Cantonese and Mandarin: the similarities and differences

“Which is more difficult to learn, Cantonese or Mandarin?” Many people have asked this question. Some give a simple answer, saying “Cantonese is more difficult because it has more tones.” Although it is a true fact, it does not reflect the whole picture, and tones are unnecessarily emphasised. We speak sentences, not tones. 

Both Mandarin and Cantonese are very difficult to learn for anyone who aims to pass the small talk stage. In this article, I, as a native Mandarin speaker who lives in Hong Kong, offer some of my experiences and understandings about the similarities and differences between Cantonese and Mandarin. 

A word about Hong Kong. The default Chinese language in Hong Kong is Cantonese. And Hong Kong uses traditional Chinese characters in its print media. Although I consider Hong Kong is a fabulous place to study Mandarin and simplified Chinese characters, I also recognise that it is the best place to learn Cantonese and traditional characters. Hong Kong offers an authentic Cantonese speaking environment which is hard to find anywhere else.


Cantonese has a longer history than Mandarin. It is said that Cantonese speaking people were originally refugees from the central part of China. They came to the South to escape the war, and therefore retained a version of old Chinese. 

Mandarin, as today’s modern standard Chinese, is the result of many gradual changes. 

Another dialect, Hokkien, is believed to be even more ancient than Cantonese. But that’s another story.

Newspapers, Journals and Books

I was brought up learning simplified Chinese characters, but I don’t have any problems reading newspapers, journals and books printed in traditional Chinese characters as long as the texts use standard written Chinese. I found that the ability of reading traditional characters was easy to acquire. The character simplification process has its logic, and for all Chinese-literate readers, the knowledge of one system can be transferred to the other. Therefore, I can read nearly all printed materials in Hong Kong effortlessly.

However, I find it difficult to read articles or advertisements which are written in vernacular Cantonese, which borrows a character for its phonetic quality, not for its meaning. For example, “而家” does not mean anything in Mandarin. But if people read this combination in Cantonese, they would know that it means “now”. This is quite common in Cantonese writings. As Chinese characters do not represent sounds, the same character can be pronounced in different ways. Hence, Mandarin has one sound, while Cantonese has another. After I have leaned some Cantonese, I can understand some of these Cantonese texts, but not all. Cantonese is full of slang, many of which I do not have a clue.

Special Chinese Characters

Cantonese has some sounds which do not have any equivalents in Mandarin. Special Chinese characters were created to write down these sounds. 

One good example is to express “have not”. In Mandarin, it is “没有”, which has two distinctive sounds “mei” and “you”. In Cantonese, it is only one sound “mou”, and a special character “冇” was created to represent the sound. The way to create this special character is interesting. The creator got rid of the two strokes inside of “有”, and it is quite fitting to have a character “冇” which means “have not”. 

However, this kind of special characters are very limited. Overall, Cantonese and Mandarin use the same writing system.

Archaic Expressions in Cantonese

As Cantonese is an older version of Chinese than Mandarin, it has preserved many archaic expressions. For example, “to walk”, in Mandarin it is “走”, and in Cantonese it is “行”. “To drink” is “喝” in Mandarin, “饮” in Cantonese. “To eat” is “吃” in Mandarin, “食” in Cantonese. 

I don’t find these terms difficult to learn. It might be that I have seen all these expressions in classical Chinese texts.

Loanwords in Cantonese

In Hong Kong, Cantonese has many loanwords from English. These words I found quite difficult at the beginning. For example, “波” means “ball” in Cantonese, “士多” means “store”, “粒” means “elevator, lift”. I needed someone to point out that these words are phonetic translations from English. 

Given the history of Hong Kong, it is very natural for local people to borrow some English words and make them their own. But I am not sure whether Cantonese spoken in other places, such as Guangzhou, also has these loanwords. 

Mandarin also has quite a bit of loanwords. And sometimes Mandarin and Cantonese use different loanwords for the same object. For example, “sofa”, it is “沙发” in Mandarin, “梳化” in Cantonese. 

Cantonese Grammar

Cantonese and Mandarin sometimes use different word order. First example, “I go first”, it is “我行先” in Cantonese, “我先走” in Mandarin. “He gives me three books”, it is “佢畀三本书我” in Cantonese, “他给我三本书” in Mandarin. 

But the majority sentence construction follows the same rules.


How many tones does Cantonese have? Some people say six tones, while others say nine. I think this disagreement proves that tones are of the least importance. 

I have the same view when it comes to learn Mandarin. Tones are often way too exaggerated. There are many jokes talking about disastrous troubles people get them into for speaking the wrong tones, such as getting slapped by ordering “dumplings” because the waitress mistaken it for “to sleep”. 


April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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