Cantonese or Mandarin

Discussions on the Cantonese language.

Cantonese or Mandarin

Post by Rickster »

Hello Everyone,

I live in New York City and my girlfriend "M" and her family speak both Mandarin and Cantonese, but speak primarily Cantonese at home, especially at the dinner table. FOOGITABOUTIT!!!

Well, several months ago during dinner, M's grandmother encouraged that I learn to speak Chinese (Mandarin) because as she so humorously put it, "It is like a chicken trying to speak to a duck." LOL!!! I'm curious why she would recommend that I learn to speak Mandarin and not Cantonese, afterall, it's the dialect primarily spoken in their household. Would it be easier and more practical to learn Mandarin instead of Cantonese???

Would appreciate any input.

Thanks in advance.

Be well,



Re: Cantonese or Mandarin

Post by ppk »

cantonese will probably make u 'closer' to her family but mandarin is probably more useful in the future. besides, her family understands mandarin as well. the best is to learn both imho.


Re: Cantonese or Mandarin

Post by Dyl »

Well, if you can't understand Cantonese, then you won't be privy to the things they want secret from you. Mind you, if you just learn standard Cantonese, they can still get around that by using colloquialisms and jargon.



Re: Cantonese or Mandarin

Post by Mirror »

I guess your "to-be-mother-in-law" just want you to be closer to them so she recommend you to learn chinese. Let's not put it in a bad way to think that they want to hide anything from you. If that's her intention, she wouldn't ask you to learn chinese in the first place.

But why Mandarin? Because it is much easier to learn. In Mandarin, there's only 4 tones. In Cantonese, there are 9! Also, colloquial in Cantonese are very difficult to understand and learn. There are too many ways to use the same word, and too many words that sound the same.


Re: Cantonese or Mandarin

Post by Rickster »

Thanks greatly all for your input & p.o.v.'s.

Though more difficult and challenging, I've decided that I'm gonna try my hand at learning to speak Cantonese because, as I live in NYC and M & her family are here, there'll be more opportunities for me to use the language on a consistent basis. I'm also figurin' that after Cantonese, Mandarin will be a cinch.

That said, would anyone please recommend a quality book, audio program or course that teaches Cantonese from beginner to advanced?

Thx again!

Be well,


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Re: Cantonese or Mandarin

Post by Helmut »

From a pure language point of view, Cantonese is not a more difficult language than Mandarin. E.g. the famous 9-tone system has only ethymological importance. In real life, modern Cantonese has 6 tones, which is not so different from the Mandarin 4 or 5.

However, there are a few rather technical problems with learning Cantonese, which relate to its political status as "dialect". The most important are

1. It is much easier to find Mandarin classes than Cantonese classes.
2. There is much less self study material available (text books, dictionaries etc)
3. Cantonese is hardly ever written, except in Cantonese text books. You can say that the Cantonese write Mandarin and not Cantonese.
4. Compared to national languages, it is not so clear, what is actually standard Cantonese. Also there is no accepted official standard phonetic writing system as pinyin is for Mandarin, so there are many competing systems.

Whoever learns Cantonese should have a clear idea why Cantonese and nothing else. To my observation, having married into a Cantonese speaking family seems to be one of the most common reasons. My question for your case would be, what is actually the mother tongue of your girl friend's family. Cantonese, Mandarin or what ? I believe it is only their mother tongue that might be worth learning.

Learning both Cantonese and Mandarin at the same time is not a good idea. One is already difficult enough, and learning both at the same time makes you mix them up. I tried.

Suggestions for learning Cantonese:
- Try to find a beginners class. I bet there is something like that in a city like New York. If you do not find a teacher, let yourself help by a native speaker.
- The Pimsleur tapes are said to be very good as a start, though expensive. They should give you a jump start in pronunciation.
- I got started with "Colloquial Cantonese" by K.Tong and G.James (Routledge). It is a solid and modern beginner's course with book and tapes.
- The only course that leads you from beginner stage to advanced stage is Sidney Lau's series. But it is difficult to get by and I would not recommend it for starting, but rather later to intensify.

There are a few good websites dedicated to help people to learn Cantonese. You may want to check them out, ask questions in the forums there.


Re: Cantonese or Mandarin

Post by rathpy »

Helmut wrote:

<< ... - The Pimsleur tapes are said to be very good as a start, though expensive. They should give you a jump start in pronunciation. >>

I have found the Pimsleur CDs to be very helpful. You can buy an abridged version on the cheap - ... 16-1857752 - You get 4 hours of audio. Although there is a lot of repitition of material in the audio, you need it as a beginner to drum in the practise of sounds until speaking becomes a semi-subconscious process.


Michael Thigpen

Re: Cantonese or Mandarin

Post by Michael Thigpen »

I'll have to technically agree with Helmut that Cantonese is not harder to learn than Mandarin. All languages are equally difficult since children have been observed learn all languages at about the same stages when learning it as their mother tongue.

But for English speakers trying to learn Chinese as a second langauge, I'd have to say that it appears that Cantonese is a slightly more difficult 'dialect' to learn than Mandarin. It's not just the tones, but the number of sounds, distinctive features, valid morphemes (a little over 590 for Cantonese and a little over 420 for Mandarin), and that Cantonese has a more complex and less distinctive tone system.

Still, the linguistic differences are not that large. What Helmut pointed out about the writing systems and issues of standardization are much more significant. Yet, even in this case Cantonese won't take that much more time to study.

More important is what you want to do with it once you've learned it. If you intend to use it only in the US and perhaps in your future family-in-laws ancestral home, your choice of Cantonese is a good thing. The US has a disproportionate number of Cantonese speakers (about 40%) in comparison with the mainland. And most likely you'll end up going on to learn Mandarin as well.

But if you are looking to boost your resume or speak with the largest number of people possible, I'd learn Mandarin. It's more viable as business language and many Cantonese speakers learn Mandarin.


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Re: Cantonese or Mandarin

Post by saagar »

I've decided that I'm gonna try my hand at learning to speak Cantonese because, as I live in NYC and M & her family are here, there'll be more opportunities for me to use the language on a consistent basis.

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Re: Cantonese or Mandarin

Post by samwu33 »

Although I am a native Cantonese speaker, I still suggest foreigner learn Mandarin first , unless you have the ambition to learn Japanese later . Having many sounds inherited from very old ( say, sounds of the people living in Tang Dynasty ) speaking Chinese, Cantonese sound very close to many daily Japanese kanji.

ken tao
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Re: Cantonese or Mandarin/Tang or Han

Post by ken tao »

As a native white New Yorker, in my childhood I only heard Cantonese spoken. The Tang Tongue was therefore the sound of Chinese Language to me. Later on there was an influx of Mandarin speakers where I lived in Flushing, NY, so I began to learn Han Chinese from my 'Hua Qiao" friends in preparation for entering the Greater China world. Even though I don't know a single word of Guang Dong Hua in the childhood back of my brain Cantonese seems like the normal sound of Chinese, whereas Mandarin seems kind of off key, putting just one more roadblock in the way of my gaining fluency in Han Chinese. Such it goes with the mind set of childhood!?