If you know anything about Chinese, you know that it’s not spoken just one way. Varieties like Cantonese and Mandarin join dozens of different types of Chinese under the same language umbrella. But have you ever wondered: what is the difference between Cantonese vs Mandarin? Today we’ll dive deep into these two fascinating Chinese languages.

Golden Chinese waving cat. Text reads: Cantonese vs Mandarin. MosaLingua.

Cantonese vs Mandarin: Are They Really That Different?

Cantonese and Mandarin are two varieties of Chinese that each have their own unique features, history, and culture. In fact, they’re so different that speakers of one can’t even understand the other! Interested in learning more? Read on!

Let’s start with a quick overview of each of these Chinese variants.


Often when people refer to the “Chinese language,” they’re talking about Mandarin.

Spoken by over 900 million people in China, which is about 65% of China’s population, Mandarin is the lingua france of the Sinosphere (Chinese world). It’s also the most spoken language on the planet!

Who speaks Mandarin?

First documented in the 14th century, people speak Mandarin in many parts of mainland China, mostly in the north, as well as in Taiwan and Singapore, where it’s one of the official languages.

Although there are many varieties of the Chinese language spoken in China (and also over 300 minority languages), Mandarin is the only official language of the People’s Republic of China. After the PRC was founded in the mid-20th century, Mandarin Chinese was officially standardized as China’s national language, and its use grew rapidly from there. Nowadays it’s used widely in China as the official language of government, media, and education.

Even people who speak a different variety of Chinese (Cantonese, Shanghainese, Hokkien, etc.) often speak Mandarin as a second language.

Mandarin has four tones, plus one neutral tone:

  • High flat tone
  • Rising
  • Falling-rising
  • Falling
  • Neutral


So, what is Cantonese?

Believed to have originated sometime around 220 AD, Cantonese is much older than Mandarin. Today, 90 million people worldwide speak Cantonese. Although that’s nowhere near its sister language, Mandarin, it’s still nothing to sneeze at! Cantonese is the second most spoken and recognized Chinese variety.

Who speaks Cantonese?

People in Hong Kong, Macau, the Guangdong Province of China, and the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region of China.

Cantonese has six tones:

  • High flat tone
  • Mid rising tone
  • Mid flat tone
  • Low falling tone
  • Low rising tone
  • Low flat tone

Cantonese tones fall into two basic camps: mid-to-high tones and low tones. This makes Cantonese harder for English speakers to learn than Mandarin, since learners have to distinguish not only between the movement of the tone (rising, falling, neutral), but also whether or not the tone is in the mid-to-high range or the low range.

Cantonese also has about twice as many distinctive syllables as Mandarin.

Since much of the Chinese diaspora has historically come from Cantonese-speaking areas, Cantonese is the most common Chinese variety spoken in communities outside of China. For this reason, and also because of Hong Kong’s history as a British colony, English loan words are more common in Cantonese than they are in Mandarin.

Hazy Shanghai skyline and reflection on the water

Similarities and Differences Between Cantonese and Mandarin

Although Cantonese vs Mandarin are technically two separate languages, they share a lot of features. They both use the same basic grammar structure, and they have about half of their vocabulary in common. They even share a written form (more on that later). But you’re probably wondering—how different is Cantonese from Mandarin?

What is the difference between Mandarin and Cantonese?

So if Mandarin and Cantonese are both varieties of Chinese, can Mandarin speakers understand Cantonese and vice versa? The answer is… no!

Of course, there is some nuance in that answer. With some context and concentration, speakers of Cantonese might be able to understand some spoken Mandarin, but usually cannot. Speakers of Mandarin can hardly ever understand spoken Cantonese. So, we can say that Mandarin and Cantonese are mutually unintelligible languages.

But why?

The biggest difference between Cantonese vs Mandarin is their pronunciation. Mandarin and Cantonese have distinct and quite different rules of pronunciation. Even when a word is written the same way in each language, it’s pronounced differently.

If that’s a little confusing, think of it this way: some words are spelled the same in both English and Spanish, but they’re pronounced differently—ideal, cultural, normal.

