Cantonese vs Mandarin: What are the key differences?

Cantonese vs Mandarin: What are the key differences?

Chinese is a special group of languages that includes both Mandarin and Cantonese.

Chinese is a collection of unique languages, which include Mandarin and Cantonese. As an English speaker, you may be familiar with various dialects, like British English, American English, and Australian English, among others, and can generally understand speakers of these dialects with ease, making them mutually intelligible. However, the same does not apply to Chinese dialects. Most Chinese languages are not mutually intelligible, and individuals speaking different dialects may find it challenging to comprehend each other. This is why there are numerous types of "Chinese" that one can learn as a second language.

Even though Mandarin and Cantonese are vastly different in pronunciation, they are considered the same language due to their shared historical origins and the use of the Chinese writing system. Both dialects mainly use the same characters to represent words.

If you find this confusing, don't worry. In the following sections, we will explore the differences between Mandarin and Cantonese in pronunciation, characters, vocabulary, and grammar. We will also provide guidance on which dialect to choose if you're interested in learning Mandarin or Cantonese.

What are the key differences between Cantonese and Mandarin

Mandarin vs. Cantonese Overview

Mandarin Cantonese
Language family Mandarin Chinese Yue Chinese
Where it’s spoken Mainland China, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia Southeast China, Hong Kong, Macau, and the Chinese diaspora
Romanization system Pinyin Jyutping
Spoken characteristics 23 initials 19 initials
35 finals 58 finals
4 tones (plus neutral tone) 6 tones plus 3 entering tones
Characters Mostly simplified characters Mostly traditional characters
Usefulness Used across the Sinosphere as a common tongue Mostly useful in Hong Kong, Macau, and Guangdong

Mandarin and Cantonese can be found in different countries and cities

To begin with, it is noteworthy that Mandarin is the most widespread among the various Chinese dialects. This is because it serves as the official language in mainland China, Taiwan, and Singapore, and is either official or recognized in Hong Kong, Macao, Malaysia, and even the United Nations.

Mandarin's extensive geographic reach can be attributed to its role as the lingua franca within the Sinosphere. Despite their native dialect, most Chinese speakers can communicate to some extent in Mandarin.

In Chinese, Mandarin is known as 普通话 (pǔ tōng huà), meaning "common language." Its recognition as a common language has also elevated its importance in educational settings throughout China, leading to Mandarin's predominance in Chinese television programs, films, and literature.

Furthermore, a significant proportion of the Chinese population speaks Mandarin as their primary language. Some of the regions and provinces with the highest number of native Mandarin speakers include:

  • Beijing
  • Hebei
  • Shandong
  • Inner Mongolia
  • Shandong
  • Henan
  • Shaanxi
  • Gansu
  • Xinjiang
  • Jiangsu
  • Anhui
  • Hubei
  • Sichuan
  • Guizhou
  • Yunnan


Cantonese vs Mandarin: What are the key differences

On the other hand, Cantonese is primarily used in the southeastern part of China. The name Cantonese is derived from the former romanization of the Chinese city of Guangzhou, as well as the province of Guangdong, which was also formerly known as Canton. While it may seem like Cantonese is confined in Guangdong, but Guangdong is actually the most populous province in China, contributing to Cantonese being one of the top 20 most widely spoken languages worldwide.

In addition to those residing in and around Guangzhou, Cantonese is commonly spoken among the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia, Europe, and North America. Until the mid-20th century, Cantonese speakers made up the majority of Chinese migrants.

Substantial populations of Cantonese speakers can be found in the following areas:

  • Guangdong
  • Guangxi
  • Hong Kong
  • Overseas Chinese diaspora communities

All told, there are roughly 75 million native speakers of Cantonese worldwide.

Differences in pronunciation

Pronunciation disparities As established earlier, Mandarin and Cantonese are not mutually intelligible, with most words having distinct pronunciations. However, the phonetic differences extend beyond this— they also have unique tonal systems!

Mandarin employs four tones to distinguish words. Additionally, there is a fifth "neutral" tone, bringing the total number of tones in Mandarin to five.

