Learn Mandarin or Cantonese?

Which type of Chinese should I learn? Since you’re reading this article, you’re probably aware that ‘Chinese’ is not just a single language. And instead there are many different forms of Chinese, Mandarin and Cantonese being the two most common.

Normally when someone says they want to learn Chinese they are referring to Mandarin. However, this isn’t always the case. If you don’t have a particular goal in mind and you just want a challenge then you may find yourself in the position of not being able to choose between learning Mandarin or Cantonese. So which one should you choose?


What are the differences between Cantonese and Mandarin?

  • Although both languages are tonal languages, Mandarin has four tones and a neutral tone whereas Cantonese has six to nine tones.
  • Luckily the characters don’t differentiate between the two languages. They are just pronounced differently when read. Having said that, in Hong Kong where they speak Cantonese, they use traditional characters. So sometimes Cantonese and traditional can go hand in hand.
  • All Mandarin words end in a vowel or a nasal sound, where as Cantonese words can end in the following consonants: p, t and k
  • The grammar is also different between Cantonese and Mandarin, though not dramatically so. Both have a SVO sentence structure, but structure varies with direct objects and comparisons.
  • There is approximately a 50% difference in vocabulary words between Cantonese and Mandarin.

Tones in Mandarin

  1. High flat tone – mā
  2. Rising tone – má
  3. Falling then rising tone – mǎ
  4. Falling tone – mà
  5. Neutral tone – ma

Tones in Cantonese

  1. High flat tone
  2. Mid rising tone
  3. Mid flat tone
  4. Low falling tone
  5. Low rising tone
  6. Low flat tone

Where are Mandarin and Cantonese spoken?

Although spoken in these regions, it is important to be aware that many regions of China have their own dialects which are often completely different to Mandarin or Cantonese. For example in Shanghai, they speak Shanghainese. Though don’t worry, if you learn Mandarin, you’ll still be understood in these places.

Where is Mandarin spoken?

  • Taiwan
  • Singapore
  • Most of mainland China
  • Important note: Although Cantonese and Mandarin are both spoken in China, the only official language is Mandarin

Where is Cantonese spoken?

  • Hong Kong
  • Macau
  • Usually in the south of mainland China

Why are you learning Chinese?

Are you planning on moving abroad?

If you’re planning on moving abroad then I would decide by the highest numbers of speakers in that region. For example if you’re moving to Hong Kong, Ghuangzhou or southern areas of China I would learn Cantonese. If you’re moving to Taiwan, Singapore and the majority of China I would learn Mandarin.

If you haven’t decided yet I would highly recommend researching the areas before you make you decision to start learning. This isn’t like the difference between different types of Spanish. A Cantonese speaker can’t understand a Mandarin speaker unless they also speak Mandarin.

Are you looking to increase your opportunities in the job market?

Both languages would increase your employability in the job market.

Cantonese could be useful because less native English speakers can speak it. Normally if people are learning Chinese then they choose Mandarin. Therefore it makes you rarer which can always help when you’re searching for a job. Hong Kong is also a very interesting place full of banks and businesses and lots of opportunities to develop a career. If you learnt Cantonese you would be opening yourself to this world.

On the other hand, of course Mandarin would make you more competitive on the job market. It is the most spoken language in the world. China’s economy just keeps on growing and they seem to be developing faster and faster. Mainland China is also just a lot larger than the Cantonese speaking regions, so there are more banks, more jobs, more opportunities.

Mandarin is definitely becoming more sought after generally by companies. However if you want to live in Hong Kong or have a specific job you’re looking at then Cantonese could be for you.

Are you learning just for fun?

If you’re learning just for fun then you probably know my answer. It’s up to you. Which ones do you find more interesting? Which regions of China would you be most interested in visiting.

If you’re planning a big trip which covers most of mainland China and Hong Kong, then I would recommend learning Mandarin as most people can speak Mandarin even if it isn’t their first language. Whereas most Mandarin speakers can’t speak Cantonese.

If you’ve never learnt a tonal language before then Mandarin could be easier for, but then again maybe you’re looking for a challenge.

If you are learning just for fun and are struggling to decide then let’s look at some of these pros and cons.

Benefits of Mandarin

  • More people speak Mandarin
  • Less tones to master
  • The Chinese government are pushing to use more Mandarin in schools and media in Hong Kong, so even in Hong Kong you can get by with Mandarin. (Though I imagine they’d prefer it if you would speak Cantonese).
  • Cantonese speakers can often also speak Mandarin, but Mandarin speakers can’t necessarily speak Cantonese.

Benefits of Cantonese

  • Hong Kong is very westernised and has a lot of industry and banks. If you’re looking to move out east but you still want the comforts of home then Hong Kong and Cantonese could be for you.
  • Its’s easier to learn Mandarin after Cantonese than the other way round. If you’ve already learnt a language with nine tones, then you’re easily going to master a language with just four of them.

Final thoughts

Unless you’re planning on moving to Hong Kong or you have a specific job lined up in the south of China, then I would recommend learning Mandarin. You have a much greater reach with it as there are more native speakers. You also can be understood in Hong Kong if you know Mandarin. Also with the whole tone situation, Mandarin is probably the easier to learn.

Now the only question is should you learn simplified or traditional characters?

Good luck and keep learning.

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