Between the two languages of Chinese and English, there are actually more than a few names that get thrown around. For example, you may have heard "Do you speak Chinese?" or "I studied Mandarin in college", or "They speak Cantonese", or "I can't speak their dialect". What is going on here? What's the difference?

The Simplest Answer

When you get asked what language it is you're studying "with the funny characters", it would be wise to get in the habit of saying that you're studying Mandarin or Cantonese, and avoid simply saying "Chinese" by itself. This section of the site, obviously covers the Mandarin dialect. Having to phrase it this way is a quirk of living in the US. This is because both dialects are spoken in large numbers in the US. And "dialect" doesn't quite cover the difference. Whereas in English, dialects are more like minor differences in vowels, vocabulary words, and spelling; in Chinese, a dialect is almost a separate language! While all dialects will share many Chinese characters in common, their exact pronunciation, meanings, and individual characters used differ tremendously across dialects!

Different Dialects For Different Groups

You could think of the dialect difference as a consequence of different groups of people in different parts of history, converging on the US for different reasons. We'll explain it simply as this:

Mandarin is the dialect spoken around China's capital, Beijing; and has become the "national language" of mainland China, but only from about the 1950s onwards. Before this time, China didn't have a "national language", but rather several "regional languages" that were spoken in different parts of the country. Mandarin itself was at one time a "regional language", and was spoken in most of northern China, centered around the capital of Beijing. Since Beijing has been one of the most politically and historically important cities in China, and has been the capital for quite some time, adopting Mandarin as the basis for the "national language" was a no-brainer. And since then, Mandarin has become this sort of "national language" that everyone learns in China, even if it isn't necessarily their "native" dialect that they speak at home. It allows everyone across the country to have some means to communicate.

So, what this means for you in the US, is that the Mandarin speakers you will find will typically be Chinese nationals and "newer immigrants". As these Chinese have typically only been able to immigrate within the past decade or two, these communities are not as firmly integrated into American society as the older ones, typically represented by Cantonese speakers. You'll tend to likewise find Mandarin speakers in somewhat transient populations: as tourists, in universities (graduate students certainly come to mind), in multi-national corporations, and in exchange programs. Now this is a generalization, and of course, you will also find Chinese or Chinese-American individuals and families who have always spoken Mandarin and have well settled into American society or integrated into their community. Generally speaking though, your Mandarin speakers are more likely to be "newer" immigrants. That being said, do keep in mind that your Cantonese speakers make up a sizeable community in the US as well, so you are just as likely to run into them.

Cantonese is centered on the province (state) of 广东 (Guangdong), along China's southern coast. This is the area near Hong Kong, which was, for the purpose of this article, a British colony independent from China, though that is no longer the case. Nonetheless, in both the state of Guangdong and Hong Kong, Cantonese was the language spoken by the Chinese people. For historical and geographical reasons, Cantonese developed a different grammar, set of characters, and pronunciation for those characters from that of Mandarin over hundreds of years. Before the Chinese Communist Party took over China in 1949 and introduced Mandarin as the "national language", Guangdong was the home of international trade in China. If you wanted to do good business with Chinese merchants in the 19th and early 20th century, you had to learn some Cantonese. It's important to note here that international trade and commerce with China was not always as easy as it is today. For a long time, China was not easily accesible and free to trade with. In fact, for most of the nineteenth century, Guangdong was the only place that foreigners were allowed to conduct trade with China at all. More specifically, trade had to take place in what were called "cantons", which is where we get the term "Cantonese" from.

Naturally, people who grew up here were best equipped to conduct trade with places like the US, and had the best chances to immigrate to America between roughly 1850-1950. It was precisely these Chinese families who first came to the US. They continued to immigrate over the course of these hundred years, with notable increases of immigration around the Gold Rush in California, construction of the railroads in the late 19th century, and into the middle 20th century, when it became more clear that the Communist Party was set to take over mainland China. Many Cantonese speakers were among these immigrants, and they created new communities and a newly unique "Chinese-American" identity, slowly becoming distinct from "Chinese" identity as the Communist Party took over and took the people still in China in a different direction, including mandatory Mandarin language education.

Since immigrating, these families have generally speaking, become well established and integrated in the US, making them the "older immigrants". They still continue to pass down their language and culture to younger generations in the US, typically in informal settings, as part of their heritage. This creates interesting dichotomies like universities teaching Mandarin as a modern business language; while Cantonese is mostly taught through informal schools, churches, and within these Cantonese communities in the US. Remember, these speakers had left China well before learning Mandarin became mandatory in school, so you shouldn't assume that a Cantonese speaker will automatically know Mandarin, even though many Cantonese speakers have taken up the opportunity to expand their business opportunities.