There is also a significant difference in vocabulary between the two languages. Approximately half of the words between Mandarin and Cantonese are different (although the different words are often related).

Between this lexical difference and the difference in pronunciation and tones, there’s a pretty big difference between Cantonese and Mandarin.

Cantonese vs. Mandarin writing

Both Cantonese and Mandarin are technically written using the same written language, called Standard Written Chinese, which is based on a range of Mandarin dialects. Standard Written Chinese is the official written language used by speakers of all varieties of Chinese—for formal purposes, anyway.

In reality, many different varieties of Chinese have written vernacular dialects that better capture their unique grammar and vocabulary.

This is the case for Mandarin and Cantonese.

Standard Written Chinese is used to write Mandarin in all situations. Standard Written Chinese is also used to write Cantonese in formal situations; it’s just pronounced the Cantonese way when spoken out loud.

Said another way, the same written word can be pronounced differently depending on whether the speaker is using Cantonese vs Mandarin.

However, Cantonese has a lot of idiomatical and grammatical situations, as well as different vocabulary, where Standard Written Chinese characters are not sufficient.

To make up for this difference, there’s a set of extra characters that are used in written Cantonese—you’ll usually see them in places like social media, over text, and even in informal advertisements. Vernacular Written Cantonese is pretty widely used in the Cantonese-speaking world.

Is Cantonese traditional Chinese?

There are two sets of characters used to write Chinese: traditional characters and simplified characters. The simplified characters came about in the 1950s and ’60s, when the Chinese government decided to simplify many of the traditional characters to boost literacy rates.

So which ones do Cantonese and Mandarin use? There’s a common idea that all Mandarin is written in simplified characters and all Cantonese is written in traditional characters, but it’s not quite that simple.

While Mandarin is written in simplified characters in most of mainland China, along with Singapore and Malaysia, Mandarin is written with traditional characters in Taiwan. As far as Cantonese, it’s written with traditional characters in Hong Kong and Macau, but in parts of mainland China (specifically the Guangdong and Guangxi provinces) it’s written with simplified characters.

To summarize, the use of traditional vs. simplified characters varies by region, and it’s not necessarily connected to the use of Mandarin vs. Cantonese.

However, each character system is more or less easy for native speakers of both Mandarin and Cantonese to understand. That means that, for example, a Hong Kong native speaker of Cantonese who writes with traditional characters can still understand the simplified characters without much trouble.

Speaking of writing…

Mandarin and Cantonese each have a different system of romanization, as well. Romanization is essentially the use of English letters to represent the sounds of a Chinese character, which helps with pronunciation not just for Chinese learners but also for native-speaking Chinese children.

The official romanization system used for Mandarin is called Pinyin. Pinyin uses accent marks on top of letters to represent the four tones in Mandarin.

While Cantonese doesn’t have an official romanization system, there are two that are mainly used: Jyutping and Yale. Jyutping uses numbers to mark the six Cantonese tones, while Yale uses accent marks much like Pinyin does for Mandarin (with the addition of an “h” to represent the low tone). Nowadays, most publications use Jyutping.

Great Wall of China during the fall

Should I Learn Cantonese or Mandarin?

Now that you’ve learned more about Mandarin and Cantonese, you might be asking yourself which one is better to learn. The truth is that it all depends on the reasons you’re learning Chinese and the goals you want to accomplish. Here’s a breakdown of reasons to learn either Mandarin or Cantonese:

Reasons to learn Mandarin:

  • Mandarin is more standardized
  • There are many more learning materials in Mandarin
  • Mandarin is considered a little easier to learn than Cantonese for two main reasons: it has fewer tones to learn, and for the most part, Mandarin uses simplified characters

Reasons to learn Cantonese:

  • Cantonese is closer to the old language of China, so if you have an interest in Chinese history, Cantonese might be your best bet
  • Cantonese is known for being a particularly colorful language, full of slang, play on words (and tones), colloquialisms, rich language…and a lively collection of swear words (sign me up!)
  • Cantonese pop culture: heard of Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan?
  • If you want to connect with the Chinese diaspora, opt for Cantonese


Next Steps

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