Mandarin vs. Cantonese: Which Chinese language should I learn?

Modified on by Guest Blogger

Mandarin vs. Cantonese: Which Chinese language should I learn?

With the number of Chinese people living in the U.S., Canada, and other countries around the globe, and with the rise of China as an economic and cultural powerhouse on the world stage, Chinese bilingualism today is more important than ever.  And one of the most important questions that new potential Chinese learners must ask themselves is: Should I learn Mandarin or Cantonese?

The short answer, if you want to be able to communicate with the maximum number of Chinese speakers around the world, is that you should learn Mandarin!  And, hands-down, the most effective tool for studying Mandarin Chinese on a computer or mobile phone is to use Brainscape to learn Chinese.  Read on for more details.

Which Chinese Dialect Should I Learn?

Chinese is a unique language.  Unlike most other languages around the world, written Chinese uses a “pictorial” representation rather than a phonetic one.  Chinese characters are not “sounded out” but are rather used to represent ideas.  (e.g. 人 is the symbol for “person”.)  Thousands of such symbols, or “radicals”, are combined into characters to form more complex ideas, independently from the sounds that verbal speakers might use to describe them.  A single passage in written Chinese can be spoken verbally in any of over 50 different spoken dialects across China.

Speakers of different Chinese dialects often cannot understand each other verbally, but can still communicate in common writing.  To help improve verbal communication possibilities across the country, the Chinese government — over the past few centuries — has pushed for Mandarin (the primary dialect spoken in Beijing) to be taught in schools and used in all public media.  Modern Chinese speakers now often learn both their regional dialect and Mandarin to maximize their communication potential.

Mandarin is now the official language in China and Taiwan and is used by most of the Chinese schools, colleges and universities, as well as their TV programs, movies, and radio stations. Mandarin is also one of the six official languages in the United Nations. Even Hong Kong schools have begun switching from Cantonese to Mandarin education since around 1997 (when China regained its sovereignty from the U.K.).

Thus, if your goal is to be widely understood, you should learn Mandarin because Mandarin can be understood even in Hong Kong, Macau and Canton (the main regions who still speak Cantonese), Chinese flashcards are a good way to learn Mandarin (Mandarin vs. Cantonese)and more and more Cantonese speakers are learning Mandarin nowadays.  If you really want to be able to connect with people from Hong Kong, Macau, and Canton, you can still consider learning Cantonese.  But you should still know that Cantonese is often seen as more difficult.  Its use of “tones” can be even more challenging to western speakers than Mandarin.  (Chinese languages are tonal, which means that inflection is used not only to convey emotion as in English, but actually to change the meaning or grammar of a sentence. Cantonese is somewhat more difficult to learn, as it has from 6 to 9 tones, each of which signify different things. Mandarin only has 4 tones. In addition, because of its greater prevalence, it is easier to find Mandarin materials than Cantonese materials to study with.)

All of that being said, there is no need to restrict yourself to learning just one of these languages. Because all of the Chinese dialects use the same written characters and a grammar similar to that of Mandarin, it is not unreasonable to attempt to learn both Mandarin and Cantonese, as long as you gain a strong grasp of the characters first.

And again, the best way to learn the characters — and several thousand key Mandarin vocabulary words & grammatical concepts — is to use Brainscape.  So get started today, and best of luck in your studies!


Brainscape is a web & mobile education platform that helps you learn anything faster, using cognitive science. Join the millions of students, teachers, language learners, test-takers, and corporate trainees who are doubling their learning results. Visit or find us on the App Store .


Brian 7 years ago

Writers of Mandarin always brag about the 850 Million speakers of Mandarin vs 85 million speakers of Cantonese. Although prevalent, Mandarin will not be as common unless you plan on moving to inner China. I'm from the Boston Chinatown. Instead of the global 1 to 10 ratio of Cantonese speakers to Mandarin, you would walk by to hear a 10 to 1 ratio of Cantonese speakers to Mandarin. I would say 50% of the Chinese there understand it, but Cantonese is the King of overseas Chinese. And when people say Hong Kong has been reverting to Mandarin, it is misleading because only about 3 schools have changed its medium to Mandarin versus the scores of English mediums and thousands of Cantonese mediums.

American Born Cantonese.

Bo 7 years ago

You need to check out the trend. Those people who live in Chinatown left China due to the war or political persecution. in another words, most of them are 50 or older. I came to Canada 10years ago, and I found the mandarin speaker is growing to a huge number.

