Mandarin vs Cantonese: What’s the Difference? (Comparison Chart)

Mandarin vs Cantonese

If you are considering learning Chinese, then you’re probably interested in the similarities and differences in Mandarin vs Cantonese, and wondering which is the better choice for you.

Mandarin and Cantonese are the two most popular Chinese languages spoken by over one billion people in the world. Although they share similar traits and have lots of features in common, they are two very different languages at their core.

We’ve been frequently asked what Mandarin and Cantonese sound like to each other, which is easier, and whether knowing Mandarin helps understand Cantonese, or whether knowing Cantonese helps to learn Mandarin. Well, we’re here to put those questions to rest! 

So here’s an extremely honest, transparent, and in-depth comparison of Mandarin vs Cantonese, covering the geographic spread, populations, similarities and differences in pronunciation, tones, vocabulary, grammar, writing system, and more. 

We’ll also highlight the pros and cons of learning each language, so you’ll have the details necessary to determine when it makes sense to learn Mandarin and when Cantonese is the better option. In the end, you’ll be able to decide whether to learn Mandarin or Cantonese for your unique goals and interests.

Sound good? Let’s bring on the battle.

Table of Contents

Are Mandarin and Cantonese the Same?

No. Cantonese is a separate language from Mandarin – i.e. NOT a dialect of Mandarin. They are both Chinese languages but come from different branches. Mandarin is the “standard version” of Chinese based on the Beijing and northern Chinese dialects, and Cantonese is a variety of Yue languages spoken in the southeast corner of China.

What is Mandarin?

Mandarin (Mandarin Chinese, or standard Chinese as we know it with the familiar four tones) is the only official language of China at a national level and one of the working languages of the United Nations. It was first documented in the Yuan Dynasty in 14th century China and was later standardized and advocated as the national language after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

Mandarin is the native language of 920 million people living in northern and southwestern China, who constitute 65.7% of China’s population. People from other areas of China generally speak another variety of Chinese (e.g. Cantonese, Hokkien, Hakka, Shanghainese) as their first language, yet most of them can speak Mandarin fluently as a second language after learning it in school. 

Mandarin geography spread

Outside China (PRC), Mandarin is spoken as the official language of Taiwan, as well as one of the four official languages of Singapore.

Mandarin’s vocabulary, pronunciation, and tone rules vary by major region (from Heilongjiang Province in the northeast all the way down to Yunnan in the southwest), but the language is essentially the same. In Beijing, the form is called 北京话 (Běijīng huà), meaning Beijing language, or Beijing dialect. In Sichuan, where the language is similar but with apparent pronunciation and tone differences, the dialect is called 四川话 (Sìchuān huà) – Sichuan language.

For this analysis, we’ll consider Mandarin to be “Standard Mandarin” as opposed to a regional Mandarin dialect.

What is Cantonese?

Cantonese is a regional language spoken by about 100 million people in southern China. Around 65 million of these are in Guangdong Province (capital Guangzhou, historically called Canton, hence “Cantonese”), around 25 million in southern Guangxi Province, 7 million in Hong Kong, and 550 thousand in Macao.

Cantonese geography spread

Historically, Cantonese is the most popular form of Chinese spoken outside China. Most overseas Chinese communities, such as those in Southeast Asia and North America, also speak Cantonese as the primary language, because most early Chinese immigrants hail from Guangdong.

It is estimated that there are 5 million Cantonese speakers in Thailand, 5 million in Singapore and Malaysia, 2 million in the USA and Canada, bringing the total number of Cantonese speakers worldwide to nearly 120 million.

Cantonese has a longer history than Mandarin. It is believed to have originated after the fall of the Han Dynasty in 220 AD when long periods of war caused northern Chinese to flee south, carrying their ancient language with them. Therefore, Cantonese bears more resemblance to classical Chinese than Mandarin. 

The term Cantonese is sometimes used for the whole Yue Chinese varieties spoken in southeastern China, which comprises many closely related dialects with variations in pronunciation, tones, and vocabulary. For this analysis, we’ll consider Cantonese to be the prestige and the most commonly spoken variety native to the city of Guangzhou (Canton), Hong Kong, and Macao.   

Dialect or Language?

In Mainland China, where the government only actively supports one language – Mandarin, Cantonese is perceived as a dialect for politics and identity. It’s standard practice for most people who speak Cantonese to also speak fluent Mandarin – but not vice versa. 

Linguistically, however, Cantonese is a distinct language, far more than a dialect or accent. In fact, Cantonese is very different from Mandarin. If you start to listen to a little Cantonese, you will see just how much that is true. Although the two languages share some common traits, Cantonese could be completely unintelligible to the uninformed Mandarin speaker.

In Hong Kong and neighboring Macao, Cantonese is both the everyday language and the de facto official language (along with English/Portuguese) used in the government and schools, though legally the official language is just “Chinese”. 

While the overall standard of Mandarin is rising in Hong Kong and Macao, especially among young people, Cantonese remains an important element of regional identity. And to many, speaking and publishing in the language is an expression of freedom from Mainland rule.

