Mandarin vs Cantonese vs Chinese: Key Differences You Better Know

Mandarin vs Cantonese vs Chinese Key Differences You Better Know

China is a vast country covering an area equal to the size of Europe with a huge and diverse population exceeding 1.4 billion people. It’s incredible to have 300+ languages spoken in one country. In this article, we will compare Mandarin vs Cantonese, two of the most common languages in China. 

Chinese vs Mandarin

Is Chinese Mandarin? Or, to rephrase a better question, is Chinese and Mandarin the same?

The simple answer is NO.

Although Chinese and Mandarin are often used interchangeably by foreigners, they are two different linguistic concepts. When people unfamiliar with Chinese culture and sociology from outside of China refer to Chinese, what they’re indicating is, in most cases, Mandarin. However, the fact is Mandarin is only a dialect in the whole Chinese language family, which contains up to 302 varieties of languages and dialects. Among those varieties, some are mutually intelligible to one another, while some are unintelligible to speakers from other ethnic groups.

It’s natural for foreigners to take Mandarin for Chinese given the fact that it is the official language of China and approximately 62% of China’s population speaks Mandarin in their everyday life. You can think of Chinese as an umbrella covering all the language and dialect groups spoken by Chinese people, including two of the most common ones: Mandarin and Cantonese. 

Mandarin vs Cantonese - what are they?

So you’ve had a general understanding of Mandarin vs Chinese. Now it’s time to move on to the comparison between the most prestigious languages in China – Mandarin and Cantonese. We will break down the similarities and differences in terms of their definitions, pronunciations, vocabulary and grammar, characters, romanization systems, and more.

First and foremost, what is Mandarin and Cantonese language?

What is Mandarin Language?

Mandarin is neither a language nor a dialect, but a group of Chinese dialects spoken across north and southwestern China, as well as Taiwan, Singapore, and Malaysia. Mandarin Chinese encompasses a variety of dialects, including Beijing Mandarin, Taiwanese Mandarin, Northeastern Mandarin, Jilu Mandarin, Jiaoliao Mandarin, Zhongyuan Mandarin, Lanyin Mandarin, Lower Yangtze Mandarin, and Southwestern Mandarin.

Apart from being the lingua franca in China, (Standard) Mandarin is also one of the six official languages of the United Nations, along with Arabic, English, French, Russian, and Spanish.

Outside mainland China, Mandarin is also used as the only official language of Taiwan and one of the four official languages of Singapore.

What is Cantonese?

Is Cantonese Chinese?

Big yes.

Cantonese is an East Asian language within the Sinitic branch of the Sino-Tibetan languages spoken in southern China and its neighboring areas. It is the most widely spoken language after Mandarin with over 80 million native speakers. Cantonese is also a language that has derived multiple dialects, such as Guangzhou (Canton), Bobai, Cangwu, Gaolei (Gaoyang), Ping, Guinan, Qinlian, Tengxian, Yangjiang, and Siyi (Hoisan, Schleiyip, Seiyip, Taishan, Toisan). Among these dialects, the most prestigious one is Guangzhou (Canton) dialect, which is also perceived as Standard Cantonese.

Although the Cantonese language doesn’t have a dominant status across China, it still comes next to Mandarin as the most important Chinese language and one of the two official languages in Hong Kong (together with English) and Macau (together with Portuguese).

Difference between Mandarin and Cantonese

Whether Cantonese is a language or a dialect has been an ongoing debate among linguists. Generally speaking, a language includes many distinct dialects and variants of that language, while a dialect is a subset of that language. In most cases, dialects of the same language are mutually intelligible, meaning speakers of different dialects/accents can effortlessly understand each other despite the slightly different pronunciations and varied vocabulary.

But there are exceptions that we will not expand on in this post. In this article, we will focus on the difference between Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese.

Mandarin Pronunciation vs Cantonese Pronunciation

If you’ve listened to people speaking Mandarin and Cantonese before, you would notice Mandarin and Cantonese sound entirely different and nothing alike, despite the fact that they are both under the Chinese language family tree.

Have you ever wondered why?

Because Mandarin and Cantonese are not dialects of each other but different languages under the branch of the Sinitic languages.

Cantonese and Mandarin apply different pronunciation rules, resulting in the same Chinese written word sounding completely different in the two languages. Take “秘密”, the Chinese word for secret, as an example. Although the written form of this word is 100% identical, the mandarin pronunciation for “秘密” is “mee-mee” (mì mì), while the equivalent Cantonese pronunciation is “bay-mah” (bei3 mat6).

To better understand such differences, you can consider Mandarin as English and Cantonese as Spanish. The words “cultural” “idea” and “manual” spells and mean exactly the same in English and Spanish. However, they sound completely different to people who speak neither of the languages.

Mandarin vs Cantonese - Difference in Tones

Like many other Chinese languages, Mandarin and Cantonese are also tonal languages, which means words with different tonal inflections will deliver distinct meanings. That’s why it’s crucial to get the tones right when speaking Chinese, or else the native speakers will have trouble understanding you.

