“What is the actual difference?”
This is the question that a pupil recently asked me in a one-off lesson that I taught in school on Mandarin. She desperately wanted to learn Cantonese and gave a huge puff at me when I stated that we would be learning Mandarin.
So let’s dispel or confirm some rumours…
- All Chinese people speak Madarin FALSE (although they can mostly understand it or are learning it)
- Cantonese is spoken by all British Chinese people FALSE (Although a very large number speak it)
- They are basically the same language TRUE (despite the fact that I disagree with this!!! It is technically true – don’t shoot the messenger)
- Speakers of Mandarin and Cantonese mutually understand one another FALSE (although some basic communication can be made)
- When you write Cantonese down, it is the same as Mandarin FALSE (Cantonese is one of the only local dialects allowed to have its own characters – and it uses traditional characters)
- Cantonese food is better LOL (This one’s up to you!)
Basically Cantonese to Mandarin is Dutch to English or Portuguese to Spanish. It has basically the same principals and incredibly similar grammar (see my previous post on Mandarin) but is not identical at all. Some things are very similar, such as “Hello, how are you?”
M = Ni hao! Ni hao ma?
C = Neih hou! Neih hou ma?
Being a fluent speaker of both Spanish and Portuguese however I strongly feel that Cantonese is quite different to Mandarin and I large gap in understanding exists. It is more similar than Dutch is to English but far less so than Spanish to Portuguese.
Some things are so different that they can’t be understood mutually, such as “I can speak French”:
M = Wo hui shuo fayu
C = Ngoh gong sik faatman
Cantonese may be the little brother of Mandarin in the popularity stakes but still has a large influence on its big brother. Because of the music and film industry in Hong Kong (where the majority of Cantonese speakers live) some terms and words are being assimilated into Mandarin as they are perceived as being cool or fashionable such as the word for a ‘bill’ or ‘check’ in a restaurant which has changed in Mandarin to reflect the Cantonese word recently, M=’zhangdan’ / C=’daan’.
In closing, I feel that the relationship between these two languages will adapt and change over the coming years and I anticipate that Cantonese will have a better understanding and respect globally as a result.
Thanks for reading!