Tone number Tone name Description Pinyin diacritic IPA diacritic Example Example pinyin
1 阴平 - yīnpíng High ā /á/
2 阳平 - yángpíng Rising á /ǎ/ [a᷄]
3 上 - shǎng Low (dipping) ǎ /à/ [à̤, a̤᷆, a̤᷉]
4 去 - qù Falling à /â/
5 轻 - qīng Neutral a Various ba


Cantonese, on the other hand, uses nine tones to differentiate pronunciation! Of these nine tones, three are known as “checked tones,” which are used exclusively by syllables that end in a stop consonant or a glottal stop (-p, -t, -k).

These are the nine tones in Cantonese:

Type Tone number Tone name Description Example Tone letter IPA
Open syllables 1 dark flat (陰平) high level, high falling 詩, 思 siː˥, siː˥˧ síː, sîː
2 dark rising (陰上) medium rising siː˧˥ sǐː
3 dark departing (陰去) medium level siː˧ sīː
4 light flat (陽平) low falling, very low level siː˨˩, siː˩ si̖ː, sı̏ː
5 light rising (陽上) low rising siː˩˧ si̗ː
6 light departing (陽去) low level siː˨ sìː
Checked syllables 7 (or 1) upper dark entering (上陰入) high level sek˥ sék
8 (or 2) lower dark entering (下陰入) medium level sɛːk˧ sɛ̄ːk
9 (or 3) light entering (陽入) low level sek˨ sèk


Character variations

As previously mentioned, the written form of Chinese is mostly consistent across dialects. However, given the significant pronunciation differences, you may wonder how Mandarin and Cantonese utilize the same characters.

In reality, standard written Cantonese is primarily based on written Mandarin. As a result, Cantonese speakers typically use Mandarin for non-informal writing situations. Cantonese is actually in a state of digraphia, meaning that there are two written standards for this dialect. In very informal settings and for Cantonese-specific words that are not present in Mandarin, speakers use a colloquial version of written Cantonese. In all other cases, Cantonese speakers use a form of written Chinese that is more similar to Mandarin.

This concept is not a new one, as Classical Chinese served as a shared written language until the early 20th century. Although not specifically linked to any particular Chinese dialect, all literate Chinese speakers adhered to the rules of Classical Chinese writing. However, during the 20th century, written Mandarin gradually replaced Classical Chinese, largely due to national initiatives aimed at improving literacy rates across mainland China.

traditional Chinese characters vs simplified Chinese characters

Simplified vs traditional characters

A significant difference worth noting is the usage of traditional characters in Cantonese-speaking regions. In recent times, simplified Chinese is primarily used in mainland China and Singapore. However, Hong Kong and Macau, which are Cantonese-speaking regions, continue to use traditional characters for writing. Due to the success of the Hong Kong film industry, traditional characters are frequently seen in Cantonese-speaking areas.

It's crucial to note that Cantonese speakers in mainland China usually use simplified characters, whereas Mandarin speakers in Taiwan use traditional characters. Therefore, you cannot assume that traditional characters are indicative of Cantonese or that simplified characters signify Mandarin.

Cantonese-specific characters

Although Cantonese adheres to the same grammar rules as Mandarin, some Cantonese words do not exist in Mandarin. As a result, a Mandarin speaker may not fully comprehend Cantonese texts, since certain characters are unique to Cantonese. Here are a few common Cantonese characters that are not found in Mandarin.

Cantonese Jyutping Mandarin equivalent Meaning
keoi5 N/A He, she, it
ge3 Possessive particle equivalent to Mandarin 的 (de)
go3 That as in “that one”
hai2 To be at
lou2 N/A Male
乜嘢 mat1 je5  什么 What or why
zo2 了 or 过 Puts the sentence in past tense
gam3 这样 So as in “so good”
ngaam1 Correct
fan3 Sleep

Vocabulary & grammar distinctions

In addition to variations in pronunciation and characters, Mandarin and Cantonese also differ in their vocabulary and grammar. You may wonder why they are grouped under the same language family, given their significant differences. However, there are both differences and similarities between these aspects that we can explore. So let's delve into the distinctions and shared features in the vocabulary and grammar of Mandarin and Cantonese.


