Cantonese VS Mandarin: Their 6 Major Differences?

Cantonese vs Mandarin? You may be one of the many people who are wondering what language is spoken all over China including Chinatowns. If you are thinking that the answer is Chinese, well, you are not wrong. But did you know that Chinese is not a single language? It is a number of dialect groups. Do you know what Chinese dialect is mainly spoken? In this blog, we will learn about two of these dialects and their differences.

Chinese Language

Are you still confused? Well, try to think about it this way. Cabbage is a type of vegetable. Cantonese is a form of Chinese. I hope that it is clear to you.

Cantonese And Mandarin: What Are The Differences?

1. Places They Are Spoken

First, let us talk about Mandarin. Mandarin is the official language of Mainland China. It is widely spoken throughout the county that is why it is called the lingua franca or the main dialect of China. Mandarin is spoken by 960 million native speakers mainly in the north of China but now, it is used all over mainland China and Taiwan. It is also one of the four official languages of Singapore.

On the other hand, Cantonese is the least spoken. It is the local dialect of the south of China. It is spoken in Guangdong Province (capital of Guangzhou). Fun fact, the former name of Guangzhou is Canton which is why their language is called Cantonese. Aside from that, it is also the local dialect of southern Guangxi Province, Hong Kong, Macau, and different Chinese diaspora around the world.

Most of the Cantonese speakers in Hong Kong are elders. Although Mandarin can also be used in Hong Kong, you may not want to do that because it is not that positively and widely accepted. In fact, Mandarin is not required to be taught at school.

2. Written Chinese

Have you ever try writing Chinese characters? Most of us have already seen written Chinese characters. If you are not a native speaker, it may be challenging for you to write Chinese characters at first. One of the major differences between Cantonese and Mandarin is the way how they are written. Because both dialects share the same origin and have the same base characters, they have almost written the same way.

When it comes to writing the characters, Mandarin is written using simplified characters as set by the Chinese government in the 1950s. Cantonese, on the other hand, is still written traditionally. It has many strokes than Mandarin.

3. Spoken Chinese

Spoken Mandarin and Cantonese are mutually unintelligible. What does it mean? People who speak Mandarin will not generally be able to understand people who speak Cantonese, and vice versa.

Both Mandarin and Cantonese speakers have their own distinct way of pronouncing words. Nowadays, they both typically use Standard Chinese or Pǔ tōng huà. It is the standardized version of Mandarin that literally means “common language”. When you come across neighboring countries, you might also hear them as Guó yǔ in Taiwan or Huá yǔ in Singapore.

4. Tones

Writing and reading are two different skills to learn. In the case of Mandarin and Cantonese, there is a misconception that they are the same but they just differ in pronunciation. Well, they are not. So, what are the differences and similarities of these dialects?

The very important thing that we should learn is Mandarin and Cantonese are both tonal dialects which means that the tones affect the meaning of the word. The truth about Mandarin and Cantonese is they each have different tones. See the different tones of Mandarin and Cantonese below.


Mandarin has Five (5) different tones and one neutral tone. The neutral tone is a de-emphasized syllable with no tone distinction. These are the following:

  • High flat tone
  • Rising tone
  • Falling-rising tone
  • Falling tone
  • Neutral tone


Cantonese has six different (6) tones. There are three historical tones and these are usually used for syllables ending in p, t, or k. In total, Cantonese has nine (9) Check the following and compare it to Mandarin.

  • High flat tone
  • Mid rising tone
  • Mid flat tone
  • Low falling tone
  • Low rising tone
  • Low flat tone

Learning the tones requires more comprehensive studies but for now, what is important is you have an idea about the difference of Cantonese and Mandarin when it comes to their tones.

5. Grammatical Structure

When we talk about the grammatical structure, Cantonese and Mandarin are really different. For non-native speakers, it might be easier for you to learn and understand Cantonese because it follows a logical set of pattern. On the other hand, it will be harder for you to learn Mandarin because it often changes its structure based on the emotional meaning and the subject.

6. Usefulness

Of course when learning a language, one of the things that you should consider is the usefulness of the language. Which is more useful? Mandarin or Cantonese? You might be asking the same question so this is something that you should think about.

When you go to China, the businesses and government activities are conducted in Mandarin. In public schools, most students, even Cantonese speakers, are learning Mandarin as a second language. So if you are in mainland China, it will be easier for you to communicate with others because most people are speaking Mandarin.

The case for Cantonese is different. As mentioned above, the majority of people who speak Cantonese are from, Guangdong Province, Guangxi Province, Hong Kong, and Macau. Mandarin in these places is not widely used therefore if you are planning to go to these places, learning Cantonese is the one that will be useful for you.

When we talk about the usefulness of any language, always consider the country where you are going. What is being widely spoken? What do locals mainly use? These are the two questions that you need to ask yourself.

Cantonese VS Mandarin: Summary


  • Both have the same roots of written characters
  • Both are tonal


Choosing Between Mandarin And Cantonese

There are two things that you need to consider. First is “What is your goal?” If your goal is to be understood and to understand people in China, you should go with Mandarin. The second is “What country are you visiting?” If you are planning to visit Hong Kong or Macau, you can still consider learning Cantonese. Like what is stated above, although some people speak Cantonese, it is not that widely accepted there.

Learning any language, especially if you are a non-native speaker, can be really tough. Even if you have read piles of books or many articles, knowledge will not magically transform into understanding and fluency. The key to learning a certain language is mastery. You can use different language learning tools such as language learning apps to expose yourself to the language. Chinese is one of the hardest languages to learn. Learning both Cantonese and Mandarin will not hurt you as long as you are eager and passionate about it. It will surely open doors for you to have a deeper understanding of the country’s culture.

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