廣東話vs國語 – guest post: Cantonese vs Mandarin

I’m happy to share a guest post from Yang, the contributor of LearnMandarinNow: ‘A great debate: do I learn Cantonese or shall I try Mandarin Chinese first?’.

I try really hard to learn Cantonese, but not many of you know that I actually started my adventure with so called ‘Chinese’ with Mandarin. Part of it was cause by lack of studying materials in Polish, the other one was little bit of my ignorance – when we started dating I was Jon Snow of Hong Kong culture, I knew nothing. I thought Macau is a card game, but in my defense until last month my almost 29 year old engineer-husband thought brown cows don’t give milk. I guess we all are ignorant at some level.
2013-06-24-12-51-00_decoBut once I knew more about Hong Kong, how important part of the local culture is the language my only choice could be studying Cantonese.
It’s not easy to learn, so I don’t expect everyone visiting Hong Kong for a week to speak fluently but I always tell people ‘Say m’goi to your waiter, not xiexie. Instead of ‘ni hao’ say ‘nei hou’.
I learn Cantonese because it’s my husband’s language, it’s part of his heritage. I want him to teach our children Cantonese, especially now when all he can hear around is Mandarin.
I don’t mind if he also teaches our child Mandarin later on, more knowledge never hurt anyone and I wished my parents pushed me more in primary school when it goes to language studying, but in our case it will always be Cantonese that is a priority.
In case you ask why not also Shanghainese since Momzilla is from Shanghai – the anwser is simple: if there’s hell, they probably speak Shangainese there. And I told Sing that if our child’s first words are ‘Va-zyAAAAH’ then I’m taking the child and Biscuit and move back to my parents. Trust me, once you here two elderly ladies talking Shanghainese you will know what I mean.

After all I hardly remember anything from the few chapters of my Mandarin book, to be honest my spoken Shanghainese thanks to Momzilla is much better than my very broken Mandarin, but the moment I switched to Cantonese, at least I had some idea how to learn it by myself from the books and the CDs. But of course I will always encourage everyone to at least give a shot to beautiful Cantonese 🙂

Now enjoy Yang’s post! 🙂

A great debate: do I learn Cantonese or shall I try Mandarin Chinese first?

There seems to be so many people planning to learn Chinese these days.

One early decision you need to make, though, is whether to learn Mandarin Chinese or try your hand at Cantonese.

Why? What’s the difference? Which one is best? How do I get started? are some of the questions which immediately leap to mind!

Well, that’s where at Learn Mandarin Now can help as we always try to guide you towards the best ways of studying Chinese via our research surveys such as “How to learn Chinese, 50 blogger’s top tips”, and interviews with Chinese speaking experts such as “Learning Cantonese: 10 great tips which you really need to know”, plus other informative advice to help you advance your study of Chinese.

However, before we consider the main question further, we’d like to offer our thanks to Paulina from My Hong Kong Husband for, firstly, writing a blog that we always enjoy to read, but also for letting us make this blog post.

So, back to the main question; as a starter, let’s consider:

Aren’t the Chinese characters the same for Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese?

Well, yes and no!

But they’re both written Chinese I hear you say. Well, Yes, that’s true but spoken Cantonese and Mandarin are, in some ways, quite different and can cause misunderstandings even amongst Chinese people—but very similar in others. So No as well.

Confused…? Please don’t be! Let us give you a great example:

Paulina recently wrote an amusing post entitled: T-shirt fails or真心膠的T恤

The Chinese characters 真心膠 are frequently used in Cantonese slang and are a commonly used expression, especially amongst the younger generation. In fact, 膠can mean many different things in Cantonese, depending upon the context. The phrase is generally taken to mean that something is not so good, not desirable.image (22)

However, in Mandarin, the characters in the title don’t mean “T-shirt language failures”, but literally mean “wholehearted glue T-shirt”!

Wholehearted glue t-shirt? What are you talking about?

