The difference between Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese

Learn languages September 10, 2019

In the western world, we often speak about learning Chinese, or people who speak Chinese, but really, the term ‘Chinese’ refers to a group of language varieties, which most of the time aren’t even mutually intelligible! Studies on Chinese language groups have suggested that there might even be hundreds of different dialects, where a speaker of one won’t be able to understand the other whatsoever! From Mandarin to Min, and Wu to Hakka, there are various dialect groups to choose from if you’re interested in studying Chinese.

Two of the most commonly spoken, and the most internationally renowned versions of Chinese are Mandarin and Cantonese: but how do you know the difference? Students frequently ask what separates the two, so we thought it’d be useful to break down the difference between Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese, and how you can tell these two languages apart.

Where are Mandarin and Cantonese spoken?

Mandarin is the most commonly spoken variety of Chinese, with an estimated 900 million speakers across the Chinese diaspora (though Mandarin is largely spoken in Mainland China). While Cantonese pales in comparison when we consider the number of speakers (an estimated 70 million), it is likely the second most-spoken Chinese spoken outside of China. Cantonese is the official language of Hong Kong and Macau, and is spoken by a large number of speakers in Guangdong province, China.

Depending on where you go in the world, you’ll come across larger numbers of overseas Chinese speaking Mandarin or Cantonese. In the UK, for example, Cantonese is more commonly spoken than Mandarin due to larger waves of immigration from Hong Kong.

What is the main difference between Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese?

While both Mandarin and Cantonese are tonal, when it comes to the spoken word, Cantonese sounds completely different to Mandarin. The number of tones in both Cantonese and Mandarin significantly marks the two, with Mandarin speakers using four different tones, and Cantonese speakers generally using six.

Can Mandarin Chinese understand Cantonese?

Mandarin speakers and Cantonese speakers cannot understand each other when they speak. Even though Cantonese and Mandarin are often referred to as dialects of Chinese, there is substantial argument to classify them as different languages, considering neither speaker would be able to understand the other language in conversation.

Are Cantonese and Mandarin written the same?

This is where Cantonese and Mandarin have some similarity, since technically, they share common characters, those being traditional standard Chinese characters. While they may pronounce these characters differently, the meaning of the character used is still the same. Standard Chinese, when formalised, was largely based on Mandarin Chinese, meaning Mandarin speakers can write as they speak, but Cantonese speakers pronounce the same character differently – you then can’t accurately ‘transcribe’ spoken Cantonese into the written word as it will have a completely different meaning altogether.

Cantonese has its own written form, often used in magazines and comics, and of course, when people chat to each other through texts! A Mandarin speaker wouldn’t be able to read this written form of Cantonese and make sense of it, though.

On top of this, with the development of simplified Chinese, most Mandarin speakers now use the simplified characters instead of the traditional ones which Cantonese still employs. Mandarin speakers in Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia still keep to traditional Chinese characters, though, making wrapping your head around the concept a little more of a headache. 

Is Mandarin grammar different to Cantonese grammar?

While pronunciation is completely different in Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese, the grammar is almost identical. Cantonese, however, is slightly more fluid in its sentence structure, and can change round the order of words with much more ease than in Mandarin. However, the structure of the two forms of Chinese largely remains the same, grammar-wise!

Is Cantonese easier than Mandarin?

All languages come with their own hurdles, but as learners of Chinese largely struggle with the characters, and Mandarin and Cantonese share common ones, this doesn’t really set them apart in terms of difficulty. Even though Mainland China largely uses simplified Chinese, many recommend learners start with the more difficult traditional form of Chinese: which Cantonese also uses!

The trickier part largely comes from the tones: tonal languages can be difficult to master as it is, and having six instead of four poses a challenge for non-native speakers. That said, neither version of Chinese is really considered to be much more difficult than the other, so go with your gut!

Should I learn Mandarin or Cantonese?

Now you’ve seen the difference between Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese, it’s really up to you! If your goal is to learn the history of Chinese and connect with the roots of the language itself, then Cantonese will satisfy your urges. It means you’ll be able to connect with a large number of overseas Chinese, as Cantonese is commonly spoken in areas of the US, the UK, and Australia. On the other hand, if your goal is to speak and communicate with the largest number of people possible, then Mandarin is your safe bet! Why not try out a course in Mandarin and open yourself up to almost a billion people worldwide?

Travel and discover Mandarin


By Emily Lawrenson

What do you think?