What are the Differences Between Cantonese & Mandarin?

Last Updated: 9 Feb, 2023

With over a billion speakers, Chinese is one of the world’s most widely spoken languages. Generally, when people say they speak “Chinese,” people in China, Taiwan, and Singapore assume this is Mandarin. But in Hong Kong, Macau, and the Canton province, the “default Chinese” for most people is Cantonese. According to Nationalencyklopedin, the population of native Mandarin speakers is 935 million, while 59 million people are speaking Cantonese in their daily life.

6 Differences Between Cantonese and Mandarin

In the 1950s, the mainland Chinese government introduced simplified Chinese characters to promote literacy and make the written language more accessible to the general population. Chinese communities in Singapore and Malaysia later followed this change.

However, Taiwan and Hong Kong chose to preserve the use of traditional Chinese characters in their writing systems. This decision was driven by a desire to maintain a connection to their cultural heritage and to distinguish themselves from mainland China due to political reasons.

Cantonese and Mandarin, while sharing common roots, have distinct differences in pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary, and cultural context. The differences between the two languages can be as significant as those among European languages. Let’s uncover the difference between the two and the rich diversity of the Chinese-speaking world.

  1. Pronunciation: Cantonese is characterized by its use of nine tones, while Mandarin uses only four tones. This results in a significant difference in the way words are pronounced in each language.
  2. Vocabulary: Although Cantonese and Mandarin share a large common vocabulary, Cantonese has a more significant number of loanwords from other languages due to historical reasons, and it has developed its slang and colloquial expressions.
  3. Grammar: Cantonese and Mandarin have many differences in grammar, with Cantonese having a more complex system of verb conjugation and noun formation.
  4. Cultural Context: Mandarin is the official language of the Chinese government and is used as a lingua franca throughout the country. As a result, it is widely used for education, media, and official communication. On the other hand, Cantonese is used mainly in the southern province of Guangdong and is the dominant language in Hong Kong.
  5. Writing System: You can use the same Chinese characters to write Cantonese and Mandarin. While most Cantonese speakers in Hong Kong use Traditional Chinese characters, Mandarin speakers in Mainland China write in Simplified Chinese characters. In addition, there are differences in how characters are used and the meaning they convey in each language.
  6. Dialects: Cantonese has several dialects, including Taishanese, Huizhou, and Tanka. Conversely, Mandarin has many regional variants, but they are all considered to be part of the same language.

Cantonese Vs. Mandarin: Which One is Easier to Learn?

For English speakers, Mandarin may be easier to learn because it has a simpler pronunciation system with four tones, compared to Cantonese’s nine tones. Mandarin grammar is also more straightforward, with a more limited number of verb conjugations and noun formations.

However, for those who have prior exposure to other tonal languages, such as Thai or Vietnamese, it may be easier to learn Cantonese because its tonal system is more similar. Additionally, Cantonese has a more flexible grammar, which can be easier for those with a European language background.

Many Cantonese speakers have learned Mandarin as their second/third language because of the economic opportunities in mainland China, education, and cultural reasons. Therefore, for non-Chinese speakers, learning Mandarin would also help them communicate with the border Chinese population.

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

Mandarin Vs. Cantonese: Which One Should Business Websites Use?

When international companies are setting up a Chinese website, it’s important to consider the target audience and choose the appropriate language and written format. If you’re focused on the China market, it’s advisable to translate the website into standard Mandarin using simplified Chinese characters. This will also attract traffic from Malaysian Chinese.

For Singapore, being a bilingual country, an English website should suffice to reach most of the population. While a Chinese website is not necessary for most businesses, it’s important to note that the older generation in the Chinese-speaking community in Singapore may still prefer a Chinese website, and having both an English and a Chinese version of the site can help cater to this preference.

However, if your target audience is in Hong Kong, it’s not enough to simply reuse the same content from your China website. A separate content localization strategy should be implemented for the Hong Kong market. Unlike mainland China and other regions where simplified characters are prevalent, traditional Chinese characters written in Cantonese are the most popular form of written communication in Hong Kong. To effectively reach the Hong Kong market, it’s important to use traditional characters and consider implementing a Cantonese language version of the website.

Additionally, having an English version of the website is a common practice for professional businesses in Hong Kong, as English is widely used in business and commerce in the region. This helps cater to the local market’s language preferences and business practices.

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

One More Tip: Hong Kongers are not Always Writing the Language they Speak

While Mandarin has a close correspondence between the written and spoken forms, with speakers typically using the exact words in speech as they write, Cantonese has a more complex linguistic structure in that people write in different ways than they speak on many occasions.

In formal written Cantonese, the grammatical structure is somewhat similar to that of Mandarin, but in casual written or oral Cantonese, the structure is less standardized and more vibrant. Oral Cantonese reflects the unique cultural and social influences of Hong Kong, characterizing by its friendly and approachable sound, making it a popular choice for social media and casual writing.

This complexity can have a significant impact on a business’s SEO and content marketing strategy when targeting the Hong Kong market. It would be appropriate to use traditional characters and adopt a casual, lively writing style that reflects the local culture and appeals to the target audience. On the other hand, if the target audience is a more professional one, a formal writing style using traditional characters and English is a common practice.

The grammatical structure of Cantonese is a complex topic that requires a deep understanding of the local linguistic preferences. When operating an SEO and content marketing strategy in Hong Kong, businesses must carefully consider the target audience and adapt the language and written format accordingly to reach their target market effectively.

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