Plus, the reason why mandarin became the main language in China mainland is because its easier to spread among the people,and helps the education, which means its easier to learn.

Brian 7 years ago

FTW, YUE chinese (Cantonese + Toisanese + other very similar languages) is the 3rd most common language is the United States and Canada.

NathanDiehl 5 years ago

That's not true

Sean Donovan 7 years ago

I rather learn Mandarin first and then Cantonese.

Joseph 5 years ago

“I would say 50% of the Chinese there understand it” -- you're kidding me

Niero 7 years ago

As a monotone english speaker I don't think I have a choice :) Mandarin it is

guo cheng 8 years ago

mandarin doesnt win purely out of the government’s effort. it becomes the official language in mainland china, taiwan and singapore is an evolutionary choice becoz its a more efficient communicative tool. it has actually been the official language in china long before the qing dynasty. its a mistaken perception that it origins from the manchurian language despite it was indeed influenced by the manchu during their 300yr rule over china (~1600-1900~). the manchu adopted chinese language rather than to promote manchurian language which was based on horseback migratory experiences and did not have enough vocabs nor was as well developed as chinese for city dwelling life.the primary function of a language is for communication rather than being a mental challenge(difficult to learn is actually a backward sign). the great apes howl to signal food and danger rather than to show off their capability in making noises. as a language evolves, its pronounciation becomes more polished and easier to make and thus sounds smoother and more pleasant to ears. beijing mandarin is often percieved as the most pleasant to ears becoz beijing has been a capital city for ~1000yrs and a capital city is where the elites and socialites congregate and the pressure of social refinement is greater.(btw, cultural centres in china have always mainly on the north side)cantonese is more expressive for strong emotions such as frustration and anger (eg cantonese often being percieved as more graphic and vulgar for insult — a backward sign though if we aspire to be more civilized and more polished) but its not as efficient as mandarin for communicating ideas and concepts. it is less well developed and less well regulated (overall = less evolved) as a result of warm weather in the south and segregation from the rest of china by mountains. warm weather and segregation slow down evolution in ppl’s brain(less sophisticated less wise) and look ( shorter, darker and less refine) and this is why the cantonese clan has often been viewed as less civilized and less appealing to other chinese throughout history and the cantonese culture has hardly ever been well regarded.cantonese is actually a bit like the “ebonic” of chinese language and is of zero chance to compete with mandarin. hk’s economic success might have given a bit twist of fate for cantonese but its destined to be delutional and short-lived unless cantonese ppl can upgrade their gene pool to become aesthetically appealing enough to project cultural influences to the other chinese. it has never happened in the last 2000 years though. as a matter of fact, cantonese area has always been the recieving end of cultural influences from the north. the cantonese language is developed from contacts between southern indigenous languages (such as vietnamese, zhuang, tai,etc) and nonstandard colloquial chineses spoken by migrant chinese(such as soldiers and prisoners) from central china when china conquerred the northern part of the old vietnam 2000 yrs ago. its accent and spoken form is more influenced by the indigenous languages as the chinese migrants married the southern indigenous women and their children’s speech is more influenced by their mother’s tongue than father’s(which is why cantonese accent sound closer to vietnamese and thai than other major chinese dialects despite cantonese and vietnamese being of different language system). they adopt the written form of standard chinese as none of the indigenous languages had developed a written form. as a result the spoken form and the written form have never been compatible. vietnamese used to adopt chinese characters for writing before the french’s success has little to do with the cantonese language. hk benefited a lot from the political misfortune and ideology failure in the mainland in the last century. its economic take off happened in 1960s after the influx of immigrants from china in the 1940-50s(war and power change). most of the affluent immigrants were NOT of cantonese origin. they brought along with them capital, connections and business and techno know-how. the tension between mainland and taiwan and the mainland’s close-door policy helped business in hk boom like nothing before. business just poured in uninvited. it was easy money. hk hardly needed to compete. a very different picture now. the only advantage left for hk is its international exposure and the rule of law instilled by the british. in terms of human resources, the best brains of chinese are still in the changjiang river delta (the shanghai area) and the yellow river delta (from beijing to shandong area). pearl river delta only started to project influence on the chinese course of civilization after the british took hk and the influence is based on western culture rather than anything of cantonese origin. that says much about the worth of cantonese pride.

screwnortherners 6 years ago

cantonese is a very ancient dialect , it can be vulgar or refined. mandarin sounds crude no matter how you try to make it sound smootb. There are the Cantonese, Teochew and Hokkien dialects which are closer to the language used in the Tang dynasty . It is also in our roots to call ourselves Tang people. Not Han. The chinese civilisation began in the central plains not the North. The Northerners think that they are refined but remember they also have the blood of the xiongnus, mongols and manchus and whichever barbarian horde invaded them. They absorbed part of those cultures, and they want to tell the world how civilised they are haha.

