Chinese Language Blog

An Introduction to Cantonese Posted by on Sep 21, 2014 in Uncategorized

Earlier this month, we had a post introducing Hong Kong, a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China. There was also the “Hong Kong to Kunming Overland” post to help you plan an epic trip across southern China. As some of you may know, they speak a different kind of Chinese down there. In Hong Kong, the official language is Cantonese (广东话 – guǎng dōng huà), while the mainland and Taiwan both use Mandarin (普通话 – pǔ tōng huà). Cantonese is also an official language in Macau, and it is the lingua franca of Guangdong Province (hence the Chinese name).

Cantonese is the official language here - Hong Kong.

Cantonese is the official language here – Hong Kong.

As you’ve probably noticed by now, this blog and the associated social media pages all focus specifically on Mandarin. In the past, I’ve had comments from readers asking why we don’t cover Cantonese. Well, I’m just the blogger, so I’ll leave that to the people in our top secret corporate headquarters (just kidding, it’s in New Hampshire) to answer that question. What I can do, however, is introduce some basic aspects of Cantonese and explain the differences with Mandarin. Seeing as how we’re going to be covering Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou with posts and videos in the upcoming months, now is as good a time as any. Actually, the word “Cantonese” comes from the former English name of Guangzhou – Canton. Let’s start with some major differences.

Mandarin vs. Cantonese

Mao vs. Bruce Lee

Mao vs. Bruce Lee

  • Mandarin is the official language of mainland China and Taiwan. Cantonese is the official language of HK and also one in Macau.
  • Both are considered “Chinese language” – they use the same written language, but they are mutually unintelligible when spoken. Some people used the “the chicken talking to the duck” (鸡同鸭讲 – jī tóng yā jiǎng) to describe a Mandarin and Cantonese speaker talking to each other.
  • Mandarin uses simplified Chinese characters, while Cantonese uses traditional. If you know traditional characters, it’s easy to understand the simplified ones, but not the other way around.
  • Mandarin has a mere four tones compared with the six of Cantonese.
  • There are tons of words and phrases unique to both Mandarin and Cantonese. For example, a large number of English words made their way into Cantonese when HK was a British colony.
  • Many Chinese who have emigrated to other countries are Cantonese speakers.

Just look at the different ways to write and pronounce the word for “Cantonese” in both:

Screen Shot 2014-09-20 at 12.54.29 PM

This great video from “Off the Great Wall” goes over differences in the languages.

Which One to Learn?

People who are interested in learning Chinese often pose this question before beginning their studies. As there are many more Mandarin speakers (960 million) than Cantonese (62 million), learning Mandarin will enable you to communicate with a lot more people. Mandarin is the official language of the PRC, so it is used in government offices, schools, companies, and on radio and TV. Basically, you’ll have much more exposure to Mandarin than Cantonese in China. Unless you’re planning on settling in Hong Kong or Macau, it’s a better idea to study Mandarin. Even if you visit these areas or decide to live there, Mandarin is commonly used and many people can understand and speak it these days.


  • The website is a wealth of information about the language. For example, learn about the six tones of Cantonese in this helpful article.

Practice your Cantonese tones with this fun video.

  • There’s a Cantonese language course offered from Pimsleur online, which you can check out here.
  • has a great YouTube channel that you should follow for more practice. They have “Cantonese in 3 Minutes,” “Learn Cantonese with Pictures,” “Cantonese Holidays,” and lots of other helpful series.

Introduce Yourself in Cantonese with this video.

  • The Wiki page on Yue Chinese gives some insight into Yue Chinese, which is the branch of Chinese to which Cantonese belongs.
  • Carlos Douh is a cool Canadian who speaks incredible Cantonese. Check out his website and watch some videos on YouTube for inspiration.

Carlos talks about how he learned to speak Cantonese.

A hilarious video from Carlos that went viral – “I’m a Hong Kong Girl with 公主病 (Princess Sickness).”

  • There’s an excellent page on Fluent in 3 Months about Cantonese. Take a look at it here for some more in-depth information.
  • Another great YouTube channel is the above mentioned “Off the Great Wall.” You can learn tons of Cantonese on here, including some slang. They’ve got a nice website as well, so go ahead and take a look.

Cantonese slang from OTGW.

While I won’t be able to teach you any Cantonese, I’m excited to post some travel articles and videos from my recent trips to Hong Kong and Guangdong province. We’ll explore some historical sights, sample delicious Cantonese food, and check out some cool spots to hang out and party in some of these major cities.

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About the Author: sasha

Sasha is an English teacher, writer, photographer, and videographer from the great state of Michigan. Upon graduating from Michigan State University, he moved to China and spent 5+ years living, working, studying, and traveling there. He also studied Indonesian Language & Culture in Bali for a year. He and his wife run the travel blog Grateful Gypsies, and they're currently trying the digital nomad lifestyle across Latin America.

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