Understanding the key differences between Cantonese and Mandarin really is pretty straightforward, but it requires some knowledge of China’s linguistic framework.
A common misconception is that Cantonese and Mandarin are exclusive languages, which is not the case. Mandarin is the official state language of China, whilst Cantonese is one of many lesser spoken dialects.
Today, we’ll provide clarity on the key differences and similarities between both, taking you through the following:
Where Cantonese and Mandarin are spoken
The Characters and written forms of both languages
Tones and spoken examples of Cantonese and Mandarin
One thing before we get started: If you’re serious about learning to speak Chinese then be sure to check out our list of Chinese Language Resources. We have tested and rated dozens of online Chinese courses and language apps. Tap this link to find out more.
Where is Cantonese Spoken?
In short, Cantonese is the local dialect of China’s southeast region, almost entirely on the coast. This region comprises Guangdong Province (capital Guangzhou, previously known as Canton, from which the term “Cantonese” derives) as well as in southern Guangxi Province further west.
Cantonese is also the main language of Hong Kong and Macau, both of which you will see on the map above. Within these areas, public discourse takes place almost exclusively in Cantonese. This makes it the only variety of Chinese, other than Mandarin, to be used as an official language in the world.
How many people speak Cantonese?
In China, there are an estimated 63 million Cantonese speakers. Whilst this may sound like a large number, 63 million is only 5% of China’s total population. Today, there are also more than 10 million speakers of Mandarin living overseas, equating to approximately 73 million speakers worldwide.
Where is Mandarin Spoken?
Mandarin is the official state language of China. It is the most commonly spoken language in the country, spoken by 67% of China’s population, predominantly in the north and centre of the country.
Habitants of the largest and most populated cities speak Mandarin, including Beijing and Shanghai. It is also the most widely spoken language in Taiwan and Singapore.
How many people speak Mandarin?
By contrast to the 63 million people that speak Cantonese in China, Mandarin is the first language of almost 70% of China’s population, which equates to more than 930 million people.
In recent years, the number of native Chinese people living abroad has increased significantly. In fact, it is estimated that there are now more than 40 million speakers of Mandarin living overseas in countries including the U.S, Australia, the United Kingdom, Korea and Japan.
Chinese Characters: Cantonese vs Mandarin
You may have heard Mandarin referred to as Simplified Chinese. This is due to the fact that Mandarin characters are simplified versions of their Cantonese counterparts, known as Traditional Chinese.
Whilst both Cantonese and Mandarin characters derive from the same origin, Ancient China, there is a clear difference between the two, particularly in terms of complexity.
Those who are able to read traditional characters are able to understand simplified characters quite easily. However, anybody who reads simplified Chinese characters first and foremost will struggle to understand Cantonese characters.
Simplified Chinese Characters
Simplified Chinese characters were created and enforced by the Chinese government in the 1950s. This helped the population (particularly children) learn the language more easily and increased literacy rates amongst the Chinese population.
As established, Cantonese still uses traditional characters. These are much more complex than Mandarin characters, requiring more strokes and taking slightly longer to write. This makes traditional Chinese characters harder to differentiate between one another than simplified characters.
The example below demonstrates the difference in complexity between Cantonese vs Mandarin characters.
⭐ The symbol for dragon in Mandarin is written in this simplified character: 龙.
⭐ The symbol for dragon in Cantonese is written in this traditional character: 龍.
The simplified version of the word ‘dragon’ requires five strokes in total. By contrast, the traditional Cantonese character requires a staggering 16 strokes.
Below is another example, the character for the Chinese province of Guangzhou, where Cantonese is the main language. The characters for both Cantonese and Mandarin are as follows:
⭐ In Mandarin, the simplified character is 广州.
⭐ In Cantonese, the traditional character is 廣州.
You’ll notice several similarities between the two symbols, particularly in terms of structure. However, many of the strokes are removed from the simplified Chinese version.
Both examples illustrate why Mandarin readers cannot usually understand Cantonese characters unless they are bilingual in both languages.
Cantonese vs Mandarin: The Spoken Languages
Contrary to popular belief, Cantonese and Mandarin do not sound particularly alike and are certainly not mutually intelligible. Generally speaking, Mandarin speakers are unable to understand Cantonese.
Whilst the same character syllables are used for similar words in Cantonese and Mandarin, the pronunciation of the symbols tends to vary greatly. For this reason, they are often considered different languages.
