Do you want to learn Mandarin or Cantonese? It might seem like a tough choice, but this blog post will help you narrow down the decision very quickly.
|An ignorant map of China divided on dialect:|
Blue is Cantonese, while red is Mandarin
After years of hearing Cantonese in a Chinatown, maybe you now believe that the ratio of Mandarin to Cantonese speakers isn't that big - there are certainly many websites that believe so. Or maybe the recent attempts by the Chinese governments to bring more Mandarin into Guangzhou has aroused your suspicion. Maybe you want to know which language you should learn.
You should know a few things about Chinese before you decide on a dialect to learn. Lingholic explains:
China’s population was estimated by Worldometers at close to 1.4 billion people in 2014, making it home to just over 19% of the world’s population and there are some 56 languages spoken by China’s recognised ethnic groups, according to Wikipedia. However, whilst Hanyu, or Han, is the predominant language and spans eight primary dialect groups, accents and variations in regional dialects differ from each other to such a degree that sometimes even the same language becomes mutually unintelligible.In other words, there are just so many dialects that even sub-dialects can't understand each other. For example, let's take Indo-European languages as an example. If I speak English and you speak Gujarati, will we understand each other? No. That's like Mandarin and Cantonese.
Next - if I speak Marathi and you speak Gujarati, will we understand each other? No. But we're getting closer, at least. That's like a dialect of Min and another dialect of Min.
Despite popular perception of Cantonese as the 'second largest dialect' or 'second largest language' in China, this is definitely not true. The only fact that can be remotely similar is that Cantonese is one of the biggest Chinese 'dialects or languages' spoken overseas. In fact, both Wu (around 80 million) and Min (around 80 million) are the second and third biggest dialects respectively, Cantonese taking the backseat as the fourth biggest dialect with only 60 million speakers.
|A (faulty) picture of Chinese dialects.|
Please note that 'Taiwanese' and 'Shanghainese'
are generally classified under 'Min' and 'Wu'
respectively, and Hunanese is normally called
'Xiang, Image from Omniglot.
There are several questions that this post seeks to answer.
- What is Cantonese?
- What is a dialect?
- Why are there so many southern dialects or languages?
- Why is the foreign view of these two dialects so distorted?
- Which dialect or language is better for business in China?
What is Cantonese?
What is a dialect?
- Cantonese, as mentioned before, uses the same exact written script - the Standard Chinese script. In other words, the only difference between Cantonese and Min and Mandarin is pronunciation.
- Speaking Cantonese is like speaking English with an accent. Just because somebody speaks Texan English doesn't mean that they're speaking a different language.
Or for a more accurate comparison, let's say you learned English from a teacher who probably didn't understand it either. And you talk with a person who learned English the exact same way. Both of you can't understand each other, though you technically learned the same language.
- Mandarin is a dialect of Chinese. So is Wu. And Min. And Hakka. And Cantonese. The latter four are all of equal status - namely, they aren't the official dialect. Even the first isn't the official dialect; more specifically, the Beijing dialect of the Mandarin dialect of Chinese is the official dialect.
Why are there so many Southern Dialects?
Why is the foreign view on Mandarin and Cantonese so distorted?
But in New York City's Chinatown, the lingua franca is Cantonese, just like in Boston. It's because the Cantonese were the first to emigrate from China. And there's one reason why they're the first to emigrate from China - Hong Kong.
You're probably sitting there thinking, "This guy is nuts. How does some random previously-British city cause most of us to think that Cantonese speakers are around equal in number to Mandarin speakers?"
Hong Kong, a backwater part of Guangdong, was snatched by Britain after China's humiliating and crushing defeat in the first Opium War. Hong Kong was a trading factory for Brits to trade with China. It grew larger and larger, with more Cantonese speakers moving there in search of better economic opportunities (certainly better than on mainland China).
In addition, Hong Kong was actually British soil - and they had much more freedom of movement than on mainland China, where emigration was banned and blocked (but happened anyways). With greater freedom of movement, it seems inevitable for Cantonese speakers to naturally form a wider and larger diaspora.
On the other hand, Min speakers (mostly in Fujian, Hainan, and Taiwan) also form a large and wide diaspora, though not as big as Cantonese speakers. Most of us know them as Hokkiens and Teochew, though these are southern Min languages. Many Chinese restaurant owners across America are actually Min speakers who (illegally or legally, though normally leaning towards the former) emigrated to America and opened up a shop.
Which dialect is better for business in China?
Other than that, Larry Salibra gives seven amazing reasons why Cantonese might eventually face extinction - the final crowning moment of Mandarin, which has dominated the nation since the beginning of Chinese civilization.
- Everyone in Canton speaks Mandarin
- Everyone in China speaks Mandarin
- Mandarin is the language of business and money
- New York Chinatown Kids Speak English Not Cantonese
- Kids play in Mandarin
- Entertainment is in Mandarin
- Mandarin is taking over Hong Kong
On the other hand, if your question was "Which dialect is better for business in Guangzhou and Hong Kong?" Well then, there's also only one answer. Cantonese would be better if you plan on sticking to those two only, of course. In fact, if you want to learn Mandarin, several people from Hong Kong use...interesting...methods to teach Mandarin words (online, of course), with the website SexyMandarin. You'll see what I mean by interesting if you read it.
If you have a different opinion about this subject than us, feel free to comment and explain why. But please remain cordial.