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Mandarin or Cantonese; Chinese languages

The differences between Chinese languages; Mandarin and Cantonese

Mandarin is more widely spoken, Cantonese is more complex with more tones, but both are spoken throughout China. So what other differences are there?

Chinese New Year is celebrated with ringing bells, lighting fire crackers and enjoying traditional lion dances. Chinese New Year 2018 is the year of the dog, the 11th animal in the Chinese zodiac cycle.

With all this talk of the Chinese New Year, we thought we’d take a look at the differences between Mandarin and Cantonese, two of China’s primary languages.

China is already the heavyweight of the business world, contending in the top spots for the largest economic growth in the world but it’s also the fourth largest country geographically, which makes it a big challenge for those looking to do business there. The first question is what language should you communicate in?

Chinese language 2018 New Year

Chinese is just a general term for the group of languages spoken in China. China is a hub of languages, some distinctively different from the others. Two of the most commonly spoken languages in China are Mandarin and Cantonese.

Many people who are new to Chinese languages can find it difficult to distinguish between Mandarin and Cantonese and although these Chinese languages share some similarities, they’re also distinctively different. You’re likely to hear eager newcomers boast, “well, I’m going to learn Chinese” but when they start their journey they soon discover that “Chinese” isn’t even a language!

Some of the world’s largest eCommerce websites originate from China and many firms looking to invest in Chinese stock are learning the language to give them an advantage in trade deals. But which language do they consider a priority?

Asian shoppers

Most popular?

Mandarin is the most popular by far. Mandarin is the official language in mainland China. Mandarin is also the main language for schools, TV and radio stations across China and is widely used by voice over artists. 

Mandarin is spoken by the majority of the Chinese population, about 847 million people speak it as their first language. Moreover, there are lots of Mandarin speaking communities around the world such as Taiwan and Singapore.

Cantonese on the other hand is spoken by little over 60 million people throughout China. A much smaller market, but which you choose will depend on which areas you are doing business in.

Areas spoken

Mandarin is commonly spoken in the Northern area of China but is also spoken in the South-western provinces of China due to migration. Cantonese on the other hand, is commonly spoken in Southern Mainland China and Hong Kong.

Written versus oral

Written Chinese is not the same as spoken Chinese. In Chinese there is simplified and traditional forms of writing and each of these are spoken by different language groups. Cantonese is normally written as Traditional Chinese and Mandarin as simplified.

Both forms are remarkably similar and knowledge of the characters in one of the languages, guarantees a close understanding of the characters in the other language. However, the spoken languages are very different.

Tonal system

Both Mandarin and Cantonese are tonal languages. Mandarin has 4 tones and Cantonese has 9 tones. Cantonese requires you to recognise the tones by movement and pitch. However, in Mandarin, tone is directional; it goes up, down, down-then-up, or stays up during the pronunciation of a word. This happens in Cantonese too, but the pitch level is key.


Cantonese is, to a large extent, the most complex of the two languages (especially for non-natives). This is due to the difference in the number of tones in each of these languages. The more tones the language has, the harder it is to master.

Getting the tone of any of these languages right is vital in ensuring that a word has the meaning you intend. Moreover, the written form of Cantonese can be more complex than that of Mandarin depending on the characters used.


Although both Cantonese and Mandarin are the two most commonly spoken languages in China, new brands entering the market have to decide on which of the language to use. Mandarin is economically beneficial since it’s the official language of China. However, choosing any of these Chinese languages basically depends on your purpose and audience. Mandarin still remains the most widely spoken of the two languages but it’s important to know who your audience is.

If you’re interested in Chinese languages for the purpose of localisation, voice overs or subtitling videos, Matinee has got you covered. Contact us to listen to our best Mandarin and Cantonese voice samples.

Check out the video below to spot more differences between Cantonese and Mandarin.