Should I speak Mandarin or Cantonese?

China Travel Tips

A question that often comes up for future expatriates leaving for a long immersion stay in China … Should I speak Mandarin or Cantonese?

This demand speaks volumes about the complexity of the Kung Fu country in terms of dialogue and understanding for foreigners.

In China, the millennial history of the empire, the movement of people and culture have not been right in the many languages ​​and dialects that make up the country of the Middle Earth.

Confusing for a student learning Mandarin Chinese , we find a common linguistic logic to all these Chinese languages .

Indeed, just like learning another Latin language like Spanish or Italian for a French one, the study of another Chinese “speaking” is fascinating as the similarities and peculiarities are numerous.

Let’s try to simplify the task of clairvoyance to better understand theChinese language structure in order to avoid long-held misconceptions that spread prejudices, false beliefs and erroneous statements.

State of Linguistic Places in China

The Tibetan-Burmese group is one of the middle-class language groups. It has several dialects.

Currently there are 81 languages ​​spoken in China . What to make a little more complex crosswords …

Through different levels of written and oral skills, 55 national minorities use their own language . Minorities sometimes use several languages ​​at the same time to communicate ( You tell me it’s ideal for “kamoulox”! )

49 languages ​​- among these 81 recorded in China – bear the name of the nationality that uses it. In other words, :

  • the language “han” is used by the “han”,
  • the “zhuang” by the “zhuang”
  • and likewise for the “buyei”, the “dai” …

Wait, it gets complicated …

Of the 32 languages ​​remaining on the linguistic menu, the name of these languages ​​is totally different from the nationality of their speakers. ( Yes, I know … )

A concrete example with the 90,000 Tibetans whose mother tongue is … Wait for it … The “gyarong” and not the “Tibetan”!

Do not panic ! China operates on a well-organized linguistic classification model that serves to build a number of language groups within the Chinese family.

This linguistic classification model is based on criteria based on the distance between languages ​​and dialects, as well as other more specific conditions such as the history of the region, ethnic identity, or the evolution of nationality. function of the language.

Far from words, far from the heart …

Sometimes divided into dialects, sub-dialects and jargons, these languages ​​may carry within them a dialectal distance that disrupts the communication ambitions of everyone. ( How far is the time of the tower of Babel … )

To map the language problem:

  • In southern China we find minority languages ​​and dialects so far apart that the hopes of dialogue are as difficult to overcome as the Chinese wall,
  • In the North of China , the situation is quite different since the dialects have more similarities between them and consequently allow a greater spectrum to speak.


Mandarin can be read in Cantonese pronunciation. However, it is not used in everyday life.

What place does Mandarin have in the history of Chinese languages ?

No need to do a calligraphy, you will understand, the first language most spoken in China is Mandarin Chinese or 普通話 / 普通话 pǔtōnghuà (“common language”) or 漢語 / 汉语 hànyǔ (“language of Hàn”, dominant ethnic group in China) with more than 955 million native speakers .

We are far from the “friends” of your Facebook account if “popular” in your eyes …

Official language of the People’s Republic of China since 1956, Mandarin was once the language of the Chinese communities living in the North of the country.

This is why, for foreigners, when we say “learn Chinese” we usually speak that are most in demand because this language is spoken (officially) by more than 70% of Chinese.

What is now called the ” Standard Mandarin ” is actually the Mandarin of the Peking region where the Ming emperors once settled. Often considered as the most standard variant of this language to the rich ancient literary history, the Beijing Mandarin still has some specificities including the accent.

The variety of accents – more or less marked depending on the case and region – does not change anything: all of China speaks standard Mandarin ! Notably because Standard Mandarin is taught in all schools in China to train younger generations.

Moreover, not only spoken in China, Mandarin also relies on speakers in Taiwan and Singapore .

Language used for business, since only 25% of Chinese master English , so it is despite the difficulty of Chinese characters, pinyin phonetics and tones that the Mandarin continues its international conquest.

