Chinese For Beginners: Should I Learn Mandarin Or Cantonese?

As China is one of the most powerful countries globally, Chinese is used widely by billions of people globally. However, the term “Chinese language” actually includes Mandarin and Cantonese, among other dialects. Not all Chinese people speak the same language, so if you plan to learn Chinese, you need to answer the question: “Should I learn Mandarin or Cantonese?”. This article will help you decide. Check it out now! 

1. Mandarin vs Cantonese: The basic information 

Mandarin is the official language of mainland China, spoken by most primary schools, high schools, colleges and universities in China. It is also used on most official media channels, including movies, music, and television programs.

Cantonese is spoken in Hong Kong, Macau and Guangdong province, including Guangzhou (formerly known as Canton in English). Most overseas Chinese communities, such as those in Australia, Europe, North America, and London speak Cantonese as their official language because they are immigrants from Guangdong, China.

But in recent years, the number of Mandarin-speaking Chinese living abroad has increased rapidly. This is because many immigrants from the North China region are playing an increasingly larger and more dynamic role in the global economy and culture.

2. The differences between Mandarin and Cantonese

Although both languages are ​​popular in China and share the same alphabet, and those who are proficient in either of these languages ​​can communicate with others through written Chinese, there are some differences between Mandarin and Cantonese that learners need to clarify: 

1) The tonal differences

Both Mandarin and Cantonese are tonal languages. This means that a word gives different meanings depending on pronunciation and intonation. While Mandarin has only four tones, Cantonese has from six to nine. As a result, Cantonese may sound a bit more rhyming. Pronunciation of tones is arguably the hardest part of learning Chinese. 

Another difference between Mandarin and Cantonese is that they have different vowels and consonants. Most Chinese characters are syllables, including a compound vowel and one initial consonant. 

Cantonese has 20 consonants sounds: p, b, t, d, ts, dz, k, g, kw, gw, f, h, l, m, n, ng, s, y and w, six long vowels: a, e, i, o, u, ü, œ and four short vowels: ɐ, I, ö, U.

Examples for long and short vowels: 

  • /i/: pronounced as the “ee” sound in “machine”.
  • /ɐ/: a short, near-open “uh”, as in English “what” or “come”.
  • /U/: pronounced as the /u/ in “book”.

These consonants p, t, ts, k and kw are pronounced with aspiration (a heavy puff of air). 

Mandarin includes 21 consonant sounds: c, b, d, f, g, h, j, k, m, n, l, p, q, x, z, s, t, r, zh, ch, sh and 5 compound vowels (ɑ, o, e, i, u).

2) The grammatical structure

Most non-native Chinese speakers agree that Cantonese grammar can be easier because it follows a consistent, firm pattern. Meanwhile, Mandarin grammar is more challenging due to the adjustment of the sentence structure. This adjustment depends on the subject and emotional meaning. Therefore, learners need to pay extra attention to the background of each sentence.

3) The speaking difficulty 

The difference between Mandarin and Cantonese number of tones contributes to the level of difficulty in speaking Chinese. For example, Mandarin speakers find it easier to get used to this language due to the smaller number of tones. Cantonese requires speakers to recognize the tone by the movement of sound as well as the pitch. 

4) The writing difficulty 

Even the written form of Cantonese can be more complex. Technically, Mandarin and Cantonese use the same characters. Although Mandarin and Cantonese have the same characters, most Mandarin speakers tend to use simplified characters established in the 1960s, while Cantonese speakers are still using the traditional characters even now. 

For example, here is how the word “Dragon” is written in Mandarin (simplified characters): 龙. And here is the Cantonese version: 龍. You can see that the Mandarin version has only five strokes, but the Cantonese one has 16 strokes!

5) The widespread use

As China has so many dialects, the government has chosen Mandarin as China’s official language to create thorough communication across the nation. The government required public schools to teach Mandarin and asked all public media channels to use Mandarin to maintain the verbal communication possibilities, ensuring that all citizens know this language. 

How many people are using Mandarin worldwide? There are approximately 1.12 billion Mandarin speakers worldwide. How about Cantonese? Only about 66 million people. Compared to a survey carried in March 2021 by, by 2021, there will be around 1.35 billion people who speak English natively or as a second language, slightly more than the number of Mandarin speakers at that time. Of all languages, Mandarin is the second most spoken globally. 

As a new Chinese learner, you can build a strong background in Mandarin and then take up Cantonese to maximize your communication potential. More and more Cantonese speakers are learning Mandarin too because of its popularity and its opportunities.

Final thought

So, the answer to the question “Should I learn Mandarin or Cantonese?” will depend on what you plan to do with it once you have mastered it. If you are going to start a business in China, you should study Mandarin. However, if you are going to settle down in Hong Kong or communicate with the Chinese community in the US, choosing Cantonese would be a better idea. 

An important thing to consider for the question “Should I learn Mandarin or Cantonese?” is how difficult it is to learn. As stated above, while capturing timbre is vital for both Mandarin and Cantonese, Mandarin is easier for beginners to learn because it has fewer tones than Cantonese. Furthermore, because of the widespread use of Mandarin, it will be much easier to find study materials. 

If you are about to start your Chinese learning journey, Pandanese would be a great help. Pandanese is a new online language platform that helps Chinese learners master Mandarin mnemonics. One of the most challenging parts of learning Mandarin or Cantonese is memorizing the characters and tones. Pandanese offers a limitless collection of flashcards. Here is how you learn Mandarin with Pandanese

1. Start your lesson. Get a batch of flashcards. Each flashcard has a Chinese character with its meaning and a fun fact to help you remember vocabulary better. 

2. After you read and note down all the vocabulary, press the “Start Quiz” button for a quick check. You will receive a random card that has been shown before, and will have to fill in the correct answer. 

3. After finishing the quiz, you can get another flashcard batch and continue learning Mandarin characters. Don’t forget to review them over and over again!

4. Pandanese will also repeat the flashcards you learned frequently. This is “Spaced repetition” – the world’s most efficient and effective way to take up a large amount of information. 

You may like: Learn Chinese Characters Efficiently With The Spaced Repetition Learning System

So, have you decided to learn Mandarin or Cantonese? Leave a comment to let us know what you think!

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