In a Nutshell – Mandarin vs Cantonese: Whats the Difference?

History and geography aside, what’s the real difference between Mandarin and Cantonese? You have to ask.

At their core, Mandarin and Cantonese are distinct languages with different pronunciation and tone systems, a lot of unique vocabulary, and sentence structures, despite they can be written with a mostly common script and share similar grammar rules. The similarity and difference between Mandarin and Cantonese are a bit like those between Spanish and Portuguese.

Although the two languages look very similar on paper and speakers of either language can read the other language without much struggle, spoken Mandarin and Cantonese remain completely mutually unintelligible. That means a speaker of either Mandarin or Cantonese with no significant exposure of familiarity with the other could at best recognize a couple of similar-sounding words during a random conversation, but it’d be a lost cause to understand what was happening at all.

Before we delve into the details, let’s take a quick overview of the key differences between Mandarin and Cantonese.

Overview Comparison of Mandarin and Cantonese

  Mandarin Cantonese
Population Native: 920 million;
Second language: 200 million
In China: 100 million;
Chinese diaspora: 20 million
Geography Spread Official language: China PRC, Taiwan, Singapore De facto official language: Hong Kong, Macao;
Predominant language: Guangdong Province, part of Guangxi Province, Chinatowns worldwide
History First documented in the 14th century Believed to have originated in 220 AD
Pronunciation Close to 0% similarity Close to 0% similarity
Tones 4, plus 1 neutral tone 6, plus 3 entering tones
Vocabulary 50% lexical similarity 50% lexical similarity
Grammar Almost identical Almost identical
Written Form Standard Written Chinese (written as how it’s said) Informal: Written Vernacular Cantonese (written as how it’s said);
Formal: Standard Written Chinese (written with Mandarin words & syntax – not as how it’s said)
Characters China PRC, Singapore: simplified;
Taiwan: traditional
Guangdong, Guangxi: simplified;
Hong Kong, Macao: traditional
Colloquialism Rich in idiomatic expressions Even richer in slang and idioms
Famous Dialects Beijing Mandarin, Northeastern Mandarin, Sichuan Mandarin, Taiwan Mandarin Taishanese 

Now, we’ll reveal all the secrets and go in-depth into the fine differences between the two languages. 

You might also like these articles about Chinese languages
Mandarin vs Chinese: What’s the difference?
Shanghainese vs Mandarin: What’s the Difference?

Mandarin vs Cantonese Pronunciation

By far, the largest difference between Mandarin and Cantonese lies in pronunciation – they sound completely different.

Mandarin and Cantonese have distinct pronunciation rules. Most of the Chinese words are pronounced differently in the two languages, even though they could look 100% the same when written down.

An example of how radically different the pronunciation of spoken words can be is as follows:

The Chinese word 秘密 – “secret” in Mandarin is “mì mì”, which is pronounced “mee-mee” whist in Cantonese it’s “bei3 mat6”, which is pronounced “bay-mah”.

If you have trouble understanding such difference, here’s an analog:

Many words spell and mean the same in Spanish and English, for instance, “idea, cultural, manual”, but they sound quite different to the casual observer.

Due to its longer history, Cantonese preserves some older Chinese elements which have been entirely lost in Mandarin. Classical poetry, for example, rhymes and sounds much better when read in Cantonese than in Mandarin.

Here are some of the most important differences between Mandarin and Cantonese in terms of pronunciation:

  • Cantonese has more vowels than Mandarin, which can be open and closed, and it has a broader range of consonants. As a result, there are more distinct syllables (sounds) in Cantonese than in Mandarin (630 vs 409), ignoring the tones.
  • Mandarin has some retroflex sounds, like ch, sh, zh, and r, which are pronounced with the tongue fully curled back. Cantonese does not have.
  • In Mandarin, every syllable ends in a vowel or a nasal sound. Cantonese has unique syllable endings in final consonants, like -t, -p, or -k, which Mandarin does not have.
  • Many same-sounding characters in Mandarin have different pronunciations in Cantonese. For example, 学 (learn), 雪 (snow), and 血 (blood) are all pronounced “xue” in Mandarin with minor tone differences, but in Cantonese, the three characters are pronounced in three completely different ways – “hok”, “syut”, and “hyut” respectively.

Here’s a video clip of Canadian comedian Dashan speaking Mandarin and Cantonese. Observe the difference.

Mandarin vs Cantonese Tones

The next significant difference between Mandarin and Cantonese is the tones.

If you are learning Chinese, you probably have a good sense of how critical getting the tones right really is. In many cases, adopting the wrong tone will lead to painful misunderstandings when you interact with native speakers.

Like any variety of Chinese, both Mandarin and Cantonese are tonal languages (in which the pitch tone is used to distinguish the meaning of words), but they have a different tone system.

The main difference, expressed in as simple terms as possible, is that Cantonese lacks the falling-rising tone which is common in Mandarin but has two additional flat tones.

Unlike Mandarin which has four tones (plus the fifth unstressed “neutral tone”), Cantonese uses six basic tones, and they don’t fully correspond with the Mandarin ones.

