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The Difference Between Cantonese and Mandarin

One of the five official languages of the United Nations, Mandarin (國語 or 普通話) is the official language in Mainland China and Taiwan. It is used by most of the Chinese primary schools, colleges, and universities, as well in most of their mainstream media, including films, radio stations, television programs, and music.


Cantonese (粵語 or 廣東話) is primarily used in the Guangdong and Guangxi provinces in Southern China and until the 1997 British handover of Hong Kong to China, it Cantonese was the primary language of Hong Kong. Most Chinese communities in Australia, Europe, North America, and other parts of the world also use Cantonese as their primary language. But in recent years, the number of Mandarin-speaking Chinese people living abroad has rapidly increased as more Northern Chinese are Taiwanese immigrants playing a larger and more active role in the global culture and economics.

So, both of these languages are spoken in China and they share the same base alphabet. But what is the difference between Cantonese and Mandarin?


The Difference Between Cantonese and Mandarin

Individuals who are fluent in either language are able to communicate with one another through the written word, as both languages share a common vocabulary, give or take a few words.

It was Emperor Qin Shihuang who first united Chinese words over 2200 years ago in 221 B.C. But it is the tone of colloquial Cantonese that makes it difficult for Mandarin speakers to understand.

The pronunciation of shared words in Cantonese and Mandarin is totally different. People in Hong Kong often refer to the language differences as “the chicken talking to the duck” — though they have quite a bit in common, they cannot easily understand each other. Mandarin utilizes four tones, whereas Cantonese has at least six and sometimes as many as nine. And different tones have different meanings, even when used for the same word.


Where are the two languages spoken?

Mandarin is the official state language of China and the most widely spoken Chinese dialect in the country. It is spoken in many of the largest cities in China, including Beijing and Shanghai. Mandarin is spoken widely in Singapore and Taiwan.

Cantonese, however, is spoken largely in Hong Kong, as well as in Macau and the Guangdong province, including Guangzhou.


Do all Chinese people speak Mandarin, since it is the official language?

No, though more and more people who reside in Hong Kong are learning Mandarin as a second language. However, according to a ministry of education statement in 2013, 30 percent of people living in China — around 400 million people — cannot speak Mandarin.


If I am interested in learning Chinese, which language should I learn?

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, however, you plan to settle in Hong Kong, then it would be worth it to pick up Cantonese. However the use of the Mandarin language is rapidly growing in Hong Kong from 25% of the population speaking Mandarin in 1997 to slightly over 50% today.


Which is more difficult to learn, Cantonese or Mandarin?

Cantonese is by far the more challenging of the two languages, particularly for a beginning Chinese language learner. This is because there are more tones used in Cantonese (Cantonese uses up to nine tones, whereas Mandarin only uses four). Getting the tone right is vital in ensuring that the word has the meaning you intend.

Whether it's Mandarin or Cantonese, LinguaLinx works with companies around the world to help localize translations to your customers so you deliver the right message at the right time. Here's our recommendations for how to hire the right Translator for your business.


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