Today, China, well aware of its economic power, is trying to spread its language in the world via the deployment of institutes Confucius – the equivalent of the Alliance Française – at the international level.

An ambition that is not ready to stop since in 2013, Chinese was already in 5th position of the languages ​​taught at school in France behind English, Spanish, German and Italian.

Enough “demo-linguistic” data!

In this great country, with more than 1.3 billion inhabitants, there is sometimes talk of the threat of Cantonese who would destroy the plans of communist leaders who have designated Mandarin as the “vehicular” language of the nation.

So let’s see what it is for those who have notions of Cantonese that the word “rice” that precedes …

If there is a Chinese language to favor , it is this one!


It is wrong to think that Taiwanese speak Cantonese. In fact, Chinese people based in Taiwan speak standard Mandarin.

One had to be aware, in a country as big as the current Zhongguo (“the country of the Middle”), Mandarin could not be the only popular language …

Largely different from Mandarin, especially in terms of structure, characters used and pronunciation, Cantonese spoken by more than 71 million speakers ( More than the French in France, imagine! ) Is a two-way term.

It refers to both the language group – in which there are many dialects – but also the Cantonese language which has standardized as the Mandarin.

We will find in Cantonese:

  • Sentence structures whose order really differs from Mandarin,
  • Grammatical uses that come from ancient Chinese,
  • Post-verbal particles larger in numbers and more refined in detail than in Mandarin.

Often associated with traditional characters, today’s Cantonese still carries within it traces of modernity and standardization since it is mostly written with simplified characters on forums, via “correspondence” sms and blogs of mainland Chinese cantophones.

Although few foreigners know that there are many languages ​​in China , some Sinophiles worship in Cantonese – spoken in Hong Kong, Macaon in Guangdong, Guangxi and Southeast Asia – more than other languages ​​and dialects Chinese.

Indeed, spoken not only in Canton, but also in the attractive city of Hong Kong and part of the diaspora, Cantonese has a rich influence and culture that is internationally appealing.

The image of Cantonese, reinforced by Cantonese cinema, cantopop music and Hong Kong’s global status, sometimes puzzles politicians who think that this language could pose a threat to Mandarin …

Regardless, most of the songs that make up the cantopop are written in standard Mandarin Chinese and only pronounced in Cantonese. Thus, the Cantonese language remains cloistered in the stereotype of being an “alternative” version of Mandarin only different in its pronunciation while it is in a very different structure.

Nowadays perceived as the second living language of China – in number of speakers – the Cantonese is however only in third place in terms of language groups just after a certain group called “wu”.

Discover also: What’s the language is spoken in Shanghai?

The “Wu”

Several languages ​​in China have undergone a very strong phonic evolution. They are totally different in contemporary reality.

The Wu (吴语 / 吳語 / wúyǔ) is derived from the linguistic term that includes many dialects and is best known for its “Shanghain” or Shanghai language …

Spoken in Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang, Wu has about 77 million speakers, and it is still believed that 7 to 8 percent of Chinese people use it fluently.

Recognized as the second language spoken in China, the “Wu” owes this title of nobility to the fact that, unlike the “standardized” Cantonese, it has been made up of many individual dialects.

Sometimes perceived as a language in its own right, sometimes perceived as a Chinese dialect , Wu is not really accessible to foreigners and rare are the Mandarin lessons and contents that encourage you to learn.

A member of the “Sino-Tibetan” language family – like Mandarin, Cantonese and Min – Wu has undergone a major phonic evolution over the years.

Indeed, formerly consisting of 8 tones, which have merged to form only 5, the contemporary Wu is used only with 2 tones. A rare linguistic phenomenon when compared to Mandarin Chinese.

Steve Batides

I am passionate about travel, writing and music. I like writing books, landing in an unknown country, brassens, beer, cats, jazz and shells. I put a point of honor to seek for you the best information to sublimate your travels. A question about a destination, a visit, a good plan? I'll answer in the comments.

Related Articles

Back to top button