Mandarin vs. Cantonese (Crucial Differences & Similarities)

  • Jasmine Chiam
    Written byJasmine Chiam
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Mandarin vs. Cantonese (Crucial Differences & Similarities)

Chinese is an umbrella term for a group of different dialects. Two of the most widely-used Chinese dialects/languages are Mandarin and Cantonese. 🇨🇳 🇭🇰

On the surface, Mandarin and Cantonese may seem very similar.

However, there are some key differences that set one apart from the other, and understanding the distinctive features of each dialect may come in handy.

Perhaps, you’re interested in learning either of these languages and aren’t sure which may better suit your preferences and goals. Or maybe you’re wondering if Mandarin speakers can understand Chinese and vice versa.

To help you out, I’ve put together this guide that covers the important differences between Mandarin and Cantonese, including pronunciation, grammar, and tone, as well as where each dialect is primarily spoken.

Let’s get into it.

Where Mandarin and Cantonese are spoken

Mandarin is the most widely-spoken Chinese dialect, with over 950 million speakers.

It is most commonly used throughout China, including the largest cities in the country, such as Shanghai and Beijing.

Apart from that, Mandarin is also spoken by many people residing in Taiwan and Singapore.

On the other hand, Cantonese is less widespread compared to Mandarin, and an estimated 80 million people can speak this dialect.

While Cantonese is the most dominant language spoken in Hong Kong and Macau, a good number of Cantonese speakers are also located in China, particularly in Guangdong province, including Guangzhou.

The main differences between Cantonese and Mandarin

Mandarin and Cantonese are Chinese dialects that are not mutually intelligible, meaning that Mandarin speakers will not be able to understand spoken Cantonese and vice versa.

Because of this, you can expect stark differences between the pronunciation and tones of the two.

Let’s explore the main differences between spoken Mandarin and Cantonese.

Pronunciation of words

The majority of Chinese words are pronounced differently in Mandarin and Cantonese.

For example, a basic phrase like “How are you?” may already sound pretty different in Mandarin compared to Cantonese.

Take a look at the following examples:

English phrase Mandarin translation Cantonese translation
How are you? 你好吗?
(Nǐ hǎo ma?)
你好嗎?
(Nei5 hou2 maa3)
What’s your name? 你叫什么名?
(Nǐ jiào shénme míng?)
你叫咩名?
(Nei5 giu3 me1 ming4?)
Good morning. 早上好。
(Zǎoshang hǎo.)
早晨。
(Zou2 san4.)
Sorry. 对不起。
(Duìbùqǐ.)
對唔住。
(Deoi3 m4 zyu6.)
Thank you. 谢谢你。
(Xièxiè nǐ.)
多謝。
(Do1 ze6.)
I love you. 我爱你
(Wǒ ài nǐ.)
我愛你。
(Ngo5 oi3 nei5.)

Drawing from the information above, you can tell that Mandarin differs significantly from Cantonese in terms of how each character is pronounced and the tone used.

Number of tones

Mandarin also differs from Cantonese in the number of tones each dialect utilizes.

Mandarin has four main tones, while Cantonese uses six main tones.

In Mandarin, the tones you’ll notice are:

  • High tone
  • Rising tone
  • Falling-rising tone
  • Falling tone

Meanwhile, the six main tones in Cantonese are as follows:

  • High-level
  • High-rising
  • Mid-level
  • Low-level or falling
  • Low-rising
  • Low-mid level

Both dialects are tonal in nature, meaning that each word can differ in not only consonants and vowels but also in tone, quite like the different pitches in music.

This means that you can pronounce a word similarly, but changing the tone could give it a different meaning altogether.

Take, for example, these two phrases in Mandarin: 消化 (xiāohuà), which means “digestion,” and 笑話 (xiàohuà), which translates to “joke.” They are pronounced the same, but a simple change in the tone completely alters their meaning.

The same goes for Cantonese.

No matter which of the two you pick, you will have to accustom yourself to the different tones used to convey your message clearly.

Vocabulary and grammar

Mandarin and Cantonese are also not mutually intelligible due to this reason: The words used to convey a certain meaning or message may be completely different.