An example of how radically different the pronunciation of spoken words can be is as follows:
⭐ ‘Hello’ in Mandarin is nǐ hǎo, which is pronounced ‘nee-haow’.
⭐ ‘Hello’ in Cantonese is néih-hóu, which is pronounced ‘nay-hoh’.
The example above demonstrates the difference but a speaker of one language would likely be able to understand the other, given the right context.
However, the example below illustrates a much more marked difference in pronunciation.
⭐ In Mandarin, you can ask someone if they have eaten yet by asking: Chīfànle ma?
⭐ Alternatively, you would ask the same question in Cantonese by saying: Lei sik dzo fan mei a?
As you can see from these examples, Cantonese and Mandarin are by no means mutually intelligible, neither in written nor spoken format.
There are five tones with which to familiarize yourself when learning the language of Mandarin. Cantonese, on the other hand, comprises nine tones.
In both languages, tones are incredibly important when it comes to conveying meaning. Think of them as tenses in English or any other European language.
Using the wrong tone can change the meaning of a sentence entirely. This is true in many Asian languages; learners will need to learn all of the tones in order to develop any real sense of fluency.
Hong Kong Cantonese differs quite radically to many other regions. This is due to the fact that three of the nine tones have been merged. So, you only need to learn six tones, instead of the nine required elsewhere.
This makes Hong Hong Cantonese on a par with Mandarin in terms of difficulty.
Hong Kong Cantonese tones are described as follows:
✅ Dark Flat
✅ Light Flat
✅ Dark Rising
✅ Light Rising
✅ Dark Departing
✅ Light Departing
Cantonese vs Mandarin – Expressions and Idioms
Both Cantonese and Mandarin use expressions and idioms. However, once again, they are not mutually intelligible and often dependent on region.
If a Cantonese speaker were to read an excerpt of simplified Mandarin writing, they might not be able to understand certain elements of the message conveyed by the author. Particularly, if a colloquial or idiomatic expression is used.
Many people wrongly assume that Mandarin and Cantonese speakers can understand each other. In reality, their ability to understand is minimal.
1. 九牛一毛 (jiǔ niú yì máo)
⭐ Meaning: nine cows and one strand of cow hair
This Mandarin idiom is used to express something that is so small. The visual illustration is fairly self-explanatory. You’re unlikely to notice a strand of hair on nine large cows!
2. 不经一事，不长一智 (bù jīng yī shì, bù zhǎng yī zhì
⭐ Meaning: Wisdom comes from experience
The message here is similar to several well known Chinese proverbs. It is not dissimilar to the existing English expression either.
3. 理所当然 (lǐ suǒ dāng rán)
⭐ Meaning: That goes without saying
The English version of this, ‘obviously!’, is shorter and sweeter. However, this short expression should not be difficult to memorize.
Summarizing Cantonese vs Mandarin
We hope this Cantonese vs Mandarin comparison post has provided you with a comprehensive understanding of the key differences between both languages.
Without doubt, Mandarin is easier to learn both in terms of reading and speaking. This is because the characters are simplified and there are fewer tones to learn. However, that is not to say that Mandarin is a simple language to learn.
There are plenty of differences between these two languages, including the spoken language and the expressions and idioms. While there are 5 tones in Mandarin, there are 6 to 9 in Cantonese.
There are plenty of online Chinese courses which will help you to learn to speak Cantonese or Mandarin. Some are much better than others. To prevent wasting time and money, consider reviewing the three options that we have listed below.
Learn Mandarin or Cantonese Online
Italki is an online tutor marketplace that enables you to filter through tutors based on price, experience, location and student reviews. This will allow you to learn Mandarin or Cantonese quickly and effectively, as long as you have at least a basic understanding of either language already.
Sessions on italki are tailored to your schedule, so you can fit it between your day-to-day tasks. You can also tailor your sessions to what you want to learn about, such as specific categories or cultural topics. That way, you aren’t paying to learn something that you’re not going to use.
Yoyo Chinese is one of the most established and popular websites for online Chinese Mandarin courses. Yanyang is a former university professor who has helped thousands of students achieve conversational Chinese within a six month timeframe. Her course videos have been viewed millions of times.
The Yoyo Chinese USP is that its lessons explain Chinese in a way that makes sense to English speakers. The courses contain both videos to follow and quizzes to ensure that you remember what you’ve learned.
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In addition to this, there are clips on FluentU covering just about any topic you can think of. Topics range from business and politics, to popular culture, folktales, songs and even children’s stories. With over 2000 videos in Mandarin, there’s plenty of choice!