Tone Number Mandarin Cantonese
1 High flat tone High flat tone
2 Rising tone Mid rising tone
3 Falling-rising tone Mid flat tone
4 Falling tone Low falling tone
5 (Neutral tone) Low rising tone
6   Low flat tone

Technically there are three more tones in Cantonese called “entering tones” or “checked tones”. However, they’re not real tones in the phonetic sense but are rather syllables that end in a stop consonant such as -p,- t,- k, or a glottal stop. So, you only need to know six tones, instead of the nine required elsewhere.

This video gives a glimpse of how Mandarin tones work.

Now compare them to Cantonese tones.  

Aside from the tone of individual sounds, there are a few differences in tone change rules between Mandarin and Cantonese (there are certain circumstances under which a Chinese word or character’s normal tone will regularly change to a specific different tone), as well as in the intonation and stress of entire sentences. But those are less critical and not huge distinctions, just things to learn along the way in your Chinese learning journey.

Mandarin vs Cantonese Vocabulary

You may expect words in Mandarin and Cantonese to be basically the same as both languages are varieties of Chinese. But it’s not that simple.

Yes, there’s a vocabulary overlap between the two languages. But the lexical similarity between Mandarin and spoken Cantonese, by a popular measure, is less than 50%, that is, more than half of the words are different (though often related), including a lot of common, everyday vocabulary – enough that with the pronunciation and tone differences Mandarin and Cantonese speakers will be unable to communicate with each other at all.

For instance, the word “look” in Mandarin is 看 (kàn), while in Cantonese it’s 睇 (tai2); and “walk” is 走 (zǒu) in Mandarin but 行 (hieng2) in Cantonese.

Here’s a quick comparison between Mandarin and Cantonese wording and vocabulary.

  • Cantonese retains a lot of ancient Chinese vocabulary, mostly single-character words, while basic Mandarin words are mostly two characters.

Examples of the vocabulary of Mandarin and Cantonese compared:

English Mandarin Cantonese
eye 眼睛 (yǎn jīng) 眼 (ngaan5)
ear 耳朵 (ěr duō ) 耳 (ji5)
tongue 舌头 (shé tou) 脷 (lei6)
wing 翅膀 (chì bǎng) 翼 (jik6)
tale 尾巴 (wěi ba) 尾 (mei5)
clothes 衣服 (yī fu) 衫 (saam1)
know 认识 (rèn shi) 识 (sik1)
pretty 漂亮 (piào liang) 靓 (leng3)
not good 不好 (bù hǎo) 弊 (bai6)
easy 容易 (róng yì) 易 (ii6)
  • The order of two-character compound words is, in many cases, reversed by swapping the characters around in Cantonese when compared to Mandarin. For instance, “rooster” in Mandarin is 公鸡 (gōng jī), literally “male chicken”, while in Cantonese, it’s 鸡公 (gai1 gung1) – “chicken male”.

More examples of forwards vs backwards words in Mandarin and Cantonese:

English Mandarin Cantonese
guest 客人 (kè rén) 人客 (jan4 haak3)
morning 早晨 (zǎo chén) 晨早 (san4 zou2)
privacy 隐私 (yǐn sī) 私隐 (si1 jan2)
vegetable 蔬菜 (shū cài) 菜蔬 (coi3 so1)
strength 力气 (lì qi) 气力 (hei3 lik6)
blame 责怪 (zé guài) 怪责 (gwaai3 zaak3)
like 喜欢 (xǐ huan) 欢喜 (fun1 hei2)
urgent 要紧 (yào jǐn) 紧要 (gan2 jiu3)
convenient 便利 (biàn lì) 利便 (lei6 bin6)
tidy 整齐 (zhěng qí) 齐整 (cai4 zing2)
  • Cantonese is peppered with a lot more English loanwords than Mandarin, particularly the version spoken in Hong Kong due to over 100 years of British rule.

For instance, in Hong Kong Cantonese, the word 士多啤梨 (si6 do1 bei1 lei2) – “strawberry” is transliterated from English with close matching characters that sound similar to English. In Mandarin, strawberry is 草莓 (cǎo méi), literally “grass berry”. Cantonese speakers from Mainland China also use 草莓 but pronounce the word in the Cantonese way – cou2 mui4.

More examples of words that are different between Mandarin and Cantonese (in which loanwords are used).

English Mandarin Cantonese
bus 客车 (kè chē) 巴士 (baa1 si2)
taxi 出租车 (chū zū chē) 的士 (dik1 si2)
ball 球 (qiú) 波 (bo1)
boss 老板 (lǎo bǎn) 波士 (bo1 si2)
tips/advice 提示 (tí shì) 贴士 (tip1 si2)
face 面子 (miàn zi) 飞士 (fei1 si2)
License 执照 (zhí zhào) 拉臣 (laai1 san4)
pancake 煎饼 (jiān bǐng) 班戟 (baan1 gik1)
cheese 奶酪 (nǎi lào) 芝士 (zi1 si2)
store 商店 (shāng diàn) 士多 (si6 do1)
  • Cantonese people are believed to be more superstitious than northern Chinese people. They admire lucky things and will go out of their way to avoid words with inauspicious meanings, resulting in different choices of vocabulary sometimes.