In Mandarin and Cantonese, most words are written using the same characters. This provides a degree of mutual intelligibility, enabling Mandarin speakers to comprehend written Cantonese and vice-versa.

Nonetheless, this doesn't imply that both dialects always use identical words. Aside from the unique Cantonese words previously mentioned, some vocabulary words can differ between the two dialects.

English Mandarin Pinyin Cantonese Jyutping
To eat chī sik6
Beautiful měi leng3
To look kàn tai2
To stand zhàn kei5
To cry haam3
Potato 土豆 tǔ dòu 薯仔 syu4 zai2
Eggplant 茄子 qié zi 矮瓜 ai2 gwaa1
Grape 葡萄 pú tao 提子 tai4 zi2
Tomorrow 明天 míng tiān 聽日

ting1 jat6



The grammar of Mandarin and Cantonese is quite similar, as demonstrated by their basic sentence structures:

Basic Mandarin sentence structure: Subject + Verb + Object (SVO structure)

Basic Cantonese sentence structure: Subject + Verb + Object (SVO structure)

At first glance, both Mandarin and Cantonese follow the same pattern. However, this doesn't mean that their grammar rules are identical. Each dialect is a distinct language with its own unique grammar rules.

Here are the most common grammar differences between Mandarin and Cantonese:

Adverb order. In Mandarin, adverbs typically precede the verb, while in Cantonese, they follow the verb.

Double objects. In Mandarin, the indirect object always appears before the direct object, whereas in Cantonese, the reverse is true.

To better illustrate these differences, consider the following example sentences comparing Mandarin and Cantonese sentences.

English Mandarin Pinyin Cantonese Jyutping
You go out first 你先出去 nǐ xiān chū qù 你出去先 nei5 ceot1 heoi3 sin1
Where are you from? 你是哪国人? nǐ shì nǎ guó rén? 你係邊度人呀? nei5 hai6 bin1 dou6 jan4 aa1?
He gives me money 他给我钱 tā gěi wǒ qián 他給錢我 keoi5 bei2 cin2 ngo5
What’s your name? 你叫什么名字? nǐ jiào shén me míng zi? 你叫做乜野名呀? nei5 giu3 zou6 mat1 je5 ming4 aa1?
Long time no see 好久不见 hǎo jiǔ bu jiàn 好耐冇见 hou2 noi6 mou5 gin3


 Learn Mandarin or Cantonese?

Your decision to learn either Mandarin or Cantonese will depend largely on your personal objectives. From a practical perspective, Mandarin offers greater utility than Cantonese, as it is the sole official language of mainland China and boasts over ten times the number of speakers. If your aim is to conduct business in mainland China, Mandarin is the ideal choice.

Mandarin also serves as the lingua franca within mainland China, with many individuals speaking it as a second language. For instance, while Shanghainese may be used for communication among Shanghai natives, nearly everyone in Shanghai can speak Mandarin. Therefore, even in non-Mandarin-speaking regions, knowing Mandarin may still facilitate communication with locals. This is not the case for Cantonese, as very few people outside Guangdong, Hong Kong, and Macau speak it, unless it's their native language.

Nevertheless, Cantonese may be more useful if you plan to live in Guangdong, Hong Kong, or Macau. Although Mandarin may be helpful in Cantonese-speaking areas of mainland China, it does not apply to the Chinese Special Administrative Regions (SARs). Thus, if your future involves Guangdong, Hong Kong, or Macau, learning Cantonese is likely the better option.

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Is Cantonese more challenging than Mandarin?

It is natural to wonder which of Mandarin or Cantonese is more challenging to learn. Learning Chinese is widely regarded as a formidable task for English speakers, so it is reasonable to approach it with caution.

Most people would likely agree that Cantonese is more difficult to learn than Mandarin. Cantonese has four additional tones compared to Mandarin, and traditional characters are more commonly used in Cantonese than in Mandarin. If you are looking for the dialect that requires less effort to learn, then Mandarin is the way to go.

