There are many differences between the Cantonese and Mandarin language. When we talk about the Chinese language, we generally refer to Mandarin (Putonghua), the official language of China. Yet most words in the English language that originate from the Chinese language come from Cantonese, such as dim sum, wok, and lychee? Then, how come words from a dialect came into English more compared to the official language of China?
This is mainly due to the fact that the people from the Fujian and Canton regions in the south of China were the majority of Chinese overseas immigrants in earlier years. Among them, Fujianese mainly gathered in Southeast Asia, while Cantonese mainly gather in North America. Therefore, Cantonese, the dialect of the Canton people in the Guangzhou province, has entered the English cultural circle more widely and is well known by most foreigners — more so than the Mandarin dialect.
But in fact, there is a big difference between Cantonese and Mandarin. For example, the Mandarin pronunciations of the three words mentioned above are: “diǎnxīn”, “guō”, and “lìzhī”, though their characters remain the same. Therefore, to most Mandarin-speaking people, Cantonese is like a foreign language and vice versa. If you have not studied Cantonese systematically, it is almost impossible to understand the other.
Let’s look at the two languages.
Sentences have different structures
First of all, as mentioned earlier, Mandarin is the official language of China, while Cantonese is just a dialect in China. This means that in most parts of China, people have been learning Mandarin in school since they were young. Therefore, in most parts of China, people can communicate with each other in Mandarin. As a dialect, Cantonese is generally not learned in school, but naturally acquired through the family environment. What this means is that Cantonese speakers are more likely to also be able to speak Mandarin than vice versa.
In addition, because of the different positions of the two, their scope of application is also very different. Mandarin is commonly used throughout China; Cantonese is almost only used in Guangdong, most parts of Guangxi, Hong Kong, and Macau. Now, with the popularization of Mandarin in basic education, the dominant position of Mandarin has become more and more obvious. Therefore, the use of Cantonese among young people is gradually decreasing, and many young people don’t even speak their own dialect.
The languages sound different
In addition to their different social status and scope of application, the phonetic systems of the two languages are also very different. For example, some initials in Mandarin do not exist in Cantonese, such as “zh”, “ch”, “sh”, and “r”. Does it sound like it is easier to learn Cantonese? Actually not!
This is because there are some vowels in Cantonese that are not in Mandarin, for example, vowels ending in “m”, “b”, “d”, and “g” (that is, the final rhyme). The pronunciation of these vowels is quite special. If you have not been systematically trained, it is almost impossible to properly pronounce these sounds well. In addition, Cantonese has a total of nine tones, which is five more than Mandarin. Even native Mandarin speakers can hardly fully learn all the nine tones. Do you want to try?
The languages have a different vocabulary
In addition to the phonetic differences, Cantonese and Mandarin often use different words to express similar meanings. For example, “漂亮女孩(piàoliang nǚhái, pretty girls)”are called “靓女(liang3 neoi5)” in Cantonese, and “帅男孩(shuài nánhái, handsome boys)” are called “靓仔(liang3 zai2)”. In Mandarin it says, “站(zhàn, to stand)”, while Cantonese says “企(kei2)”; Mandarin says “睡(shuì, sleep)”, while Cantonese says 训(fan3); Mandarin says “看(kàn, to look)”, Cantonese says “睇(tai2)”; Mandarin says “吃(chī, to eat)”, Cantonese says “食(sik6)”.
There are many such differences in the vocabulary system. No wonder that it is difficult for Cantonese speakers and Mandarin speakers to understand each other.
Mandarin and Cantonese grammar is different
Even if you have mastered the differences in phonetics and vocabulary, the differences in grammars may still give you a great headache. In Cantonese, the order of many sentences is different from that of Mandarin. For example, Mandarin says, “I’ll first go”, while Cantonese will say, “I’ll go first.” Mandarin says “people many”, while Cantonese says “many people”. Mandarin says “give me a book”, while Cantonese says “give a book me”. Therefore, even if you can master Cantonese or Mandarin, it can still be very difficult to learn the other language.
To sum up, the difference between Cantonese and Mandarin is quite big. Generally speaking, it is more difficult to learn Cantonese than Mandarin, but the scope of application of Cantonese is much smaller. Therefore, if you want to learn Chinese faster and communicate with Chinese people, then probably learning Mandarin is more suitable for you.