For instance, luffa (sponge gourd) – a popular, cucumber-like vegetable in China is called 丝瓜 (sī guā), literally “silky gourd” in Mandarin. However, Cantonese speakers renamed it 胜瓜 (sing3 gwaa1), literally (win gourd), because the character 丝 (si1) sounds like 输 (syu1) – “lose” in Cantonese.

Mandarin vs Cantonese Grammar

The grammar of Mandarin and Cantonese is largely the same, relative to other languages. If you know one, then it’s trivial to learn the other.

Here’s a quick guide to what both Mandarin and Cantonese grammar have in common.

  • Both Mandarin and Cantonese lack marking for tense, person, case, gender, or plurals. Similarly, there is no distinction for tense or person in verbs, with word order and particles generally expressing these grammatical characteristics.
  • The basic sentence order is roughly the same in Mandarin and Cantonese. Both languages are fundamental SVO (subject-verb-object).

For example, here’s a sentence meaning “I read those books”.

Mandarin: 我看了那些书 (Wǒ kàn le nà xiē shū)
Cantonese: 我睇咗嗰啲書 (Ngo5 tai2 zo2 go2 di1 syu1)

Word for word, both sentences translate as “I read those books”, so you can see both are SVO.

  • The grammatical words, although look and sound different in Mandarin and Cantonese, generally have the same semantic function. For example, the structural particle – Mandarin 的 (de) and Cantonese 嘅 (ge3)/啲 (di1); the perfective marker for “completed action” – Mandarin 了 (le) and Cantonese 咗 (zo2), “not” – Mandarin 不 (bù) and Cantonese 唔 (m4).

Nonetheless, they are a few important differences between Mandarin and Cantonese grammar.

  • In Mandarin sentences, the indirect object always comes before the direct object, while in Cantonese it comes after, when certain verbs are used.

For example, here’s a sentence in each language meaning “give me that book”.

Mandarin: 给我那本书 (Gěi wǒ nà běn shū)
Literally, “Give me that book.”

Cantonese: 畀嗰本書我 (Bei2 go2 bun2 syu1 ngo5)
Literally, “Give that book (to) me.”

Notice that the word meaning “I” and the phrase “that book” are reversed in the two languages.

  • Comparison is formed differently in Mandarin and Cantonese.

In Mandarin, comparison is marked by adding the word 比 (bi), meaning “compare” between the two things, with the adjective itself unchanged. For example, to say “He is taller than me”, you would say:

他比我高。(Tā bǐ wǒ gāo)
Literally, “He compare (to) me tall.”

In Cantonese, however, comparison is formed by adding the marker 過 (gwo3) after an adjective.

佢高過我。(Keoi5 gou1 gwo3 ngo5)
Literally, “He tall more than me.”

You can see that in the Mandarin sentence the adjective comes at the end while in Cantonese it comes before the comparative word. Plus, the comparative word is different in the two languages.

  • Cantonese has a dedicated habitual aspect marker (which specifies an action as occurring habitually), 開 (hoi1), with no similar counterpart in Mandarin. 

Example:

我住香港。
Ngo5 zyu6 hoi1 Hoeng1 Gong2.
I’ve been living in Hong Kong.

  • Spoken Cantonese uses more modal particles to express a certain “mood”. 

For example, “Have you eaten” in Mandarin is 你吃了吗? (Nǐ chī le ma), but in Cantonese, it’s 你食咗啦吓? (Nei5 sik6 zo2 laa3 haa5).

While Mandarin is restricted to sentence-final 了 (le) and one particle, it is possible to stack various of such particles one after the other in Cantonese for exclamation (though they don’t have any core meaning).

Mandarin vs Cantonese Writing System

Neither Mandarin nor Cantonese uses an alphabetical writing system as English does. Instead, they use characters that are comprised of parts that depict physical objects or abstract ideas.

While Mandarin and Cantonese share the same writing script, there are some important differences in how the two languages are written.

One of the convenient things about Mandarin is that there are no differences between the spoken and written language (officially called “Standard Written Chinese”), meaning everything is written exactly the way it is spoken.

Things can get a bit tricky with Cantonese, since Cantonese is mainly a spoken language and there is no standardization to written vernacular Cantonese, so you will see it vary a lot depending on who is writing. 

These days, Cantonese speakers typically write in standard written Chinese in formal occasions, which is largely based on spoken Mandarin – even though their language is different. When reading the script out loud, Cantonese speakers will simply say each word using Cantonese pronunciation. In other words, Cantonese is read still as Cantonese but the grammar, syntax, words, etc. are basically all in Mandarin.

For example, the standard written Chinese word 的 (dik1) is often used instead of the Cantonese word 嘅 (ge3) for the ‘s in written Cantonese, but when reading it people still pronounce it as “ge3”, the way it is pronounced in Cantonese.

