A question a lot of expats ask before moving to China is “Should I learn Mandarin or Cantonese?” Sadly, given how complicated the Chinese languages can be, this question doesn’t have a simple answer. However, it does have an interesting one that we're going to have a look at over the course of this article.
Despite an empire spanning centuries and popular movements, China’s always been home to many different languages and peoples. This can be pretty confusing for anyone wanting to learn Chinese since the Chinese language as a single entity doesn't really exist. According to linguists, Chinese is a group of related languages. However, classifying what constitutes a language and what constitutes a dialect is something that linguists still can't come to an agreement on.
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The most commonly spoken language in this group of languages is Mandarin. This is why when most people say that they're learning Chinese, they probably mean Mandarin Chinese since these are also the most common kind of Mandarin lessons.
If it helps, you can think of this a bit like the languages spoken in Western Europe, where there are a number of languages related to Latin including Spanish, Italian, and French. All of these languages are related to one another but a speaker of one wouldn’t be able to understand a speaker of another.
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We’re going to try and make things a little clearer and debunk a few myths about China, the languages, and Chinese culture.
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The State of Languages in China
There are currently 81 languages spoken in China. Which probably makes crosswords a nightmare...
There are 55 national minority languages used by various groups. There are also minority groups that speak several languages together in order to communicate. 39 of these languages share their name with the people that speak them. For example:
Han is spoken by the Han.
Zhuang by the Zhuang.
Buyei and Dai by the... you get the idea!
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The 32 remaining languages aren’t named after ethnic groups. Their names have little or nothing to do with the name of the people that speak them. I know, I know... what a nightmare!
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For example, there are 90,000 Tibetans who speak rGyalrong rather than “Tibetan”. Don’t panic, though! Linguists have simplified things a bit by classifying the Chinese languages into groups and language families. Their classification is based on criteria such as the distance between the languages and dialects, the vocabulary, grammar, and factors such as the history of the regions, and ethnic and national identities.
These languages, which are sometimes divided into dialects and sub-dialects, can be so different to one another that that a speaker of one probably wouldn't be able to communicate with a speaker of another. It’s sort of the opposite of the Tower of Babel.
To put this linguistic problem in terms of geography:
There are languages so different to one another in the South of China that it would probably be easier to climb the Great Wall than to communicate to one another using them!
However, in the North of China, while there exists a spectrum of languages and dialects, there are more similarities between the language and culture so that some communication is possible between regions in certain cases.
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Where does Mandarin come into all this?
As you may already know, the most spoken language in mainland China is Mandarin Chinese or 普通話/普通话 pǔtōnghuà (“common speech”) or 漢語/汉语 hànyǔ (“the language of Han”, the predominant ethnicity in China) with over 955 million native speakers. As we said, when most people say they are taking Chinese lessons or languages courses, they'll probably be talking about Mandarin.
The Mandarin language, which comes from the Chinese speaking communities in the north of the country, has been the country’s official language since 1956. In fact, since Mandarin accounts for almost 80% of Chinese spoken in the world, the two terms have become almost interchangeable in English. That’s why when foreigners say that they’re “learning to speak Chinese”, they’re probably learning Mandarin Chinese, which is spoken by over 70% of China. Check out the best way to learn Mandarin with Superprof.
What is now known as “Standard Mandarin” is actually the variety of Mandarin as spoken in Beijing and was established during the Ming dynasty. It’s often thought of as the standard version of the language and, while it has a rich literary history, also includes a rich variety of different accents and peculiarities. Mandarin is also spoken in places such as Taiwan (Republic of China) and Singapore.
While there are plenty of accents in Mandarin Chinese across the different regions, everyone can supposedly speak Standard Mandarin as well. This is mainly due to the fact that it is taught in Chinese school from a very young age.
While only 25% of Chinese people speak English, Chinese has struggled to establish itself as the international language of business due to the complexity of its writing system and the various tones used in the spoken language.
China, which is more than aware of its economic prowess, is trying to encourage the spread of Chinese through programmes and the Confucius Institute, which promotes Chinese internationally.
They have no signs of stopping, either. In fact, Chinese is becoming increasingly popular for students to learn and the British Council rated it as the 5th most important language for Britain’s future. Anyway, that’s enough facts and figures for now.
Despite being a country of 1.3 billion people, there is still talk of a threat from Cantonese which runs the risk, according to the country’s Communist leaders, or usurping Mandarin Chinese as the country’s main language.
Let’s take a look at the Cantonese language. If there’s a Chinese language other than Mandarin worth talking about, this is probably it.
Learn more about Mandarin; the most spoken language in the world!
It would go without saying that in a country as big as Zhongguo (“the Middle Kingdom”) would have more than just Chinese Mandarin as a common language.
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Cantonese, which differs from Mandarin in terms of structure, characters used, pronunciation, and is spoken by over 71 million people, is a term with two meanings.
It can be used to designate both a group of people as well as the language, which has been standardised like Mandarin has been.
In Cantonese you’ll find that:
The sentence structures differ to those of Mandarin
The grammar rules are from Ancient Chinese
There are far more particles than you’d find in Mandarin
While often associated with traditional Chinese characters, modernity is at the heart of Cantonese due to standardisation and the simplification of characters on forums, in texts, and on Cantonese-language blogs.
There are many foreigners that have absolutely no idea that there are several different languages in China. It's important to know that some people prefer Cantonese, which is spoken in Hong Kong, Macao, Guangdong Province, Guangxi, and Southeast Asia, over any other Chinese language.
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As we said, Cantonese isn’t just spoken in Guangdong Province (formerly known as Canton). It’s also spoken in Hong Kong and by a large number of number of people internationally.
Cantonese has been made more popular through Cantonese cinema, Cantopop music, and the global status of Hong Kong which has certain authorities worried that it poses a threat to Mandarin.
In fact, a large number of Cantopop songs are written in Mandarin Chinese and just pronounced as they would be in Cantonese. Thus, Cantonese is often just thought of as an “alternative” version of Mandarin that only differs in terms of pronunciation while it actually differs massively in terms of structure.
Cantonese, which is thought of as China’s second language in terms of speakers, is sometimes put in third place after a group of languages known as “Wu”.
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Go deeper into Mandarin and Cantonese to discover which language you should learn...
Wu (吴语 / 吳語 / wúyǔ) is a term used for a group of languages which includes “Shanghainese”, the language spoken by the inhabitants of Shanghai.
There are 77 million people who speak Wu in Shanghai, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang, and between 7 and 8% of Chinese people can speak it fluently.
Sometimes referred to as China’s second language, Wu (unlike Cantonese) has no standardised form and includes a number of different separate dialects with differing degrees of mutual intelligibility.
The make things more confusing, Wu’s sometimes considered a separate language entirely and other times thought of as just a dialect of Mandarin. It’s not very accessible to foreigners as, in comparison to Mandarin, there are limited resources available for those wanting to learn it.
Wu, which like Mandarin, Cantonese, and Min, belongs to the Sino-Tibetan language family, has been subject to a dramatic phonetic shift over the course of the years.
8 tones merged into 5 and modern Wu makes use of only two of them. This is a rare linguistic phenomenon when you consider the tones in Mandarin.
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