Saturday, May 30, 2009

So why choose Mandarin?

Once I had decided to study Chinese, my next step was to choose between Mandarin & Cantonese.

In retrospect, based on everything I now know, it should have been an easy choice. But I spent quite a lot of time reading, reviewing & debating. In case it helps you, here are some of the items I considered at the time.

  • According to Wolfram|Alpha, there are approximately 1 billion people who speak Mandarin, of which nearly 900m speak it as their first language. Cantonese, on the other hand, is spoken by 55m people. Mandarin is by far the number 1 language in terms of the number of native speakers, and that's a good reason to speak it.
  • And of the 55m who speak Cantonese, a large proportion also speak English. For Mandarin, this is not the case - so in terms of actually needing to speak Chinese, Mandarin is the clear choice.
  • Mandarin has 4 tones (plus neutral), which is difficult enough for Westerners to grasp. Cantonese has 9 tones (plus neutral), which definitely makes it more difficult topick up.
  • Even in Hong Kong, where Cantonese is the main language, in recent years it has been Mandarin that is now compulsorily taught (especially at international schools), and not Cantonese as I would have thought.
  • Most of the material on the web for learning Chinese is Mandarin-based. It's not impossible to find Cantonese material, but the choice is certainly much more limited.

The main reasons I would have chosen Cantonese were:

  • I was visiting Hong Kong quite often, and Cantonese is the main Chinese language spoken there.
  • Chinese restaurants generally seem to have Cantonese-speaking staff. Of course I'm generalising, but when I eat Chinese - in London, New York, Munich, Zurich, Johannesburg - they don't always speak Mandarin, just Cantonese.

Life's never simple, and so even choosing Mandarin isn't enough - because there are many dialects which exist too. The most commonly-taught version is Standard Mandarin, known as Pǔtōnghuà [普通话]. And the good news is that most of the Mandarin course material on the Net seems to focus on this Standard Mandarin. Other variations include Guóyǔ [国语] which is spoken in Taiwan and is actually quite similar, Shangainese, Beijing dialect, and others.

Here are some additional links which might be of interest:

And if you have a different opinion to mine, let me know in the comments.


  1. Don't confuse Shanghainese with any dialect that could remotely be called Mandarin.

    For mandarin, we're talking guanhua, beijing hua/jing bai, guoyu, putonghua, all of which can be classified as "Northern" topolects(China has 7+ major groups of 'chinese topolects or 方言 depending how you count them), Cantonese is what we call Yue, Shanghainese is the representative dialect of Wu; besides this there is Kejia (Hakka), Min (Hokkienese/Taiwanese), Gan, Xiang. Sometimes Min is divided into North and South to make for 8 八大方言.

  2. Thanks for the update Kevin. I keep promising myself I'll look into the various languages or dialects in more detail - and your post has just given me another reminder!

  3. Hey, just wanted to correct you, Cantonese doesn't actually have 9 tones. Hong Kong Cantonese only really has 6 tones (low rising, low level, low falling, mid rising, mid level & high level), Cantonese from the mainland has one extra tone, high falling (Hong Kong Cantonese doesn't make a distinction between high level & high falling tones, it pronounces them both as high level). Also, there isn't really such a thing as a neutral tone in Cantonese, but there are tone changes like Mandarin.

    Linguists count the number of tones differently, so different sources will tell you Cantonese has 6, 7 or 9 tones, but speaking personally as a student of Cantonese I would consider it to have 7 distinct tones (some people say the high falling tone is not worth learning but I still think it's useful if you ever visit mainland China).

    Anyway, in my opinion, when you get the hang of tones it doesn't make any difference how many you have to learn, whether 4 (+1 neutral) or 7.

  4. Hi unzum, and thanks for your feedback. I can't recall which site told me 9 tones, but I quoted them. Am very happy to take your word - both about the number and the neutral tone.

    Although the focus of this blog is Mandarin, am pleased to have a Cantonese student on board! I look forward to further input from you in future.

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