The problem is that spoken Cantonese often has a completely different vocabulary set (and somewhat different grammar). Standard written Chinese, while perfect for Mandarin, is seriously lacking to accurately “transcribe” Cantonese and other “dialects”. 

So, extra characters, as well as characters with different meanings from standard written Chinese are often included due to the presents of words that either do not exist in Mandarin or correspond with spoken Cantonese. In 1999, the Hong Kong government specifically published the Hong Kong Supplementary Character Set, which contains many unique characters for writing spoken Cantonese.

This form of written Cantonese, which reflects the spoken language, is often found in informal contexts such as text messages, social media, comics, gossip magazines, as well as on casual advertisements. (The present technology and electronic communication have greatly boosted the growth of written spoken Cantonese).

written Cantonese

Simplified or Traditional Characters?

If you’ve been in the game for a while, you know there are two character sets in Chinese: simplified and traditional.

This is because, in the 1950s and 1960s, the state council of the People’s Republic of China simplified a large number of characters in an effort to boost literacy rates. As the names imply, simplified characters are more “simple”, being built on fewer strokes than the traditional characters.

Mandarin vs Cantonese characters
An example of traditional character 龍 (dragon) simplified to 龙.

A common misconception about Mandarin vs Cantonese is that Mandarin is always written in simplified characters and Cantonese is always written in traditional characters. But, it’s not that simple. In reality, the use of simplified/traditional characters varies by region, not language. 

Simplified characters are used in Mainland China and Singapore (after the 1980s). Traditional characters are used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao, which were not under Chinese rule when simplified characters were introduced.

You can see that the simplified/traditional character difference is actually independent of the Mandarin/Cantonese difference. So, a Mandarin speaker from Taiwan would write with traditional characters, and a Cantonese speaker from Mainland China would use simplified characters.

The following chart shows what writing system is used in each Mandarin and Cantonese-speaking region.  

  Mandarin Cantonese
Simplified Characters Mainland China
Singapore
Malaysia
Mainland China (mainly Guangdong & Guangxi Province)
Traditional Characters Taiwan Hong Kong
Macao

Unlike the many local varieties of Chinese that are hard to understand for an outlander, simplified and traditional Chinese characters are recognizable and fairly easy for a native speaker to read regardless of which system the person uses the most.

For example, native Mandarin speakers in China can read most traditional characters easily without dedicated learning and vice versa.

Mandarin vs Cantonese Romanization System

Another important difference between Mandarin and Cantonese is their romanization systems. They differ between the two languages.

Since the Chinese characters themselves stand for blocks of meaning, not sounds (looking at a character and knowing its meaning doesn’t mean you’ll be able to say it), romanization systems are designed to help as a pronunciation guide, both for Chinese children and second language learners.

Essentially, Chinese romanization is the use of English letters to represent the sound of Chinese words. If you haven’t already noticed, they are the English spelling we put in parentheses after the Chinese characters in this guide.

For example,

  • Mandarin: 我看了那些书 (wǒ kàn le nà xiē shū)
    Cantonese: 我睇咗嗰啲書 (Ngo5 tai2 zo2 go2 di1 syu1)
    “I read those books.”

Mandarin Romanization: Pinyin

The official romanization system for Mandarin is called Pinyin, which is used in Mainland China, and to some extent in Taiwan and Singapore. In Pinyin, tone marks are placed on top of vowel letters to represent the four tones of Mandarin. (Words without a tone mark are read in neutral tone)

Almost all books for young kids and beginning Mandarin learners you can find in Chinese bookstores are published with Pinyin, along with characters.

Pinyin makes pronunciation in Mandarin a breeze for foreigners. We’ve created a quick guide to Pinyin to help you map out all the Mandarin sounds. Visit here.

Cantonese Romanization: Jyutping vs Yale

Unlike Mandarin, there is no official romanization system for Cantonese due to a lack of government standardization. This means if you’re learning Cantonese, you’ll have to get used to two major romanization systems in use now for Cantonese – Jyutping and Yale, as the Cantonese learning materials that you will come across will likely use either. 

Here’s an example of what Jyutping and Yale look like using a well-known Cantonese greeting that’s used at Chinese New Year.

  • Chinese characters: 恭喜发财 (simplified) / 恭喜發財 (traditional)
    Jyutping: gung1 hei2 faat3 coi4
    Yale: gūng héi faat chòih
    “Congratulations on a prosperous New Year”

Can you spot the difference? Jyutping uses numbers after the English letters to symbolize the six tones of Cantonese while Yale, like Pinyin, uses accents to mark the tones, with an additional h for the lower register sounds.

Notice how the “c” of Jyutping Romanization is replaced with a “ch” in the Yale system, and how an “h” is added at the end to indicate the low pitch.

Other than that, the switch between Jyutping and Yale is fairly easy and intuitive, so it’s very little effort on your part.

In general, older Cantonese publications use Yale, while most newer learning materials prefer Jyutping, mainly due to its convenience when it comes to typing in Chinese. For this reason, we use Jyutping exclusively as Cantonese romanization in this guide, and we would strongly recommend you, too, start out with Jyutping.