Take, for example, the word “tomorrow.”

In Mandarin, the most common way to say “tomorrow” is 明天 (míngtiān). Meanwhile, the phrase to use in Cantonese would be 聽日 (ting1 jat6).

Another example is the simple phrase, “Have you eaten yet?” In Mandarin, you would say 你吃了吗? (nǐ chīle ma?).

On the other hand, this would be 食咗飯未? (sek6 zo2 faan6 mei6) in Cantonese.

The words and characters used are different, though they convey the same meaning.

This makes it difficult for Mandarin speakers to understand Cantonese and vice versa.

In terms of grammar, both languages do have many similarities.

However, there are some essential differences in grammar between Cantonese and Mandarin, which alters the structure of the sentence.

For instance, 我爸爸给我钱 (wǒ bàba gěi wǒ qián) translates to “My dad gave me money.” In Cantonese, some speakers may say 我爸爸給錢我 (ngo5 baa1 baa1 kap1 cin2 ngo5).

Take note of the last two characters of each sentence.

我 means “I” or “me” in Mandarin and Cantonese, while 钱 in Mandarin and 錢 in Cantonese translates to “money.” In Mandarin, the “me” comes before “money,” while in Cantonese, “money” can come before “me.”

This is just one example of how the sentence structure may vary between both dialects.

Romanization systems

You’ve probably noticed by now that romanization systems differ between Cantonese and Mandarin.

Romanization basically refers to the conversion of Chinese characters into English letters, which represents the sound of each character and acts as a guide for pronunciation.

In Mandarin, the most widely used romanization system is Hanyu Pinyin, which you may have noticed throughout the article.

The romanization system for Cantonese does not utilize Pinyin.

Several systems are used in Cantonese, the two commonly-used ones being Jyutping and Yale.

You’ll likely have to get used to both systems, as textbooks and online resources may use either.

Here are some examples of the romanization system used in Cantonese.

  • Jyutping: 多謝。(do1 ze6)
  • Yale: 多謝。(dō jeh)

The biggest difference is that Jyutping utilizes numbers to represent the tone, while the Yale system uses accents to represent different tones, similar to Hanyu Pinyin in Mandarin.

Most newer learning materials tend to use the Jyutping romanization system, so it may be best to start with picking up Jyuping before progressing to other systems.

Also, note that there is little standardization in pronunciation in Cantonese.

Cantonese speakers from various towns, cities, and regions of the world may pronounce a certain word differently, so you may also notice variations in the romanization guide when using more than one resource.

Main differences between written Mandarin and Cantonese

There is a common perception that Mandarin generally utilizes simplified Chinese characters in written language while Cantonese makes use of traditional Chinese characters.

This is partially true, but we’ll explore this a little further.

Traditional vs. simplified Chinese

There are two different writing systems in the Chinese language, which are traditional and simplified Chinese.

Let’s quickly compare how the characters are written in both systems.

We’ll use the example of the word “love.” In simplified Chinese, the character to use is 爱 (ài, Mandarin pinyin).

Meanwhile, the traditional Cchinese character is 愛.

You can see that they look almost similar, but the simplified Chinese version has fewer strokes and is slightly easier to write compared to the traditional Chinese character.

Another example is the word “mom” or “mother.” Simplified Chinese uses the phrase 妈妈 (māmā, Mandarin pinyin), while traditional Chinese characters are written as 媽媽.

Again, they bear some resemblances, but fewer strokes are needed for the simplified character compared to the traditional one.

What writing systems do Mandarin and Cantonese speakers use?

Both Mandarin and Cantonese share similar roots, meaning that the traditional writing system was most commonly utilized in both dialects for centuries.

However, this changed when previous forms of simplified Chinese characters were compiled and adapted in China to boost the country’s literacy rate.

In 1949, these simplified Chinese characters were officially adopted, making simplified Chinese the standard writing system in mainland China.

This means that almost all Mandarin speakers in China now utilize simplified Chinese when writing.

On the other hand, the majority of Cantonese speakers still utilize traditional Chinese characters while writing.