However, the most effective strategies for learning Chinese characters involve sustained interest in studying and mastering the language. Factors such as personal interests, family and friends, business pursuits, and available learning opportunities can significantly influence your success in learning a language. Therefore, if you have a passion for Hong Kong films or have found a profitable business opportunity in Guangzhou, do not fret too much about Cantonese being slightly more challenging than Mandarin. Instead, follow your instincts and pursue what resonates with you!

Fun facts: Mandarin vs. Cantonese

  • Cantonese is more prevalent in Chinatowns globally, making it more recognizable to those who live in close proximity to a Chinatown compared to Mandarin. In the United States, the first Chinatown was referred to as "Little Canton" due to the majority of Chinese immigrants in the 20th century coming from Hong Kong and Guangdong province, leading to the widespread use of Cantonese among the Chinese diaspora.
  • In terms of the number of speakers, Mandarin has over 10 times more speakers than Cantonese. With over 1.1 billion speakers globally and around 929 million native speakers, Mandarin is the language with the most native speakers and the second most spoken language after English. On the other hand, Cantonese has around 75 million speakers globally, leading to a nearly 15-to-1 ratio of Mandarin speakers to Cantonese speakers.
  • Despite having significantly fewer speakers than Mandarin, Cantonese is still among the 20 largest languages globally, boasting more speakers than well-known languages like Korean and Persian.
  • It is worth noting that the city of Guangzhou was commonly known as Canton for centuries among Europeans, although locals never referred to it as such. The name "Canton" was derived from the Portuguese "Cidade de Cantão," with "Cantão" being a misinterpretation of a dialectical pronunciation of Guangdong. This name was later adopted by most Western countries due to the Portuguese being the first to establish contact between Europe and East Asia in 1517. However, since the name resulted from a misunderstanding, it has been mostly phased out. Perhaps it is time to consider renaming Cantonese to Guangdongnese or Guangzhousian!

Mandarin vs. Cantonese FAQs

Can all Chinese people speak Mandarin?

While not all Chinese people speak Mandarin, the vast majority do. Currently, about 80% of mainland China's population can speak Mandarin, and there are plans to increase this number to 85% by 2025. The younger generations in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Macau are almost entirely fluent in Mandarin due to its incorporation into school curriculums.

Can Mandarin and Cantonese speakers understand each other?

Due to significant pronunciation differences, Mandarin and Cantonese speakers cannot understand each other. However, the written language differences are minor enough for Mandarin and Cantonese speakers to comprehend each other when communicating through text or writing letters.

Can Mandarin be used in Hong Kong?

About 48% of people in Hong Kong can speak Mandarin, primarily due to the increasing number of mainland immigrants and tourists and the growing prevalence of Mandarin in education. However, if you are a foreigner who speaks English and Mandarin but not Cantonese, your best bet for communication with locals in Hong Kong is to use English. English is still a popular language and one of the official languages of Hong Kong, so you won't have any trouble communicating in English.

Is Taiwanese Mandarin the same as Mainland China Mandarin?

Mandarin is the official language of both mainland China and Taiwan. While the Mandarin spoken in Taiwan and the mainland is very similar, there are differences in pronunciation, grammar, writing style, and vocabulary. Most significantly, Taiwan uses traditional characters, while mainland China uses simplified characters. Therefore, if you've learned simplified Chinese and find yourself in Taiwan, you may have difficulty reading signs on the street.

Is Taiwan Mandarin the same as mainland China Mandarin?

In conclusion, whether you're interested in learning Mandarin or Cantonese, Berlitz Hong Kong has got you covered! With our team of experienced and qualified language instructors, we offer both online and in-person lessons tailored to your specific needs and goals. Whether you prefer group or private lessons, we have flexible scheduling options to fit your busy lifestyle. With our immersive teaching methods and cultural insights, you'll be speaking Mandarin or Cantonese with confidence in no time. Don't hesitate to try our language courses today and take the first step towards expanding your cultural horizons! Contact us now!