(See Cantolounge’s interactive Jyutping Chart with audio if you are interested in that system.)

Mandarin vs Cantonese Slang and Idioms

Both Mandarin and Cantonese use lots of slang and idioms. While there is some overlap between the two, many expressions are unique to each language and can’t be understood by the other.

Cantonese is known for its bizarre and colorful colloquialisms. If a Mandarin speaker were to read a piece of Chinese writing in vernacular Cantonese, they might roughly know what topic it was about seeing major common words, but would draw a total blank if colloquial or idiomatic expressions are used.

The following chart can give you an idea of how different Cantonese expressions and idioms can be from those in Mandarin. And remember, it’s just the tip of the iceberg!

Mandarin Cantonese Meaning
去死 (qù sǐ) 仆街 (puk1 gaai1) drop dead
鞭长莫及 (biān cháng mò jí) 拉牛上樹 (laai1 ngau4 soeng5 syu6) mission impossible
装神弄鬼 (zhuāng shén nòng guǐ) 扮鬼扮馬 (baan6 gwai2 baan6 maa5) deliberately trick someone
骑驴找马 (qí lǘ zhǎo mǎ) 騎牛搵馬 (ke4 ngau4 wan2 maa5) working one job but on the lookout for something better
为所欲为 (wéi suǒ yù wéi) 和尚擔遮 (wo4 soeng2 daam1 ze1) do whatever one pleases
过河拆桥 (guò hé chāi qiáo) 過橋抽板 (gwo3 kiu4 cau1 baan2) abandon one’s benefactor upon achieving one’s goal
忍无可忍 (rěn wú kě rěn) 佛都有火 (fat6 dou1 jau5 fo2) more than one can bear
阴沟里翻船 (yīn gōu lǐ fān chuán) 老貓燒鬚 (lou5 maau1 siu1 sou1) makes a careless mistake in one’s expertise
风马牛不相及 (fēng mǎ niú bù xiāng jí) 九唔搭八 (gau2 m4 daap3 baat3) completed unrelated

Will Knowing Cantonese (or Mandarin) Help You Learn Mandarin (or Cantonese)?

Mandarin Cantonese comparison

Yes, knowing either Mandarin or Cantonese definitely helps with learning the other. While a speaker of Mandarin or Cantonese would undoubtedly have to spend time learning the other language to communicate at any level, they’d advance faster than someone without the same advantage, approximately 5075% faster.

As you can see from our investigation of Mandarin vs Cantonese, even though the languages are different, there are similar things that make one reminiscent of the other. In fact, if a Cantonese speaker knows just a bit of Mandarin, or if a Mandarin speaker has some exposure to Cantonese music or movies, it becomes possible to figure out what’s going on, if vaguely (it requires one person to speak slowly, and the other to listen patiently). 

The main ways it helps to know either Mandarin or Cantonese to learn Cantonese or Mandarin are:

1. Knowledge of Mandarin or Cantonese gives you a head-start in vocabulary because of the shared words.

Many everyday words are different, but a word in Mandarin or Cantonese will remind you of the word in the other language – basically, you get a set of excellent mnemonics.

It’s like the word 饮 (jam2) in Cantonese, which most commonly is the word for “drink”. It reminds you of the word 饮料 (yǐn liào) in Mandarin, which means “beverage” (it also means this in Cantonese). The word 饮is used differently in the two languages but it helps you remember.

Once you’re past the first 500-1,000 everyday words, there’s a lot more in common in advanced vocabulary, between Mandarin and Cantonese. So, a Cantonese-speaking Mandarin learner can decipher Mandarin words without much dedicated effort, and vice versa.

2. You have some advantage in pronunciation if you know Mandarin and Cantonese and learn the other.

Even though the pronunciation and tones are different, there are similar sounds in both languages. This is an advantage both ways going from Mandarin to Cantonese, and Cantonese to Mandarin. Of course, you’ll still have to learn how to produce the sounds unique to each language, such as the zh, ch, sh, and j, q, x sounds in Mandarin, and the entering tones -p,- t,- k in Cantonese. 

3. Knowing Mandarin or Cantonese and learning the other gives you a jump start on reading and writing, as the writing script – characters are mostly the same. 

One of the biggest obstacles to learning either Mandarin or Cantonese is the characters. The Hong Kong and Macao varieties of Cantonese use traditional characters while the Mainland Mandarin uses simplified ones. If you know one character set, it’s pretty easy to recognize the other set, once you know the patterns.

Learn Mandarin or Cantonese?

This has been quite a comprehensive guide to Mandarin vs Cantonese in plain language. Now, it all boils down to this question: which should you learn – Mandarin or Cantonese?

There’s a lot to consider when deciding whether to learn Mandarin vs Cantonese (or whether to learn one after learning the other) from a learner’s perspective, but for nearly all people wed recommend learning Mandarin, first in spoken form, and later in characters.

Reasons for Learning Mandarin Over Cantonese

Here are the pros of learning Mandarin over Cantonese (and cons of learning Cantonese over Mandarin).

