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Mandarin or Cantonese?

July 6, 2008 – 11:44 am

Mandarin Chinese (普通话 putonghua) is the most widely spoken Chinese dialect. The other very important dialect is Cantonese. Other dialects are far less important and only spoken by a much smaller group of people. The difference between Cantonese and Mandarin however leave the learner with a question. Which one of these two should be learned first, Mandarin or Cantonese? Both dialects are not mutually intelligible, that means if You can speak one of these, You still can’t understand the other dialect.

The most common answer is, to just go for Mandarin Chinese. I think this answer is not universally true, and everyone who wants to make a decision, should think about his own goals and why he wants to learn one of these two. Make Your intentions clear to Yourself to ensure a thoughtful decision.

Here are some facts and hints why You should decide for Mandarin or Cantonese:

Number of Native speakers of the 5 most spoken Chinese Dialects:

  1. Mandarin Chinese: 836 million
  2. Wu dialect: 77 million – spoken in Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang province
  3. Cantonese: 71 million
  4. Min dialect: 60 million – spoken at the south east coast of China
  5. Jin dialect: 45 million – spoken in an area West of Beijing

Apart from that You once in a while stumble across the Hakka dialect, which has 34 million speakers. Taking into account the number people who speak a Chinese dialect as a second language, numbers shift in favour of Mandarin dramatically. Adding in those people the number should be around 1.2 billion speakers. The number of speakers are estimates, they could be quite some amount above or below the figures shown in the above list. It’s a very difficult task to asses how many speakers a language really has and should be rather taken as an estimate.

From the pure number of total speakers, mandarin clearly wins. If You just want to speak to a lot of Chinese people, choose Mandarin.

Where is Mandarin Chinese spoken?

In Mainland China Mandarin Chinese is the clear and absolute winner. In Taiwan, apart from the local dialects, Mandarin clearly dominates. In other places however there is a different picture. Singapore, a wealthy city in South East Asia, has a strong community of Cantonese speakers. Only recently the Singaporean government has taken action to promote Mandarin above Cantonese. A friend who had been in Singapore a while ago told me, it’s equal. Both Cantonese and Mandarin have their place in the city, but Mandarin is expanding more and more as the government is encouraging people to use it.

In other South East Asian countries lots of Chinese people can be found who left the Mainland several generations ago. Often these people were from the very South of China and speak Cantonese. Numbers indicate that Cantonese might have an advantage in many parts of South East Asia.

Hong Kong is the stronghold of Cantonese. mandarin speakers have a hard time here and Cantonese dominates massively. With softening the visa restrictions for Mainlanders to come to Hong Kong, Mandarin can be useful once in a while here, however these situations are rare. Guangdong province with its biggest city Guangzhou is the stronghold of Cantonese. Here people widely speak Cantonese and Mandarin speakers have a hard time. In the USA many Chinese people originate from Cantonese speaking places. Many of the Chinatowns are Cantonese speaking, Mandarin is a minority language there.

Ask Yourself in which of these places You want to live, make business or have interest in. If You clearly know that You are going to stay in Hong Kong and visit Chinatowns in the USA, Cantonese is Your thing. If You want to explore Beijing and Shanghai, choose Mandarin. If You already know where to go, use google to assess which dialect is spoken most widely in Your destination. Don’t bother with dialects that are not in the top 3 dialects, unless You have linguistic interest. If Your destination features another dialect than one of the top 3, go for Mandarin.

Taking into account the political situation

What is a Ferrari in the garage worth, if You don’t have the money to buy gas for it? This is basically the question for many Mandarin speakers at the moment, as it is very difficult to visit the Mainland due to recent visa restrictions. I can advise everyone who wants to learn Mandarin Chinese to follow the news on the Chinese visa policy. The Chinese government claimed, they will loosen up the current restrictions after the Olympics, but I do have my doubts. All we can do is, wait for September or October, maybe even November and then hope everything is fine again.

Should the visa policy remain strict, this is a big minus for Mandarin Chinese.

The Effects of English

The English of the average Mainland China person is bad. Only few people can speak it and even fewer speak it well. That being said, if You do go to Mainland China, Mandarin Chinese is a great asset. If You choose to go to Hong Kong, the situation is different. Lower educated people often don’t speak English. Educated Hong Kong locals always have a good grasp of English, often they have been overseas for their studies. In these groups Cantonese is often not necessary. Only if You aim for a leading position in a company Cantonese will be expected. That being said Cantonese is an investment of limited use. However, in Hong Kong, Mandarin is of far lesser use compared to Cantonese. If You stay in Hong Kong for a long time and You do want to learn one kind of Chinese, Cantonese should be Your choice without hesitation.

