Cantonese vs Mandarin Chinese

Cantonese vs Mandarin Chinese

By Jon Lam

It can be tough choosing a language to learn and the choice does not become easier when deciding on whether to learn Cantonese or Mandarin Chinese. Both languages are widely spoken in Mainland China and other parts of Asia and they both have their very own charms but which one should you learn and how should you go about learning it?

Mandarin Chinese

Mandarin Chinese is the official language of Mainland China and Taiwan. It is the most widely spoken language in most parts of Mainland China and can be heard on TV shows, the news and is taught at almost all schools in Mainland China. It is also spoken and taught across schools in Guangdong and Guangxi where Cantonese is more widely spoken. Some people have claimed that Mandarin is the hardest language to learn in the world because of its tonal nature (4 tones). The slightest faltering of your tone and you could be saying something not so innocent to your Chinese friend or boss. As China’s economic power continues to grow, many believe that Mandarin Chinese is the language of the future. But should this be your main reason for jumping on the bandwagon to learn it?


Cantonese is widely spoken in Guangdong, Guangxi and is the ‘official’ spoken language of Hong Kong and Macao. Although Mandarin is starting to have a more prominent standing in the Hong Kong schooling system, Cantonese still remains the main spoken language. However in Mainland China it is rarely used in the schooling system and as stated above, most locals in Guangdong and Guangxi (where Cantonese is more widely spoken) are bilingual and therefore will most definitely understand Mandarin Chinese. As a speaker of both languages myself, I was quite surprised when I made a small trip to Guangxi and found myself speaking more Mandarin than Cantonese. If you were thinking that there were too many tones in Mandarin already, you’ll be in for quite a shock when learning Cantonese because it has from 6 to 9 tones depending on which type of Cantonese you decide to learn (Guangzhou or Hong Kong). Although Cantonese is not considered as a ‘language of the future’ like Mandarin, it is still a main language in leading international financial centres such as Hong Kong.

Mandarin: the language of the future?

Differences between Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese

Although both Mandarin and Cantonese originated from China, they do have their differences. It is said that if there was a Cantonese and Mandarin speaker on a train sharing a newspaper together, the Cantonese speaker would be able to read aloud the words to the Mandarin speaker but he/she would not be understood and vice versa. However if they were to each read the newspaper by themselves, both would be able understand the content just fine. This is true to a certain extent but if you were to hand over a Hong Kong newspaper to a Mandarin speaker, there’s a high probability that they would not understand what is written. This is because colloquial Cantonese written down on paper is different to how Mandarin would be written down on paper. For example to express the verb ‘to eat’, in Mandarin one would write ‘吃’ but in Cantonese one would use the word ‘食’ instead which would mean ‘food/meal’ in Mandarin. Here’s an area where Cantonese speakers will have an advantage because they’ll be able to read, write and understand both forms of writing. On the other hand, Mandarin speakers would be able to read the characters but will not have a clear understanding of what they are reading.