1. Mandarin is MUCH more widely spoken than Cantonese. 

Mandarin is the official language of China (PRC) and Taiwan. If you speak fluent Mandarin, you are well-equipped with the knowledge to engage in conversation with people in any part of the country.

Mandarin is also one of the four official languages of Singapore and one of the most spoken foreign languages in many East Asia and Southeast Asia countries (e.g. Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia).

By contrast, Cantonese is spoken predominantly in Hong Kong, Macao, and two southern provinces of Mainland China. Even in Hong Kong, there is a rising educational preference for Mandarin (the most sought-after preschools in Hong Kong nowadays are taught in English or Mandarin, rather than Cantonese). And if you go to Guangzhou or Shenzhen, you can expect any educated people there to speak Mandarin fluently.

2. Mandarin is easier than Cantonese.

This is something generally agreed by the language learning community. Overall, Mandarin is slightly easier than Cantonese for two reasons.

First, Mandarin pronunciation is relatively easier – there are “only” four tones. Once you reach the later stages, the accent isn’t really a big deal. There are many tone variations in Mandarin dialects. As long as you can string a coherent sentence together and say it fluently, you may disguise yourself as a (small-town) native speaker in phone conversations.

Cantonese pronunciation is, of course, more difficult from the get-go with 6 tones (or 9 if you count in the 3 additional entering tones). The real difficulty with Cantonese is in trying to sound like a native speaker. Getting accent and sentence intonation to a native-like level is no easy task.

Secondly, Mandarin mainly uses simplified Chinese characters (in Mainland China, Singapore, Malaysia). As the name indicates, simplified characters, with fewer strokes, are easier to remember for new learners and take less effort to write.

3. Mandarin is more standardized than Cantonese.  

Mandarin has a standardized romanization system used officially in school education while Cantonese has not.

Any educated Mandarin speakers can write Chinese words in Pinyin effortlessly and tell you what tone a word is, but it would be rather unusual to find a Cantonese speaker outside of the language teachers who had any clue how to write a Cantonese word in Jyutping or Yale at all, or who could tell you what tone it is.  

Besides, Mandarin is always written in standard written Chinese. But there is no standardization to written vernacular Cantonese. In fact “written” Cantonese wasn’t really a thing until the introduction of electronic communication, so you will see the characters vary a lot depending on who is writing.

4. Mandarin has many more language-learning resources than Cantonese.

As Mandarin is spoken by so many more people, including numerous second language learners across the globe, finding resources, courses, and teachers online and offline is much, much easier. You can check out our Mandarin learning resources page for a starting point.

In contrast, the number of quality online and offline resources for studying Cantonese is rather limited. There are very few options – whether it’s just looking words up, flashcards, or character recognition apps. For self-paced learners, this lack of resources is a huge disadvantage.

Reasons for Learning Cantonese Over Mandarin

“So, does this mean I should write off Cantonese completely then?”, you asked.

Well, not quite. Many people have told us learning Cantonese is the best idea they’ve had in their lives. So, let’s take a look at four compelling reasons why some of you might still want to learn Cantonese over Mandarin.

1. Cantonese is a really beautiful language. 

Cantonese is an extremely rich and colorful language, more so than Mandarin. It is peppered with slang, colloquialisms, play on words (and tones), jokes, and good-natured ribbing (this is subjective, but other people’s subjective opinions agree with ours). Mandarin isn’t boring, but Cantonese is the clear winner here.

Plus, it’s closer to the old/ancient Chinese. If you love the history of Chinese and want to connect with the roots of the language itself, then Cantonese would be the best option – you’ll love the feeling of reading classical Chinese poetry in Cantonese!

2. Learning Cantonese gives you access to amazing Cantonese pop culture.

Have you heard of Bruce Lee? Jackie Chan? Anita Mui? Well, they all came from Hong Kong!

Hong Kong has one of the largest and most dynamic entertainment industries in the world. If you enjoy Hong Kong movies and Cantopop, learning Cantonese will allow you to understand the media in its native form. Or, you’ll be missing out on a lot of the interesting things that got lost in translation (sadly so).

Cantonese culture

3. Knowing Cantonese helps you communicate with overseas Chinese.

Although there are a lot more Mandarin speakers than there are Cantonese speakers in terms of sheer numbers, you can hear Cantonese spoken just about everywhere in the world.

It’s by far the most widely spoken language among Chinese communities in the USA, Canada, the UK, and Australia, as well as Europe and Southeast Asia. So if you frequent Chinatown, you’ll get a lot of mileage out of speaking Cantonese.

4. Learning Cantonese, even a little bit, goes a long way. 

Speaking Cantonese is a matter of familiarity and regional pride for its native speakers. The best thing about learning Cantonese is that like with any “minority” language, learning a little Cantonese goes a long way. People respond with much more familiarity and happiness, particularly as you talk to old people. 

So the effort to learn a couple of hundred words and phrases will get you out-sized results if you plan to live in Hong Kong, Macao, or Guangzhou for an extended period.

Final Thoughts

Something else, which we haven’t discussed above, however, is motivation. 