To no one’s surprise, many people shy away from learning Chinese because the tone/pitch of the word is simply too intimidating. And who could blame them?

Mandarin and Cantonese adopt entirely different tone systems. Broadly speaking, Mandarin lacks mid flat tone and low flat tone, which are common in Cantonese but has a unique falling-rising tone.

Mandarin has four main tones – a high flat, rising, falling-rising, and falling tone plus a fifth “neutral” tone. Each of the four tones is marked over a vowel to represent the pronunciation. Please refer to the following examples showing how different tones modify the Mandarin vowel “a”.



First tone

(High flat)


Second tone



Third tone



Fourth tone



Fifth tone










A question word

If you think this is complicated enough to comprehend, wait till you see the Cantonese tones. Because there are “nine tones” in Cantonese under the romanization system. However, instead of saying there are “9 tones”, people usually agree that there are six because tones seven, eight, and nine are perceived as shorter versions of tones one, three, and six. So it’s more accurate to say the Cantonese language has nine sounds and six tones.












(High falling)



(Medium rising)



(Medium level)



(Low falling)


Light rising

(Low right)



(Low level)

7(or 1)


(High level)

8 (or 3)


(Medium level)

9 (or 6)


(Low level)













Mandarin vs Cantonese - Vocabulary & Grammar

Although Cantonese and Mandarin both use Chinese characters in their writing systems, they have their unique vocabulary and grammar. As a result, being fluent in either language doesn’t make you conversational in another because the two languages are mutually unintelligible.





你好 (nǐ hǎo)

你好 (nei5 hou2)

What’s your name?


(nǐ jiào shénme míng zi?)


 (nei5 giu3 zou6 mat1 je5 ming4 aa1)

Long time no see.


(hǎo jiǔ bú jiàn)


(hou2 noi6 mou5 gin3)

Where are you from?


(nǐ shì nǎ guó rén?)


(nei5 hai6 bin1 dou6 jan4 aa1)

He gives me money.


(tā gěi wǒ qián)


(keoi5 bei2 cin2 ngo5)

You go out first.


(nǐ xiān chū qù)


(nei5 ceot1 heoi3 sin1)


美丽(měi lì)



可怜(kě lián)

陰功(jam1 gung1)


结实(jiē shi)

实净(sat6 zeng6)
















Cantonese vs Mandarin - Differences in Characters

There are two writing systems in the Chinese language – Chinese simplified and Chinese traditional, which share the same roots in ancient Chinese. Mandarin and Cantonese used in different areas tend to adopt different Chinese characters. Despite the variations of the dialects, the written Chinese characters are mutually intelligible across different Chinese speakers.

Is Chinese simplified Mandarin? 

Not exactly.

Chinese simplified is used in mainland China, Singapore, and part of Malaysia, where Mandarin is widely spoken among the Chinese communities. However, due to historical reasons, people in Taiwan also speak Mandarin as their native language, yet they adopt traditional Chinese characters in their writing system. Cantonese speakers in mainland China, especially younger generations, tend to use simplified characters since that was apparently what they were taught at school from a young age.

Is traditional Chinese Cantonese? 

Similar to the last question, the answer to this question is also NO.

In general, Cantonese speakers from Hong Kong and Macau use traditional Chinese characters in their daily life. But there are exceptions. Although traditional characters can still be seen in mainland China, especially in Guangdong, where Cantonese is the native language, young Cantonese speakers in mainland China prefer to use simplified characters because they are more accustomed to it because that’s what they learned from school. But most of them can read both simplified and traditional characters without any problem.

Besides, traditional Chinese is not exclusive to Cantonese. As mentioned above, the Taiwanese also uses traditional characters while speaking Mandarin as their official language.

Romanization Sytems -Mandarin vs Cantonese

Mandarin and Cantonese also have different romanization systems. In Mainland China, Mandarin uses Hanyu Pinyin for pronunciation, while in Taiwan, the equivalent is Zhuyin or Bopomofo. Cantonese has over seven romanization systems, among which the widely accepted and used ones are Jyutping, Yale, and Cantonese Pinyin.

Chinese Characters

我爱学中文。/我愛學中文。(I love to learn Chinese.)

Hanyu Pinyin

wǒ ài xué zhōng wén。


ㄨㄛˇ ㄞˋ ㄒㄩㄝˊ ㄓㄨㄥ ㄨㄣˊ 。


ngo5 oi3 hok6 jung1 man4


ngóh oi hohk jūng màhn

Cantonese Pinyin

ngo5 oi3 hog6 zung1 men4

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After reading this article on Mandarin vs Cantonese, you must be able to tell the difference between Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese. By and large, Mandarin and Cantonese are two different languages under the Chinese language family with their unique rules of pronunciation, vocabulary & expression, grammar, writing systems, and dialects. It’s hard to decide which one is more important than the other because they are both used by a large group of people and are interrelated to each other. 

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