How This Factors Into What You Should Learn

Since speakers of both dialects now make up a decent chunk of American society, you could very easily run into a speaker of one or the other. If you want to use Chinese abilities for work in the public sphere or government in the US (local to federal), you should have a basic understanding of both. Jobs that specifically involve translation as part of its daily duties will require a more professional grasp on one or both of them. Translators will benefit tremendously from a command of both as well, the differing written forms when understood together will give you an even stronger grasp of the language. Typically, a specific job opening should be able to specify which dialect is needed. If not, you can typically assume that jobs in the travel, education, and business industries that work with mainland China will require Mandarin, whereas jobs in fashion, finance, IT, and trade near Hong Kong will tremendously benefit from a grasp of Cantonese, since those industries are concentrated in Guangdong.

Of course, with Chinese-Americans well integrated into communities across the country, you could even find many Chinese business owners that don't speak very much Chinese at all! Another thing to keep in mind is that many Chinese speakers in the US may only speak the language and actually be unable to write very much of it, so don't always assume you can get by via writing or that they can help you write something. And of course, remember that your average American doesn't understand this dialectal difference, but taking the time to know the difference and learn appropriately will only pay off time and time again in many settings. And yes, at some point all Chinese speakers, Chinese learners, and Chinese-Americans who haven't learned Chinese all run into the awkward situations of speaking English, Mandarin, or Cantonese, but not all three. It is just part of life that everyone learns to deal with.

Now, in Chinese!

We're already learning enough about the two differing dialects, and we don't want to overwhelm you with Chinese, but we do want to acquaint you with the equivalent ideas in Chinese, so we'll end this lesson by giving you a quick contrast between the two dialects, and then give you a few important terms to know in Mandarin.If you're truly interested in the differences, we will explore them more in-depth in future lessons.

Naturally, you'll need to learn each dialect more specifically to be able to hear the difference, but there are a few generalities you can basically listen for if you're trying to discern if it's Cantonese or if it's Mandarin.

Mandarin Characteristics

- Generally speaking, writing uses simplified looking characters (i.e. not terribly complex looking and eye-straining)
- You'll often hear words starting with "sh" and "j" sounds, as well as endings like "-ee", "-an", "-ar" (esp. in Beijing)
- You will only hear endings like "a", "ma", and "ne" (nuh) occasionally. Cantonese sentences tend to use these at the end much more frequently.

wǒ shì
I am, I'm
duì bu qǐ
I'm sorry

Cantonese Characteristics

- Generally speaking, writing uses traditional characters (i.e. terribly complex looking and eye-straining)
- Mandarin words don't end in a -p, -t, -k, or -oy sound, while Cantonese words very often do.
- You'll often hear words that sound like "hi", "hay", "some", "bat", or "show".
- You'll hear "a", "ya", or "la" at the end of nearly every sentence in casual conversations, this will be reduced somewhat in more formal conversation.

ngo5 hai6
I am, I'm
mei5 gwok3 jan4
deoi3 m4 zyu6
I'm sorry
mi1 je5

Other General Terms

The following terms are used in Mandarin specifically to help make sense of this all. The safest way to describe Mandarin is 普通话 (Pǔtōnghuà). This best fits the idea of "national language", has a formal air to it, is appropriate for introductions and when you first meet people, and makes the most sense for an American learning Chinese to say. It is possible you may also see or hear 汉语 (Hànyǔ),which is another, slightly less formal way to refer to the spoken dialect of Mandarin specifically. Be careful with the tones on this one, or you could easily say 韩语 (Hányǔ), meaning Korean!

If you need to say "Cantonese" in Mandarin, it's probably easiest to use 广东话 (Guǎngdōnghuà). This means "Guangdong Speech", but also has the effect of sounding close to the word for Cantonese in Cantonese itself, which is pronounced very similarly. It is possible you may also see it referred to as 粤语(Yuèyǔ). Just be aware this character, 粤, is an abbreviation for Guangdong.

Outside of China, you may also see Mandarin refered to as 国语 (guóyǔ), meaning "country's language", which goes right along with the idea that Mandarin is a "national language". Most people will understand the country in question is China, as you are saying that idea in Mandarin after all. One final term you may see is 中文 (Zhōngwén). While this one can also be used to mean "Mandarin", it more generally means Chinese. To be more prescise, the characters in 中文 (Zhōngwén) mean "middle" (in the sense of China), and "writing" or "literature" individually, so 中文 (Zhōngwén) technically refers to the shared writing and literature of China overall, in its various dialects and changes over historical periods, the "entire" language, if you will. To say it most simply, 中文 (Zhōngwén) is the best translation of "Chinese" as the entire language itself. And to be honest, you'll hear "你可以说中文吗?" just as well as other things, as it's the simplest way to express the idea unless the person knows that you understand the whole dialectal difference. Well, there you have it. We hope you now understand the nuances of the language a bit better now.

Related Vocabulary

Mandarin (esp. as a national language)
Spoken Chinese (i.e. Mandarin)
Korean language (be careful!)
Cantonese / Guangdong Chinese
Cantonese (alternate name)

Abbreviation for Guangdong
"National language", another name for Mandarin
Chinese (entire language, no specific dialect)
nǐ kěyǐ shuō Zhōngwén ma
Can you speak Chinese?
wǒ zhǐ huì shuō yìdiǎr Zhōngwén
I can only speak a little Chinese