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What Is the Difference between Mandarin and Cantonese?

Chinese Languages and Dialaects


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Both spoken in China, both part of the Chinese Language; what is the difference between Chinese and Mandarin.

Cantonese and Mandarin are dialects of the Chinese Language. They share the same base alphabet, but as a spoken language they are distinct and not mutually intelligible.

Where Are Mandarin and Cantonese Spoken?

Mandarin is the official state language of China and is the lingua franca of the country. It is in most areas the primary spoken language, including Beijing and Shanghai, although some provinces still retain their own local dialect. Mandarin is also the main dialect in Taiwan and Singapore.

Cantonese is spoken by the people of Hong Kong, Macau and Guangdong province, including Guangzhou (previously Canton in English). Most foreign Chinese communities, such as those in London and San Francisco, also speak Cantonese thanks to emigration from these areas.

Do All Chinese Speak Mandarin?

No, while many Hong Kongers are now learning Mandarin as a second language, they will, for the most part not speak the language. The same is true of Macau. Guangdong province has seen an influx of Mandarin speakers and many people here now speak the dialect.

Which Language Should I Learn

Mandarin is the major language of China and has many, many more speakers than Cantonese. If you plan on doing business in China or travelling around the country, this is the language to learn. You might consider learning Cantonese, if you intend to settle in Hong Kong for a prolonged period of time.

Tell Me About Tones

Both the Mandarin and Cantonese dialects are tonal languages, where one word has many meanings depending on the pronunciation and intonation. Cantonese has nine tones, whereas Mandarin has just five, making it easier to learn.

What about My ABC

Both Cantonese and Mandarin share the Chinese alphabet, but even here there is some diversion. While it has nothing to do with the two dialects, China increasingly uses simplified characters, with simpler brushstrokes, while Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan continue to use traditional Chinese. The latter can always understand simplified characters, but for former it can be difficult to read traditional characters.

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