Northerners betrayed Yuan Chonghuan , a cantonese general who was fighting off the manchus and repealed their attacks. The MIng Emperor executed him in Beijing and all the beijingers bought his meat to eat. AND they want to call themselves civilised? Even the manchus are far more civilised!

Guest 6 years ago

i heard that han chinese going kick the cantonese gooks out of china if they going keep acting like their vietnamese gooks ancestors like they did han dynasty

CantonGuy 5 years ago

Well, well, well. Another racist here. As a Cantonese speaker I am very offended by your extremely rude and racist (languagist?) post. The Cantonese Chinese are the formal chinese, and Viets are Viets. They have different culture and they have always been a minority on the south side of the Chinese border (called the 百越,which translates into "hundred Viets" referring to the amount of different tribes). The northern people in China are mixed with the Xiongnu (匈奴)and Manchu(滿族)blood, and therefore their languages have some aspects of the barbarians that have ruled over their areas. Mandarin(普通話)is a mix of northern Chinese dialects, therefore it has the barbarian aspect. So guys, learn Cantonese and keep this language alive in the US!

Jō Meng Tyán 5 years ago

I believe that Cantonese tones and consonants are influenced by Vietnamese. If you want to learn the most an older, more formal type of chinese, I would recommend Wu chinese, or Min chinese.

mercury 6 years ago

Beijing = capital of 1000 years of being conquered by invaders. We all know that.

Guangzhou on the other hand was the southern China trading port to Middle east, Southeast Asia, Africa. Guangzhou was was voted one of the top world 3 cities during 19th century.

Fsgh 9 years ago


Redsichuan 5 years ago

The article sums it well up.
Mandarin definetely more useful and functionnal (except if you plan living and working ONLY in Hong Kong).
Cantonese more fun to speak and listen to.

An European with years and years of Chinese study

See Min Lim 5 years ago

Saying Cantonese and Mandarin is the 2 major languages is unfair, there are many other dialects like hokkien, teochew and hakka which is also y commonly used out of China, like in places like Malaysia, Singapor...

See Min Lim 5 years ago

My recommandation is to learn chinese first then cantonese, chinese is pretty easy to learn, and the words between dialects are almost the same with pretty much the same meaning, so it will be much easier from there, btw, mandarin does not sound crude, it only does because of the accent some have...

Annie Yang 5 years ago

It's Mandarin epoch. Not sure how to speak Chinese? Here's a great chance to learn with 1-on-1 live teacher.

Sign in for free:

Cara 5 years ago

Mandarin is more widely used. I just sign up with hanbridge mandarin for a trial lesson, let's see how it goes.

AZoologist 4 years ago

I am teaching my fiancé Cantonese, so that he can communicate with my family better. My family speak mainly Cantonese with a mixture of English, but none of them can speak Mandarin. Many older Hongkongese generations do not understand Mandarin since it's introduce only after 1997, and they sound so different. For example, "ni hao" and "xie xie ni" means "hello" and "thank you" in Mandarin, but it sounds like "you're slutty" and "ejaculate in you" in Cantonese. It makes much more sense to read ancient Chinese poems in Cantonese, which the poems rhymes in that language but not in Mandarin.

hope 4 years ago

if you really want to learn chinese, learn the official one, which is Mandarin . And most of the ppl in canton, macua or hk can understand Mandarin anyways.

Asears 7 years ago

As a Cantonese speaker... mandarin. I think cantonese is on its way out,

Samson Lee 二號 6 years ago

I live in Hong Kong
Speaking Cantonese =
u will never excrete in open areas
Learn it now !

Liam 5 years ago

What on earth does this mean??

Cristián Arenas Ulloa 5 years ago

It must be some kind of side effect to speaking cantonese.
It's a nice side effect, imagine not having to worry about excreting in open areas anymore. Wow, just wow!
If I only knew cantonese…

comments powered by Disqus