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Some notes on the difficulty of Cantonese versus Mandarin

December 2, 2009

Many parents in San Francisco are spending this month deciding which schools they will list on the SFUSD lottery form. For parents interested in Chinese, there are five possible schools, three offering Cantonese immersion and two offering Mandarin.

A parent on the SF K Files found an interesting site that discusses the differences and similarities between Cantonese and Mandarin, from an English-speakers point of view. The author was a Mormon missionary so there are a few references that are obscure for non-Mormons, but overall it’s a very thorough (and at times extremely technical) description of the two languages. It might be a useful read for families pondering which programs to apply to.

I’ve posted the beginnings of the essay below. The full essay can be read  at:


Mandarin vs. Cantonese:

Which is more difficult, Mandarin or Cantonese?  To properly address this question, there are a couple things that need to be cleared up. First, what relation do Mandarin and Cantonese have, and why should they be compared?  Second, what exactly is meant by “difficult?” In order to answer the first question, a little background on Chinese language is needed.

Many believe that Chinese is the language spoken in China. In some ways this is true; in others it is misleading. The statement is akin to remarking that European is the language spoken in Europe. Just as people in various nations of Europe speak different languages, Chinese in different provinces of China speak different languages. Ignoring the 56 official minority languages spoken in mainland China, there are over a hundred dialects of Chinese. These dialects are closely related and come from a common parent language.

The term “dialect” can be misleading. Generally, the idea of dialects differs from that of related languages in that dialects of the same language are mutually intelligible while separate languages are not. Chinese dialects are an exception. Part of the reason Chinese languages are referred to as dialects is that they share a common written language. Another reason is that there exists a continuum of intelligibility within Chinese: some dialects are more closely related than others.

Mandarin is clearly the most influential Chinese dialect and Cantonese is arguably the second most influential. They are also dialects on opposite sides of the Chinese language spectrum. While some speakers of Cantonese who have grown up in close contact with Mandarin speakers often learn to understand spoken Mandarin and vice versa, many others do not develop this ability and those who do not have the advantage of hearing the other language on a regular basis generally understand nothing of the other dialect. Those cases where speakers of one dialect comprehend the other can easily be understood as second language acquisition.

There is something of a rivalry between Mandarin and Cantonese. While Mandarin currently enjoys an exalted position as the official language of The People’s Republic of China and of Taiwan, Republic of China, Cantonese has a long history and closer ties to classical Chinese than Mandarin. Additionally, Cantonese still has a strong hold on important business centers in Southeast China and has its own measure of prestige. Cantonese is also the second most widely taught Chinese dialect for non-Chinese.

So then, as a matter of practicality and as a matter of pride, the question of which dialect is the more difficult becomes intriguing. Who has the right to boast, and which requires more effort to learn? Most English speakers who have learned both languages will say that Cantonese is the more difficult. Yet, is there any substance to that claim?

Chinese people can be just as cliquish as any other race, and language can be as clear a dividing line as any. To that end, native Mandarin speakers mock deficiencies in Canton people’s pronunciation of Mandarin. There’s even a cute rhyme that they use to express this sentiment succinctly:


“Tian bu pa, di bu pa, zhi pa Guangdong ren shuo Putonghua.”

Translation- I fear neither heaven nor earth, I only fear Cantonese speakers trying to speak Mandarin.

Mandarin speakers learning Cantonese generally are encouraged in their efforts, but Canton people are no less proud of their language and culture. The Cantonese version of the rhyme sounds equally true:


“\Tin\ \mh\ \geng\, deih \mh\ \geng\ /ji/ \geng\ -bak- \fong\ \yahn\ /gong/ /gwong/ \dung\ wah \mh\ jehng.”

Translation- I fear neither heaven nor earth, I only fear Mandarin speakers speaking Cantonese so inaccurately.

Many natives of Hong Kong and Guangzhou (where Cantonese is the provincial mother tongue) speak Mandarin as a second language. Relatively few Chinese in Northern China (where Mandarin is the provincial mother tongue) ever learn Cantonese. This is certainly due in large part to the importance of Mandarin as the national language and the government mandate that Mandarin be taught in schools. However, could there be some basis for this in one dialect being more difficult for speakers of the other?

Click here to continue reading the original essay.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 3, 2012 10:11 am

    Helpful info. Lucky me I discovered your website unintentionally, and I am shocked why this accident didn’t happened earlier! I bookmarked it.


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