Clearly it doesn’t really make any sense, so no wonder people get confused. To get a similar meaning in Mandarin might be something like 真心差劲的T恤 or 非常逊的T恤.

So, to summarise, even though it’s the same Chinese characters, the meaning might be totally different for a Mandarin speaker or Cantonese speaker.

Clear now? We hope so!

Right, so, look at some of the other things which may affect your decision to learn Mandarin Chinese or Cantonese:

The Chinese language is, as you would expect, very diverse

If you consider that China is the home to almost one quarter of the world’s population and has a land area of around 9.5 million sq kilometres (ie about 3 times the size of India), it should be no surprise that there are an enormous number of dialects, regional language variations, and accents. Therefore, in an extreme case, some people in the northern areas around, say, Harbin might have difficulty understanding people from the southern areas such as Guangzhou because of the local terms and accents, even though they all speak Mandarin. In fact, there are lots of jokes which have originated from miscommunication between people from different part of China.

To be fair, this issue was more apparent in the past but communications are now much easier as most of the younger generation are being taught “standard Mandarin Chinese” with little or no accents attached.

Cantonese is one of main regional variations of Chinese

Cantonese is well known as the language of Hong Kong and Macau but, in fact, is spoken by an amazingly high 80-100 million people in the Guangzhou (Canton) and Guangxi provincial areas; it is also widely spoken throughout most of the overseas Chinese communities in Europe, Australia, North America and so on.

Now the big question: should I learn Cantonese or Mandarin?

Firstly, Cantonese: well, if you are living and/or working in Hong Kong, Macau or Guangzhou or are like Paulina, and married to Hong Kong person, then learning Cantonese might seem a better choice.

Although most Hong Kong people can speak English, if you are a foreigner in Hong Kong and can actually speak some Cantonese with local Hong Kong people, you will really “wow” them and may be pleasantly surprised by their positive reaction—given that many locals think that Cantonese is an almost impossible language for foreigners to learn.

In fact, you might also wonder: Should I just learn Mandarin anyway as, presumably, most Hong Kong people can speak Mandarin as well as Cantonese?

Good question!

Well, over the last 10-15 years many more Hong Kong people have learnt to speak Mandarin, especially those in the service industry or business men travelling frequently to Mainland China. However, whilst you can’t expect to have a deep conversation or communication with Hong Kong locals in Mandarin, as speaking fluent Mandarin still a bit of a challenge for them, many of the younger generation will be able to give you some help in Mandarin if, for example, you are asking for directions to places such as Lan Kwai Fong, Harbour City etc.

Still, learning Cantonese is well worthwhile for a variety of other reasons.

Why? you might ask.

Well, you may know that parts of Hong Kong culture, such as its TV shows, films and music, were extremely popular in the 80s and 90s all over China and around the world in overseas Chinese communities. Accordingly, many people, both foreigners and mainland Chinese, decided to learn some basic Cantonese be able to, for example, watch some early Jacky Chan and other Hong Kong comedies or action films—or even sing along with the songs of Beyond (one of Hong Kong’s famous bands).

This still happens these days, although to a lesser extent, and maybe people like Paulina, who might really enjoy Hong Kong culture and entertainment, will watch some of the famous comedies by Stephen Chow(周星馳), or enjoy Dayo Wong’s(黃子華)stand up comedy talk show in Cantonese—mainly as, sometimes, the Mandarin version or one with English subtitles doesn’t quite translate so well and much of the humour may be lost.image (23)

The same issue with translation can apply on the other hand where, for example, mainland comedy stars such as Zhao Ben Shan(赵本山) or Xiao Shen Yang(小沈阳)are very popular in the northern part in China but, if the shows are translated into Cantonese, they lose something in the translation and become not that interesting.

Or Mandarin?

If you are planning to live and work in mainland China, say in Shanghai, obviously, Mandarin would seem to be a better choice although, of course, nobody will expect you to speak the local Shanghai dialect, and “regular” Mandarin will be good enough for work, business, or making local friends.

