When deciding to learn Chinese, Mandarin Chinese is almost always the default choice. It is after all China’s official language and is by far the most widely spoken variety of Chinese. Nonetheless, the Chinese language is linguistically very diverse. It is comprised of many spoken varieties of Chinese (commonly referred to as dialects), some more widely spoken than others. Of them, Wu Chinese has the most speakers, followed by Cantonese, although Cantonese is certainly the more well-known of the two. So, let’s unpack some of the top reasons for learning Cantonese.
1. It’s widely spoken
Although Cantonese is nowhere near as widely spoken as Mandarin, it is quite widespread. In terms of numbers, it is estimated that there are approximately 73 million speakers worldwide. For perspective, that is roughly the same as languages such as Vietnamese, Turkish, Italian and Korean, and more than Thai and Polish.
Cantonese originates from southern China and is still widely spoken there, particularly in Guangdong province, Hong Kong and Macau. But it is hardly limited to these areas. It is spoken in Chinese diasporas across the world, including in many Asian countries where it is commonly the main variety of Chinese spoken.
It is likewise influential in Australia’s Chinese diaspora. English aside, Cantonese is in fact the third most commonly spoken language in Australia behind Mandarin and Arabic.
2. It is relatively easy to learn if you know some Mandarin
Mandarin and Cantonese have a lot in common. They are both Chinese after all.
Unless written in colloquial language, Cantonese is basically indistinguishable from Mandarin in written form, although Cantonese speakers often prefer traditional characters over simplified characters, and sometimes use characters not used by Mandarin speakers.
On the other hand, Mandarin and Cantonese are largely unintelligible when spoken. Thankfully though, much of this is simply down to differences in pronunciation. By learning how sounds correspond between Mandarin and Cantonese, those familiar with Mandarin can quickly learn to understand spoken Cantonese, especially if strategies such as these are used to maximise gains. Finding a teacher fluent in both Mandarin and Cantonese can also really help with this. You can find many teachers that meet this description on online platforms such as Italki.
3. It’s fun to learn!
Cantonese is a fun language to speak and listen to. It has a song-like quality thanks to its many tones and sentence final particles. It is also known for its colourful slang, which make learning it a very interesting experience.
Being able to understand Cantonese means that you can watch Hong Kong classics without subtitles or dubbing. Stephen Chow’s movies really take on another dimension when you can understand his humour in its original form.
Lastly, learning Cantonese has the added bonus of being able to blast out Cantonese ballads when you’re out for karaoke with your Chinese friends.
4. It is a great bridging language to learn Asian languages from
Cantonese has much more in common with Asian languages compared to Mandarin. This is because it retains many antiquated pronunciations and words from earlier Chinese, from which many Asian languages developed.
For example, 学生 (student) is pronounced as “shweh sheng” in Mandarin and as “hok saang” in Cantonese. This is very similar to the pronunciation of the Korean word for student “학생”, which is pronounced “hak seng”.
Cantonese is therefore great to have up your sleeve if you are planning on learning multiple Asian languages.
5. It is sought after in the job market
Although Mandarin is by far most in-demand variety of Chinese, Cantonese is certainly second. In Australia, many China-related job listings ask for language abilities in Mandarin or Cantonese, with some even asking for both. Cantonese abilities can therefore be an asset when job hunting. For instance, a quick search for jobs in Australia on LinkedIn with the keywords “Mandarin” and “Cantonese” returns 475 results for the former and 139 for the latter.
Of course, the benefits of speaking Cantonese are much more pronounced in locales such as Hong Kong where Cantonese enjoys much more currency.
“We had some Anglo-Saxon applicants… most of them can’t speak Cantonese, even though some of them can speak Mandarin… when local customers hear a different language [other than Cantonese], they lose the sense of familiarity… so local language, and even local slang, are very important…”HR professional from Hong Kong
In saying that, Mandarin is definitely better to learn if you just want to learn some Chinese to boost your CV. Learning Cantonese is more suited to those planning to work or study in areas where Cantonese is widely spoken or those planning to work for a company that does business with such areas.
Given it is the world’s most spoken language, Mandarin undoubtedly remains the best of choice of Chinese to learn for most language learners. Nonetheless, those looking to work or study in areas where Cantonese is prevalent may be better off learning Cantonese rather than Mandarin.
As for those who can speak or have previously learned Mandarin, learning Cantonese is both a stimulating and relatively easy way to continue your Chinese language learning journey.
If this article has you curious about learning Cantonese, Cantolounge is a great free online resource to start from. If you’re considering a more formal course, the University of Queensland offers online programs. Or you could go for full immersion by enrolling in an in-person Cantonese course at one of Hong Kong’s many language schools (see this link for a list Cantonese programs in Hong Kong and around the world).
Curious about other Chinese dialects? Check out this post about learning the Taiwanese dialect of Tai-gi.