Find out about Mandarin and Cantonese and how they differ, and what they have in common, so you can decide on which to learn or use in your business. 

Would you love to learn Chinese but you have no idea which version to learn? Are you unsure of the differences between the two most common Chinese languages? Are you considering including a Chinese voiceover in your marketing campaign but you don’t know whether to use Mandarin or Cantonese? 

Don’t worry, you’re not alone. It is, however, important to understand at least some differences and similarities before you go forward with your foreign language project or learning. This will enable you to make the best possible choice between the two, although, the great news is that as Chinese (including Mandarin and Cantonese) has over 1.3 billion speakers all over the world. So by utilising the language for travel or business, you’re sure to benefit!

To help give you a great insight into Cantonese and Mandarin and how they are similar and different, keep reading below:

Chinese Language Origins

Chinese written language is the oldest written language on the planet, and its history spans thousands of years. There is physical proof of it existing at least 3,000 years ago but historians suspect it may be as old as 6,000 years. 

In modern times Chinese written language consists of Simplified Chinese Script and Traditional Chinese Script. Simplified Chinese Script came about in the 1950’s, developed by the People’s Republic of China to help with communist reforms, helping the illiterate members of the population grasp the written language with more ease. It has less strokes, characters and general character selection, making it much easier to use. However, it is still being worked on and there are different versions of it, just as there are with Traditional Chinese Script. 

Traditional Chinese Script used to be the standard for all Chinese-speaking locations. Today, though, you can learn simplified written Chinese and have a good level of literacy with Mandarin or Cantonese. Simplified Chinese Script is also generally most useful in business in mainland China. In Taiwan though, Traditional Chinese Script is the best option. Traditional Chinese Script is also a good idea if you want to learn more about Chinese history, culture or calligraphy. 

With modern spoken Chinese, the main dialects evolved between the 8th century BC and the 3rd century BC. There are multiple dialects and languages, with the main type being Mandarin. Over 80% of Chinese people speak Mandarin. The second most common dialect spoken is Cantonese, followed by Xiang, Min Dialect, Gan Dialect, Wu Dialect, Kejila and Hakka. 

Written & Spoken Chinese

Both Mandarin and Cantonese are Chinese languages which sound different to each other, but they are officially spoken languages (although some people debate they are in fact Chinese dialects). The odd word may sound similar or be interchangeable to a degree, but otherwise they are distinct from each other. Where this changes is with the written vocabulary of Mandarin and Cantonese, which is the same. 

The Chinese writing system used by Mandarin and Cantonese speakers involves Chinese characters, which are understood by the speakers of both Mandarin and Cantonese. That effectively means you could have a spoken conversation between somebody speaking Mandarin and somebody Cantonese and there would be no understanding at all. However, those two people could write down their conversation and completely understand each other. 

Of course, it isn’t completely straightforward. Mandarin is generally written down in the way that it sounds when it is spoken. Cantonese, however, reads differently to how it sounds when it is spoken. 

Mandarin & Cantonese Differences & Similarities


Mandarin and Cantonese languages pronounce words differently to the extent that they are indistinguishable from the other in sound, despite having the same meaning. The language is also tonal, so pitch is used to pronounce vowels and that pitch may change depending on what the word means. So one word that is exactly the same is said differently depending on the meaning. 

Tone Systems

Mandarin and Cantonese also use different tone systems. Mandarin has a neutral tone and four common tones, whilst modern Cantonese uses 6 common tones, including blended tones. 


Chinese written language is not phonetic so, again, Mandarin and Cantonese use a different way to write the sounds of their respective languages – Romanisation. Cantonese uses Yale and Jyutping, and Mandarin uses Pinyin and Bopomofo. 


Cantonese and Mandarin use different words, word order, slang and expressions that switch between regions. Each region may use different words or expressions for anything from eating out or to hanging out with friends, dating or walking the dog. Each region has its own swear words too. 

North/ South Divide

Cantonese and Mandarin tend to overlap in terms of where they are spoken, and a mixture of both speakers are present across the world. In some places people could speak Cantonese and Mandarin and their own specific regional versions of both languages as well. However, as a very general rule, Mandarin tends to be spoken more commonly in Northern China, and Cantonese is spoken more in Southern China. 

Is Cantonese Or Mandarin Better To Learn? 

It depends why you want to learn the language. Cantonese tends to be harder to learn because it uses 6 common tones (officially 9 but some are blended) whereas Mandarin only has 4 common tones and one neutral tone. Mandarin is generally spoken by most of China as the standard Chinese language. However, if you plan to travel in Guangdong or Hong Kong, Cantonese is the most common language so that could be a better option for you. 

With any business projects, like marketing in China, the same rules apply. If you want to market to most of mainland China then Mandarin is probably the best language to choose for your voiceover or subtitles. If you are marketing to Hong Kong or Guangdong then Cantonese is probably best. Of course, there can be regional dialects and language rules so speaking to a professional voiceover agency is a sensible idea to make sure you’re making the right choices. They can also localise the script, and ensure the right voice actor is chosen, so that the script is pronounced and performed clearly and effectively. 

What Will Your Next Step Towards The Chinese Language Be? 

Whether you learn or use Cantonese or Mandarin, the great news is there are many great resources to help you get started. From apps like Duolingo, to professional voiceover services, private tutors and Youtube videos – you’re surrounded by handy resources. The next step is learning more about the incredible Chinese language, which could unlock doors and possibilities for you moving forward.