Nonetheless, this does not mean that all Mandarin speakers write in simplified Chinese, while all Cantonese speakers use traditional Chinese characters.

Mandarin speakers in Taiwan, for instance, predominantly use traditional Chinese, while Cantonese speakers in mainland China have mostly adopted simplified Chinese.

The good news is that a native or proficient speaker of either dialect would be able to recognize and read both simplified and traditional Chinese characters with minimal trouble, even without paying close attention to the characters.

Reading becomes even easier when you’re given a paragraph or sentences rather than having to recognize single characters.

This means that many Mandarin speakers in China should have little trouble reading traditional Chinese, and many Cantonese speakers would also be able to read simplified Chinese.

Is Mandarin or Cantonese more difficult to learn?

Many people would agree that Mandarin is easier to learn compared to Cantonese for several reasons as follows:

1. There’s a vast range of sounds to pick up when learning Cantonese.

Mandarin has four different tones, while Cantonese has six primary tones.

If you’re new to a tonal language, Mandarin may be easier to pick up simply because there are fewer tones to learn and apply.

On top of that, Cantonese has more vowels and a broader range of consonants than Mandarin.

2. There is much more standardization in Mandarin compared to Cantonese.

In Cantonese, there are countless variations in pronunciations and tones used by different people in different regions.

So it’s a little difficult to dictate what is right and what is wrong when learning the dialect.

There’s also a wide range of phrasings and slang in Cantonese.

3. Cantonese leans heavily on being a colloquial language, and the spoken language differs quite a bit from written Cantonese.

This means that what you pick up from textbooks may not translate accurately into the casual, real-life conversations you have.

On the other hand, spoken Mandarin more closely resembles its written form.

4. In general, Mandarin speakers in China tend to use simplified Chinese in writing (which you’ll also notice in many modern and online learning resources).

This has fewer strokes and is easier to write than the traditional Chinese used by most Cantonese speakers.

5. Due to the widespread use of Mandarin—it is one of the most spoken languages in the world—there is a plethora of online and physical Mandarin learning materials readily available.

A quick search online will find you tons of materials teaching Mandarin at different levels.

On the other hand, it’s much more difficult to find suitable and comprehensive learning materials for Cantonese (here’s a detailed list of online Cantonese courses we put together).

Due to all the above reasons, Mandarin is generally easier to pick up (for most, not all, people).

If you are keen on picking up Cantonese, though, don’t let this deter you from learning the dialect.

It’s still widely used and appreciated.

Learning Cantonese may also help you navigate life better in regions that predominantly use that dialect.😊

Is it better to learn Mandarin or Cantonese?

Let’s once again re-iterate that one isn’t better than the other.

Both dialects have their own unique use cases and characteristics that make learning them fun and engaging!

However, Mandarin is generally easier to pick up and much more widely spoken, not to mention there’s a wider array of Mandarin learning materials readily available—literally at your fingertips!

When making your decision, here are a few points you can also consider.

  • Location: If you’re planning on moving or traveling to a predominantly Cantonese-speaking country, such as Hong Kong, Cantonese is the better choice. But if you’re considering visiting Taiwan or China, Mandarin will come in handy.
  • Connection: Having family members, friends, or a partner or spouse who speaks a certain dialect may prompt you to learn that dialect to form stronger connections and relationships.
  • Interest: If you have a particular interest in learning either language, we say go for it!

Mandarin and Cantonese are different Chinese dialects with their own unique characteristics

Mandarin and Cantonese differ widely in the way each dialect/language is spoken.

Though both of them are tonal, the differences in pronunciation, tones, vocabulary, and grammar mean that both Mandarin and Cantonese not mutually intelligible.

This means that learning Mandarin won’t automatically enable you to speak Cantonese and vice versa.

Having to pick one over the other can put you in a little dilemma. It’s best to see which dialect will come in more handy for you based on your relationships, connections, and the countries you’re planning on visiting or living in.

Or, if you’re feeling ambitious, why not learn both? 😄


Do you have experience learning either or both Mandarin and Cantonese?

If so, feel free to share your experience in the comments below!

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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
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