There is quite a bit of confusion about the different Chinese languages. Is Chinese the same as Mandarin? What about Cantonese? In this post I want to clarify where Cantonese and Mandarin are spoken and how each language is used, so that you can get an idea of their relative importance, and which language is best for you to learn: Cantonese vs Mandarin.
Classifying any one language as ‘Chinese’ is imprecise. There are many Chinese languages (more commonly referred to as ‘dialects’). The sound and the feel of Cantonese vs Mandarin is very different, although they are grammatically very much related.
Mandarin and Cantonese, in that order, are probably the most important Chinese dialects.
In the People’s Republic of China, Mandarin is the language of administration. Education takes place in Mandarin, and you can be sure that if you meet an ethnic Chinese from China, they will have a command of this language. Mandarin is based on the language that was spoken in the north of China (where Beijing is) but through its usage for official purposes, it is now spoken in the entire country. Depending on where you go, Mandarin is spoken with different accents. Apart from northern China (and partially Taiwan), Mandarin may not be the language people speak at home. They may speak another dialect
Cantonese is the dialect spoken in the south of China, more precisely, in Canton (广东 / guang dong) Province. This southern province is one of China’s most entrepreneurial and richest provinces and throughout the centuries, many Cantonese migrants have moved to all parts of the world. The early migrants usually didn’t have a command of Mandarin, and so among overseas Chinese, Cantonese was until recently more commonly spoken than Mandarin. These days, Cantonese is still very much alive in southern China, and if you want to do business there, it is really better that you’re able to speak at least some Cantonese.In fact, Cantonese has taken the role of a sort of ’secondary dialect’ in the south of China. People who speak yet a different dialect at home speak Cantonese for their dealings at the province level.
If you want to move around freely in entire China, Mandarin will be the best language to learn. If you only really plan to deal with people from the south of China, you could consider learning Cantonese instead, or learning some phrases, and you’d be able to forge a much closer bond.
Taiwan, just like mainland China, uses Mandarin as its official language. Other dialects spoken are Hakka and Taiwanese Minnan (Taiwanese). You’ll feel absolutely free in Taiwan if you’re able to speak Mandarin.
Hong Kong is a case in itself. It borders to Canton province, so Cantonese is the most spoken language. But unlike their Mainland counterparts in Canton province, the Hong Kongers do not speak Mandarin alongside their Cantonese as a general rule. For example, in the Hong Kong MTR trains, announcements are made in Cantonese first, then in English, and Mandarin is only the third language.
Since Hong Kong only joined China in 1997, the city’s education system has not put much emphasis on Mandarin. With China’s growing importance and accessibility, Mandarin is emerging in Hong Kong. But you’re still more likely to make yourself understood to a Hong Konger in English than in Mandarin. Cantonese is the standard.
Singapore is not originally an ethnically Chinese territory. The Chinese in Singapore are descendants from migrants that came mainly from the southern part of China. Historically, many Chinese dialects were spoken in Singapore, Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese being the most prevalent. However, through deliberate government effort, Mandarin has been taught in schools as the unified language. Older Chinese people may not necessarily speak standard Mandarin, but it’s your best bet. There is a group of English educated older Chinese who do not speak Mandarin that well, though they may be fluent in Cantonese. The younger generation (below 40) of ethnic Chinese speaks Mandarin rather well. They may speak Cantonese or other dialects at home, but the general fluency in these dialects is declining among the younger generation.
Conclusion: you won’t have a problem in Singapore to get around in English. If you want to forge closer bonds with Chinese Singaporeans, learn Mandarin.
In the rest of the world, Mandarin is gaining importance versus Cantonese. When China was still closed and economically unimportant, the overseas population spoke mainly Cantonese, since they often migrated from the south of China. Now, these overseas Chinese are realizing the importance of Mandarin.