What are the Differences between Cantonese & Mandarin?

July 24, 2020

Suggestions on Language Localization for Websites Targeting Hong Kong, China and more

Generally when people say they speak “Chinese”, people in China, Singapore, and Taiwan assume this is Mandarin. But in Hong Kong, Macau, and the Canton province, the “default Chinese” for most people is definitely Cantonese. The differences between the two languages can be as big as those among European languages.

According to Nationalencyklopedin, the population of native Mandarin speakers is 935 million, while 59 million people are speaking Cantonese in their daily life.

Since many Cantonese speakers have learned Mandarin as their second language and learning Mandarin is significantly easier as it only has 4 tones but there are 9 in Cantonese, most non-Chinese would pick up Mandarin if they decide to learn only one Chinese language.

The word “home” in Cantonese(left) and Mandarin(right). photo credit: Wikimedia

The diversification of Cantonese and Mandarin written formats is another complicated story. Mainland China adopted simplified Chinese characters since the 1950s and was later followed by Singapore and Malaysia Chinese societies. On the other hand, Taiwan and Hong Kong preserved the traditional Chinese characters in their writing system.

Mandarin VS Cantonese: Which one should you use for business?

Back to the question of establishing a Chinese website. If you are focusing on the China market, you should have no questions about translating the website into standard mandarin with simplified Chinese characters. You can also do the same to attract traffics from Malaysian Chinese.

For Singapore, since it is a bilingual country, an English website is already enough to cover most of the population.

However, if your target audiences are Hong Kongers, remember not to save your effort by reusing the same content of your China website. You must implement a content localization strategy for the Hong Kong market separately. None of the popular websites in Hong Kong are written in simplified Chinese characters only. Instead, Cantonese written in traditional Chinese characters is the most popular marketing language. And at the same time, the professional business should have an English website to fit the local business habit.

advertising board in Hong Kong
The advertising boards in Hong Kong are normally written in Traditional Chinese. Image: UnSplash

Which Chinese languages do people use in Asian countries and regions?

Here is a brief categorization of spoken and written Chinese spread among ethical Chinese population in East and South-East Asia:

LocationsSpoken + Written Languages
Hong Kong/MacauCantonese + Traditional Chinese characters
Canton province, ChinaCantonese + Simplified Chinese characters
China outside Canton provinceMandarin + Simplified Chinese characters
SingaporeMandarin + Simplified Chinese characters
TaiwanMandarin, Min Nan + Traditional Chinese characters
MalaysiaMandarin, Cantonese, Min Nan + Simplified Chinese characters

Hong Kong people are not always writing the language they speak

Apart from the characters, the grammatical structure of Cantonese is divided into written and spoken formats. While Mandarin speakers speak almost the same words as they write, the formal and casual styles of written Cantonese are significantly different. Formally written Cantonese has a structure to some extent similar to Mandarin, while the casual form of written Cantonese is another less standardized but more lively and flourishing writing system. This can be another tremendously complicated linguistic topic when operating your Hong Kong SEO and content marketing strategy.

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