A similar situation is, if You stick to Chinatowns in the USA or South East Asia in general. Mandarin and Cantonese are pretty equal, both choices are of value and none is superior.

Cantonese is difficult

Many Cantonese speaking people tell me, that it is too difficult to learn for a foreigner. I disagree. The biggest obstacle for the interested learner with Cantonese is the lack of proper learning material. The amount of books, online resources and classes for Mandarin is far superior to those for Cantonese. This fact might be the reason why foreigners have a hard time learning Cantonese. The locals of Hong Kong might then conclude their own language is too hard to learn for a foreigner, while in reality it is the learning material that is the major thing that holds the learner back. If You are looking forward to learn Cantonese, set Yourself up with proper Cantonese learning material. You should then be able to perform well with this language.

Conclusion:

Which of the 2 important dialects, Mandarin or Cantonese, is better for You mostly depends on where You want to go to. The Chinese government is trying to sell Mandarin Chinese as the basis for other dialects. This might be true, however if Your long term destination is Hong Kong there is no need to bother with Mandarin first. Cantonese speakers tell You that this dialect is too difficult, however this is a prejudice. The main difficulty will be finding quality learning material and depending on Your location finding a course (which is a must for the beginner) might not be possible. Then Mandarin is the only option.

The current visa policy of China is a real turn of for Chinese learners. If the visa policy returns to its original state after the olympics, I still consider Mandarin Chinese for the first choice for the undecided learner. However if not, both choices, Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese are of equal value. We have to wait until autumn and then review the situation.

This article has been quite long and I hope to have answered some peoples questions. At least I hope I could help You to get a new view on the subject.

If You found value in this article, I would be happy if You give me a stumble or add it to Your favourite social bookmarking site.

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  1. 9 Responses to “Mandarin or Cantonese?”

  2. Hello Sir ,

    I do not think the Chinese visa will return to it’s orginal state .

    By onlyone on Jul 7, 2008

  3. It also depends on what area of the country you are in. I think in Beijing and especially Shanghai the rules will remain strict, but it is hard to say. The rules do make business harder to do in China.

    By Alfred Jensen on Jul 7, 2008

  4. Well the visa policy is not THAT bad – I made it to china too, it’s not really difficult, just a lil more troublesome. Anyway, it’s still far less troublesome than getting a visa for europe or usa, when ur a chinese citizen!

    Wrote a blog ’bout it on http://redraindrop.blogspot.com/

    By Aremonus on Jul 8, 2008

  5. Ngo chungyi Cantonese much more than Mandarin. ;)

    Regards.

    By Sally on Jul 11, 2008

  6. 我覺得廣東話好聽過國語﹗

    By Crazyhanyu on Sep 28, 2008

  7. If you speak Cantonese fluently, it’s possible to bend the tones a bit and a Mandarin person would understand you. I always use my Cantonese to understand and speak Mandarin, but not all words sound similar. So you CAN understand the other dialect to some extent =p

    By donald on Nov 18, 2008

  8. Hi all,

    I found Cantonese not terribly difficult to become moderately familiar with… I took classes for three years once a week for 2.5 hours. I missed several classes but had lots of practice with in-laws. I was able to locate the publisher of some very good books that even provided lessons using traditional Chinese.

    I am trying Mandarin on my own at this point and the only drawback is a lack of time (studying my MBA) and a decidedly Cantonese accent when I speak Mandarin. Oddly enough Cantonese speakers now tell me that I sound a bit Taiwanese when I speak Mandarin. All of which everyone finds extremely funny coming from a black man.

    In any case the fun is in the pursuit of knowledge so I will keep plugging away. I am adding this site to my delicious list so that I can keep up to speed on your good training exercises.

    I feel that my success at Cantonese came from immersion into the language and culture of the people. Videos, music, palm tools on my Blackberry/Palm, opera, parties, live shows, talking to people at the stores/streets/restaurants and a steady diet of yum cha are all helpful in deepening my understanding and self-actualization of Cantonese speaking and Chinese reading.

    By mingsai on Jan 8, 2009

  9. Just to clarify a couple points about Singapore.

    The dialect mainly used in Singapore, maybe 70%, is Hokkien originating from the Fujian province in southern China. Although there is a fair amount of Cantonese speakers in the older generations, Mandarin is pervasive in the younger generations as that is the only Chinese spoken form taught in schools for the last few decades. Singapore follows the simplified script used in China, whereas most Cantonese communities outside China continue to use the traditional script. The media is only allowed to broadcast in Mandarin, and Chinese movies are screened in Mandarin even if they were originally in Cantonese.

    By Stan on Nov 2, 2010

  10. Hi Stan,

    thanks for your info about Singapore.

    By Hendrik on Nov 3, 2010

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