If you’re going to dedicate years of your life to learning Mandarin or Cantonese, you better enjoy it and keep internally motivated – even on your off days. Otherwise, it’ll be hard slogging through the material.

Just as it’s important to consider all of the above factors, it matters a great deal to listen to your heart. Whichever language you pick – be it Mandarin or Cantonese, be sure that you can see yourself really trying to learn it for the long run.

Frequently Asked Questions – Mandarin vs Cantonese

Both languages are among the hardest languages to learn for westerners and have approximately the same level of difficulty. But Mandarin can be slightly easier for beginners to pronounce as it has only four tones while Cantonese has at least six.

Plus, Cantonese is a lot slangier in daily use. Colloquial spoken Cantonese differs quite a bit from written Cantonese (what you read in print is often not what you speak or how you talk), while Mandarin is always written how it’s spoken, making it easier to learn Mandarin than Cantonese through reading.

That said, If you know either Mandarin or Cantonese already, you’ll find the second one easier with a lot of features in common. It’ll take you about half the time to learn the second language in our experience.

No, Cantonese is mutually unintelligible with Mandarin. Mandarin speakers, who haven’t had any training in Cantonese, are unable to comprehend any Cantonese in its spoken form – the pronunciation is more different than you’d expect.

To Mandarin-speaking Beijingers, for example, Cantonese can sound as foreign as Thai or Vietnamese. They will also have to learn, though not as intensively as those who learned Mandarin as a foreign language to be able to understand Cantonese verbatim.

That said, formal Cantonese looks almost the same as Mandarin on paper when it’s written out in standard written Chinese, so Mandarin speakers would have no problem understanding Cantonese in its written form.

No, because Mandarin’s phonology is very distant from Cantonese, it’d be a lost cause for Cantonese speakers to understand what’s happening at all in Mandarin without prior exposure or familiarity with the latter language.

In reality, though, Cantonese speakers typically understand spoken Mandarin much better than Mandarin speakers understand spoken Cantonese. 

Hong Kong’s recent census report states that 48% of Hong Kong’s population can speak Mandarin, compared to 46% of the population that can speak English. So you can perhaps get by speaking Mandarin in Hong Kong, although it’s not always well received for cultural and political reasons.

Yes, Mandarin is easy for Cantonese speakers, and particularly if you know written Cantonese, which is largely based on Mandarin vocabulary and syntax.

If you live in China, Mandarin would be the easiest language to learn. Apart from the similarities between Cantonese and Mandarin, you’ll get so much positive reinforcement from local Mandarin speakers that your job will be a lot easier.

Not quite. Simplified and traditional Chinese refers only to the written form of Chinese – characters while Mandarin and Cantonese refer to dialects of the spoken word. The use of simplified/traditional characters and Mandarin/Cantonese varies by region but not necessarily in the same combination.

For instance, people in Guangzhou (formerly “Canton”), Mainland China speak Cantonese and write in simplified characters while people in Taiwan speak Mandarin and write in traditional characters.

It’s possible but not recommended. Learning Mandarin and Cantonese would essentially involve internalizing two different (sometimes radically so) systems of pronunciations and tones for each character. It’s almost inevitable that you will mix both and end up tangled in a mixture of Mandarin and Cantonese.

The better solution would be to hold it until you’re fairly comfortable with either Mandarin or Cantonese. Once you have a firm grounding in one of the languages, you’ll have a much better foundation to pick up the other and will learn it much faster!

While Mandarin and Cantonese are the most popular Chinese languages in the world, they are not the only languages spoken in China.

As a general rule, China is home to seven major language groups: Mandarin, Min, Wu, Yue (Cantonese), Jin, Gan, and Hakka. This does not however mean that there are only seven languages spoken in China, as each group comprises hundreds of dialects (not accents), many of which are not mutually intelligible. 

For example, Shanghainese, a representative dialect of Northern Wu Chinese, is not mutually intelligible with any dialects of Mandarin, Cantonese, or Southern Wu Chinese.

Many other minority languages spoken in China don’t have any ties with Chinese languages. For instance, Uyghur, a Turkic language written in an Uyghur Perso-Arabic script is the mother tongue of around 10 million people in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of Western China.

Do You Need to Improve Your Mandarin?

The debate of Mandarin vs Cantonese is always a topic that comes up when getting started on learning Chinese. We hope that our guide has been helpful in forming your decision.

If you want to learn Cantonese, we recommend you start listening to Cantopop on Spotify, and watch movies and TV series from Hong Kong on Netflix. If you want to get a more up-close approach, taking a trip to magnificent Hong Kong or Macao is also worth your while. 

In the meantime, it seems right that you stay focused on your Mandarin fluency for now, before you dive headfirst into learning Cantonese.

One of the easiest ways to learn Mandarin is to follow a structured Mandarin course online – it’ll strengthen your language skills and solidify your fluency before you jump on to your next language of choice, like Cantonese! We’ve tested dozens of online Mandarin courses, some are amazing while others are horrible. Make sure to read our unbiased reviews here before you dive in! 

Here are some other resources I suggest to learn Mandarin if you’re doing it today: