Hong Kong usually say “do ze” to express their politeness. Do you know what this Cantonese word means in Mandarin Chinese?

A. 你好 (Nǐhǎo)

B. 谢谢 (Xièxie)

C. 再见 (Zàijiàn)

D. 多少钱 (Duōshǎo qián)

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―Written by Becky Zhang―

Becky Zhang is a teacher at eChineseLearning.com. She has over eight years of experience teaching Mandarin Chinese to foreign students and promoting Chinese culture. She lives in Beijing but loves traveling to ancient Chinese villages. One day she’d like to be a tour guide in China!

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