On balance, the vast majority of people do tend to choose to learn Mandarin Chinese and this may simply be due to the fact that more learning materials are available or that there are more people to teach you! J

Even though they may not be Chinese teachers, some of your Chinese friends who have been to college, and have learnt “proper Mandarin”, may be able to teach you Mandarin step by step through Pinyin, Chinese Characters, Chengyu etc.

Conversely, except for professional Cantonese teachers, most Cantonese speakers probably never actually learnt Cantonese at school but have just naturally picked it up from parents, friends or the TV. Therefore, such speakers might be able to teach you some useful phrases, but will possibly struggle to teach you Cantonese pinyin or explain the grammar systematically; this is probably the same for people who speak Hakka or Min Nan Yu who learn mainly by listening.

The choice is yours

At the end of the day, the choice is yours, and depends primarily on your motivations and purposes to learn such new language.

So, have a careful think before you decide… but, in any event, keep reading our blog posts at Learn Mandarin Now as we always offer great and advice on the Chinese language as a whole—as we said, we’re here to help!

Having read this article, what do you think? Would you choose to learn Mandarin or Cantonese first? Why not let us or Paulina know your thoughts, as we’d love to hear your opinion?

60 thoughts on “廣東話vs國語 – guest post: Cantonese vs Mandarin

  1. I am also learning Cantonese, and living in Hong Kong for the immersion. My partner’s family actually isn’t from Hong Kong though, they’re from the Taishan area of Guangdong, so the only ones that actually speak Mandarin are the ones that live in China (They all speak a mix of Cantonese, Taishanese, and their local village language). When they suggest I learn Mandarin instead since it’s easier and arguably more useful, I just laugh and nod, because, really, what would the point in that be? They, like many other Cantonese speakers, have a good grasp understanding Mandarin, but can’t speak it for the life of them! So if I were to learn it, I could speak at them and they’d understand, but I couldn’t understand their replies. In Hong Kong if you were to learn Mandarin instead of Cantonese, you’d probably run into that a lot, and in that case, why not just stick with English?

    One day I’ll learn Mandarin though, when my Cantonese is solid enough that I’m not worried about messing it up with Mandarin. I also want my children to speak Cantonese, and ideally Mandarin also, because I don’t want them to go through what my partner went through, being afraid to go to the Mainland to visit family alone, because his Mandarin is much worse than my Cantonese, and it’s essential to speak it to get around nowadays.


    1. congratulations on your studies! I know how hard Cantonese is and not everyone would make such a decision, especially when now more and more Mandarin speakers live in Hong Kong. High five 🙂
      Also I’m really impressed that now your Cantonese is better than his Mandarin – that’s one achievement 😉


      1. Thanks, though it’s really not hard. His Mandarin is really dreadful. He left China with only a year of schooling there, so he never really learned it, just understands a bit from TV. =)


        1. maybe he should go to KTV more often, haha? that’s how my husband was taught, his parents never taught him, they just took him to karaoke. he is still so proud to Sing the high part of the songs like in opera haha 🙂


    2. I was brought up learning mandarin. I learn most of my cantonese from watching HK TV series and listening to songs. I was also educationed in both Traditional and Simplified Chinese characters. I do not regret learning both, in fact I am grateful that I was forced to do so as it has proven to become useful. I can also speak Hakka, my mother (literally) language. My only regret is that I can’t speak my “father” language, Teachew. Given my exposure, I can say that while each dialect has its own merit, I really enjoy the flexibility of Cantonese. There are a lot of terms in Cantonese that can only be fully “realised” if you know Cantonese (of course there will be the exceptions but it is always best to experience something in its original form right?!), while it is not difficult to express the terms for other dialects in Cantonese. These alone makes the dialects (here I use the term dialects loosely as I know some consider that an insult – I consider all variants of Chinese language dialects), very colourful. If you are to watch Stephen Chow’s earlier movie, hopefully you know him as he single handedly create a branch of HK culture, you won’t be able to laugh at the movie as much as someone who understand the Cantonese language. In fact, much of the original Chinese culture, as far as I know, are based on Cantonese. For example, the peoms sounded much more like peotry when spoken in Cantonese that it does in Mandarin. As for the character sets, Tranditional Chinese characters are much more interesting and meaningful. As far as I know, proper Chinese calligraphy discipline is still using traditional character set Worldwide. I have no objection to simplified Chinese in that it makes writing faster and easier to write, but a culture is not about convenience and so I would always prefer to use Traditional characters – although I have to admit I am a bit lazy and often try to get away with writing in simplified Chinese and output them as traditional characters. I call it – efficiency! lol So for conclusion, I would say that if you don’t have a specific goal that you are trying to acheive, then Cantonese will probably give you the richest taste to the Chinese culture. On the other hand, if you need to work in Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan – Mandarin will probably be more beneficial but keep in mind that Singapore and Malaysia uses Simplified Chiense characters while Taiwan uses Traditional characters. One more thing, this may also help a bit if you want to learn Japanese eventually as they have a charater set that comprise of a lot of Chinese characters, although their meaning can be quite different. (Sorry for the long post!)


      1. wow, that’s one of the longest comments (if not the longest) I ever got! thank you so much for your great points out there! 🙂 and congrats on being self-taught, my husband learnt Mandarin on KTV as well, haha I guess that’s the best way 🙂


  2. Fantastic choice and thinking of learning cantonese, my children hardly know cantonese even though the father speak only cantonese and my husband have to speak to them in english as they don’t want to learn to speak cantonese. I think if they want to learn to speak Cantonese they will learn to speak this language and no point to force them when they don’t.


    1. yes, no one will learn being forced. I hope in our case it will come naturally, I want to improve my speaking so I can talk to the kids in Cantonese, Polish and English when Sing is at work.


  3. I think Mandarin is more useful, but you should learn both!! Perhaps try learning a few words a day? It really adds up in the long run. Good luck!!!


    1. I already struggle with Cantonese so I just let Sing deal with that – if he wants to teach our child Mandarin as well, that’s fine with me, but I feel my language-skills get worse and worse with age so I just hope to improve speaking so I can talk to our future baby in all three languages of our house 🙂 but in Ireland Mandarin is really mom popular, in the restaurant we go to he is the only Cantonese speaker haha


  4. As a speaker of both cantonese and mandarin, I’d probably suggest learning mandarin over cantonese since a majority of people in China speak mandarin and if you ever flipped through the TV channels in mainland, most of them are in mandarin. So unless you’re only planning to visit or reside in the Canton-Hong Kong area, learning mandarin would be the language you want to learn.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. our family is only divided between Hong Kong and Shanghai and since I cannot stand Shanghainese (sorry to all the speakers, but I cannot stand that va-zy-AAAH haha) it could be useful to communicate, but I myself focus only on Cantonese and use Sing as a translator haha we don’t visit them that often, so I can put all my efforts to Cantonese 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. My mom tried to learn Shanghainese for her job and she quit after a week. Yeah, if you have a reliable translator, in this case, your husband, don’t put yourself through the torture of learning a dialect. The dialect is only good for a specific region and it’s usually small. So I don’t think it’s worth the trouble.


  5. There’s similar issue in Catalonia, Spain. Learn Spanish or Catalan? The Catalan government wants everything in Catalan and while most non Spanish speakers, learn Spanish and locals are happy to speak Spanish, learning Catalan is an advantage. I can understand 75% of it written, listening 50% but speaking it , just basic greetings. Though it’s a mix of Spanish and French, it’s a complete different accent. If I’m honest I prefer a Spanish accent! Visiting the city, most of the younger generation speak excellent English, but you definitely need Spanish at least if you plan to live here or stay a while. As for my Chinese, erm, anyone who learns any Chinese dialect, Japanese, Vietnamese or Korean gets my respect!


      1. It’s basically a country in a country or rather that have their own government and are autonomous. Their culture is a little different to the rest of Spain, the architecture is different, less Moorish influence. To be honest, every region in Spain is different to the next!

        Liked by 1 person

    1. you know, I would understand the need to standardize the language in a big country, but look at Russia – somehow they did it. I feel really weird reading the news they forbid this or that in local school, forbidding local languages. how you can be stupid and destroy your own heritage. I don’t mind if Sing teaches our child Mandarin, but as Cantonese speaking father his priority is always Cantonese to keep the language alive, especially with so little Cantonese speakers in our area – to preserve the culture. I hope you get my patriotic point 😀 I recently even started to force myself to speak Cantonese instead of just read and write so when our child is born and Sing goes to work I can be able to speak Cantonese, Polish and English.


  6. A friend and I were talking about this “Learn Cantonese or Mandarin” question and we came to an answer in the form of an analogy. English is to Dutch sort-of as Mandarin is to Cantonese, one is the lingua franca and the other is a regional language. At the end which one you learn depends on what you are trying to do and who you are trying to communicate with.

    Learning Cantonese because one’s significant other speaks it is a great reason 🙂


      1. Haha, my friend speaks a bit of it so he can make the analogy. But if you speak Polish, some one of the Slavic language may be a better comparison.


  7. I started learning Mandarin a few years ago but it was hard because I wanted to learn Traditional Chinese characters rather than Simplified. After learning Japanese, simplified was way too different and at the time I was dating a Taiwanese guy. Then I visited Hong Kong and my friend taught me a few Cantonese phrases. I really loved being able to say a few things but since I know English, it wasn’t too necessary (and I had a fluent guide so that helped). I think Cantonese is getting more popular with foreigners now, but it depends on their individual language goals. I wish there were more resources for people who want to learn traditional characters, though. I haven’t tried learning either for a long time, though.


    1. I think for the traditional characters you need to buy books from Taiwan or HK, but as far as I remember all the books I’ve seen in English were for Cantonese (but my memory is pretty bad, almost as bad as my eyesight :D)

      Liked by 1 person

        1. I think we need to thank K-POP for that, now since Korea became a popular country it’s much easier to find studying materials 😀 few years ago in Poland you couldn’t really find a book to study Korean but now… lots 😀

          Liked by 1 person

  8. I was hoping someone would ask, but since no one has yet, what is ‘Va-zyAAAAH’? I am a Canadian-born Cantonese speaker who has not been exposed to any Shanghainese (that I’m aware of).
    P.S. Love your blog! More pics of Biscuit if you can! 🙂


    1. AHHH is just to make it more powerful, va is negative and zy is ‘is’ so depending on context it’s usually ‘isn’t’ ‘aren’t’ but I don’t get most of his and his mother’s conversations so all I see is his mother making extremely stupid face, nostrils get big, eyebrows go together and her voice is rising to say…. VA-ZY-AAAAAHHHH when she disagrees with Sing 😀 it’s priceless to see by yourself 😀
      thank you so much! if you want I post quite a lot pictures of Biscuit on my instagram @myhongkonghusband 🙂


  9. I learned Mandarin because I lived in the mainland. If you’re going to be in Hong Kong (or have family connections) then learning Cantonese makes a lot of sense. My brain hurts just imagining learning both.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I learnt Mandarin since I live in Mainland, but a year later moved to Guangdong province, heavily rich in Cantonese speakers. I find myself having to learn it too, but my Mandarin is just okay.

    I was in cab ride a few weeks & the shifu spoke to me in Cantonese, he couldn’t speak Mandarin but understood me. It was hilarious.


  11. I have a few Cantonese books; but it is harder to learn than Mandarin for various reasons. I definitely recommend saying ‘Neihou’ and ‘Mgoi’ when in HK (however that’s spelled. One of the harder things about Canto is that there is not standardized romanization spelling!)


  12. If you ask me, comparing Mandarin and Cantonese is like comparing Polish and Latin. They are basically completely different kettle of fish especially when it comes to speaking!

    Writing wise, Cantonese uses the traditional Chinese spelling while Mandarin uses simplified Chinese spelling which was implemented just fairly recently in mainland China, like 50 or 60 years ago. They might look different, but in terms of writing and reading, if you can read one you can probably read the other.

    I think it depends on where you are going and who you are dealing with to decide which language you want to learn.


    1. I would say more like Polish and Russian – one Slavic language family (West Slavic for me, East for Russian): we can understand SOME from speaking, but we don’t even share one alphabet haha.
      What about Mandarin in Taiwan, as far as I know they still use traditional? I don’t remember about Singapore and other places, I will be honest with you!
      I could learn Mandarin in order to not to speak Shanghainese to the rest of the family, but I just use Sing as ‘non of my business’ haha 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Taiwan still uses traditional Chinese words I think. Singapore and Malaysia, we have adopted the simplified ones, following China’s footsteps.

        To me, you are learning Cantonese, which is already amazing, I don’t see a problem even if you don’t learn Shanghainese, better to be good at learning one language rather than being crap in 2 languages.


  13. Well, you know I chose Mandarin! Although it is not that I chose it, it was the only option available! I don’t think I know of any place in Spain where you can study Cantonese :/

    I have to confess a few years ago I hated the sound of Cantonese, now I love it! It is so sexy, haha.

    And what is that Va-zyAAAAH thing? I don’t think I have ever heard it haha. Suzhounese is very similar to Shanghainese and I think I have never faced such a difficult language. I have lived there for years and I cannot say more than 4 or 5 words…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ‘va’ is the negative like ‘no’, ‘zy’ is ‘is/are’ so ‘isn’t’ etc., but it needs to be done the right, old Shanghainese lady, way – nostrils open, eyebrows go together, voice goes high and then it starts… VA-ZY-AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAh, Momzilla’s favorite phrase while disagreeing with Sing 😀


  14. I tried to learn a little Mandarin before my first trip to China but was completely overwhelmed by the complexity of it. I soooooo appreciate people learning English. I feel guilty that I’m not better at learning other languages, but am so grateful that people around the world speak English because I really do want to communicate with them.


  15. I chose Mandarin for practical reasons: I live in Hong Kong for some time but I won’t use a lot of Cantonese after that. I can talk a bit for grocery shopping but that’s it.

    Sometimes, I regret that because Cantonese sounds so much softer and more fluent. To me, Cantonese is like Portuguese or French, while Mandarin is like Czech or Polish (no offence, my native language German doesn’t sound very nice either).


  16. Born as Chinese-Canadian who grow up in Indonesia, I learn many kind of languages included Chinese. I able to speak Cantonese, Hokkain, Hakka, Mandarin with different level and most of time I get confused LOL XD. I like all the languages (spoken) but my focus now is studying Mandarin for stronger basic (simplified and the traditional)


  17. It took me six years to come anywhere close to being able to say I can speak Chinese well… Now I’m starting Korean haha. So envious of the polyglots of the world!


  18. let me play the ‘devil’ for a second here. the mandarin language is more widely used and thus easier to find places to learn the language. cantonese language, however, is not. this is the reason why you should learn cantonese. so when sing speaks cantonese to his family and his future children, you’ll understand them and they can’t keep any secret from you. does this make any sense to you? ;p


    1. I had it in Dublin, there was a Korean restaurant owner but he was from Northern China. He also speaks Cantonese so when he talks to Sing he uses Cantonese. I asked about the dessert, and he replied to him it’s not good, so I repeat in English that ‘it’s not good?’ and his eyes got big and he was like ‘You understand? Now I need to watch what I say’ – Lina 1 Owner 0 😀


      1. lol. sometimes best not to let people know how many languages you understand. this way you’ll get to ‘hear’ more honest and interesting comments 🙂


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