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), 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!
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