Differences between learning Cantonese and Mandarin

Mandarin and Cantonese – The Differences

My experience learning Mandarin has been somewhat unique compared to other students at LTL. I lived in Hong Kong in the late 90s and achieved a fairly high level of fluency speaking Cantonese. At the time I left Hong Kong when I spoke to people on the phone they would sometimes think I was Chinese – though usually someone from mainland who had moved to Hong Kong (it’s extremely hard to have perfect pronunciation in Cantonese if you weren’t raised in an environment where you were exposed to the sounds and tones from a young age!).

There are many places online you can read about the differences between Cantonese and Mandarin so I will only mention some basics. The first big difference is the lack of a Romanization system (pinyin/pingyam) that people agree on. I learned using the Yale system, which seems to be the most commonly used system at Universities in Hong Kong. (The legacy British system still used for location names, etc in Hong Kong is woefully inaccurate.) While many Mandarin speakers might be able to write Chinese words in pinyin I never met a single native Hong Kong Cantonese speaker (outside of the language teachers) who had any idea how to write a Cantonese word in pingyam or who could tell me what tone a word is.

The Tones in Cantonese

Gareth Student Beijing China

Me at the Summer Palace in Beijing

Tones are the biggest difference most people talk about when comparing Cantonese and Mandarin. Cantonese has three tonal registers (low/mid/high) with flat tones and rising/falling tones between some of the registers (though no “boomerang” tone like the third tone in Mandarin.) While some people like to say there are nine tones, some of these are extremely subtle variants of six main tones. The Yale system technically has seven but because the “high falling” tone functionally no longer exists there are really six.

Finally, the last big difference between the two is the lack of written Cantonese. Technically Mandarin and Cantonese are just different spoken dialects of the same language but there are actually characters for spoken Cantonese used in comic books and other “unofficial” writing – basically just homophones of “official” characters with a “kou”/mouth character tacked on to the front. You generally won’t see this in books but they do exist. But there are significant differences between spoken Cantonese grammar and Mandarin – many of which I’m only now discovering!

Returning to my experience, after the Mandarin classes I took at University my Chinese progression stopped and my Cantonese continued to deteriorate. I had a couple short trips to Beijing for work and grad-school, which reminded me of how much I enjoyed studying Chinese but I always knew I needed to spend more time immersed in the language if I was to have any chance of getting more comfortable speaking Mandarin. Things finally worked out so that I could spend two months in Beijing, which is how I came to LTL. Two months is nowhere near long enough but it’s a start.

How should you learn Cantonese?

Learning Mandarin after learning Cantonese has been fairly frustrating but before I get into that I’ll first start by describing how I learned Cantonese. Before I arrived in Hong Kong I had two months of extremely intensive basic training – 8 hours per day in a small class of about 10 students. Prior to this my only exposure to Cantonese was from the movie Wayne’s World! (“你好靓啊!”)

The focus of my study was spoken Cantonese so I didn’t learn characters at first – only pingyam initially. I stepped off the plane in Hong Kong knowing that I could only say the most basic of things. More importantly what was said back to me when I did speak was completely incomprehensible at full speed in ordinary daily life. But I was extremely determined and was living in the New Territories so was fully immersed in the language. I was speaking to local Hong Kong people every day and had a goal to study at least an hour a day on my own. From this point on my language study was mostly self-guided and a huge frustration was a lack of resources.

LTL Mandarin Students in China

Weekend Trip with other LTL students.

The number of on and off-line resources for studying Mandarin is staggering. In addition to the books I use in my classes at LTL, I use Pleco constantly – whether it’s just looking things up, using flash cards or using the character recognition function (especially on menus!). In addition to several other apps I also subscribe to a Chinese podcast site. When I was in Hong Kong, however, there were a lot fewer options. I used the “Speak Cantonese” series of books that was originally written decades ago. The version I used in the late 90s had all sorts of outdated language and expressions. I had a box of 1000 (actual printed!) flashcards I used when I started learning characters and I used my pingyam dictionary constantly – the first one I had fell apart because I used it so much. (Now my iPhone battery just dies all the time.)

It took me about six months in Hong Kong before I felt like I was actually hearing the language – as in I could actually hear the tones and I knew pingyam well enough that if I didn’t know a word I could at least write it down to look it up later (in a book!). I initially listened repeatedly to a tape (!) of Cantonese sounds and tones and recorded my own voice to listen to how I sounded. I spent countless hours using my box of 1000 flashcards and the many hundreds of additional cards I created to memorize the correct pingyam for words – even if I still wasn’t saying things very accurately. After about a year of studying and speaking to people on a daily basis I started to feel fairly confident in my ability to communicate comfortably in Cantonese. Somewhere around that time I also discovered the most amazing Cantonese book: Cantonese: A Comprehensive Grammar by Stephen Matthews and Virgina Yip, originally published in 1994 and updated in 2010. This was a huge key for improving my Cantonese as the grammar lessons in the Speak Cantonese series were sporadic and incomplete. (The grammar book also has great introductory information about topics mentioned above: Cantonese tones, pingyam systems, and the difference between Mandarin and Cantonese – all of which you can actually read on Amazon for free using the “Look inside” function!)

Coming back to Beijing

Coming to Beijing so many years later to study Mandarin has been fairly frustrating. One month on and I feel like I’m now finally hearing the various sounds and tones properly. The biggest challenge is that I simply haven’t learned the correct pronunciation (or the correct tones) for words in Mandarin that I know (or once knew!) in Cantonese; often I know what I want to say and even most of the words but it just all comes out wrong.

Also, I’ve discovered that the commonly used word in Beijing is often the less commonly used word in Cantonese – or a completely different one. (I used the wrong word for “spoon” at a restaurant for instance; my charades-like spoon gesture worked thankfully.) There are some useful tricks and tips for adjusting Cantonese pronunciation and tones in Mandarin – words in Cantonese that don’t end with consonants have a predictable tone in Mandarin: High tone becomes 1. Low falling becomes 2. Low and Mid-rising becomes 3. Low and Mid-flat become 4. (e.g. 车牌 : ch paih – high tone and low falling will become 1st and 2nd tones, respectively in mandarin: ch pi.) But there are exceptions of course and there is really no way around simply learning the correct tones and pronunciation – either by memorization or from hearing it enough that it sinks in. For me this was a lot easier to do in Hong Kong when I was in my late teens than it is now!

Classes at LTL

With Alwin Feng, my teacher at LTL

With Alwin Feng, my teacher at LTL

At LTL I am doing only one-on-one classes. Because my reading comprehension level is much higher than my speaking ability it didn’t make sense to either be in an intermediate group class beyond my speaking ability or a beginning class where I would already know all the characters and grammar. My teachers have been extremely flexible and accommodating with what we study. In addition to the text book we have also read the newspaper together, done the listening comprehension sections of HSK practice tests or simply had a discussion about a topic that interests me (especially film & television given that is my professional background); this has worked well to give me new vocabulary to study while figuring out which words I know from Cantonese I can add to my day-to-day Mandarin vocabulary (if I can re-learn how to say them correctly).

I do feel like it is an incredible advantage having studied Cantonese before Mandarin. Having learned a lot of characters in Hong Kong (albeit traditional vs. simplified), I’m often re-learning things that I once knew as opposed to starting completely from scratch. But perhaps what has helped me the most from my time studying Cantonese in Hong Kong is being extremely comfortable with failing! Any observant student of Chinese knows all too well that blank look on people’s faces when you’re talking to them and their eyes glaze over and you know they have absolutely no idea what you’re saying – even if they’re nodding and pretending to! In Hong Kong even more than in Beijing people would often assume I didn’t speak Cantonese so it required really thick skin to force myself to open my mouth, knowing the odds they would even listen were low so the odds they would understand me were even lower. But it did make it feel that much better when people actually understood. I’ve got a long way to go learning Mandarin but coming to LTL has been exactly what I needed to get me started and motivated to keep learning.

Gareth Wilson

Some useful resources for Cantonese speakers who want to learn Mandarin can be found on Chinese lessons.

Gareth is currently in the middle of his eight weeks LTL Mandarin Intensive Individual program and lives in a serviced apartment in Beijing.

LTL offers specialized Mandarin courses for Cantonese speakers in Beijing.

Want more from LTL?

If you wish to hear more from LTL Mandarin School why not join our mailing list. We give plenty of handy information on learning Chinese, useful apps to learn the language and everything going on at our LTL schools! Sign up below and become part of our ever growing community!