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Mandarin vs. Cantonese and Others: Not a struggle for dominance

Do you want to learn Mandarin or Cantonese? It might seem like a tough choice, but this blog post will help you narrow down the decision very quickly.


Cantonese Dialect Map
An ignorant map of China divided on dialect:
Blue is Cantonese, while red is Mandarin
For example, Dorothy Feng at Brainscape argues that for foreigners seeking to learn a Chinese language, Mandarin is better. But I don't think that this question even needs to be asked - unless you plan on living in Guangzhou, Hong Kong, or Macau forever, Cantonese is as good as useless.

After years of hearing Cantonese in a Chinatown, maybe you now believe that the ratio of Mandarin to Cantonese speakers isn't that big - there are certainly many websites that believe so. Or maybe the recent attempts by the Chinese governments to bring more Mandarin into Guangzhou has aroused your suspicion. Maybe you want to know which language you should learn.

You should know a few things about Chinese before you decide on a dialect to learn. Lingholic explains:
China’s population was estimated by Worldometers at close to 1.4 billion people in 2014, making it home to just over 19% of the world’s population and there are some 56 languages spoken by China’s recognised ethnic groups, according to Wikipedia. However, whilst Hanyu, or Han, is the predominant language and spans eight primary dialect groups, accents and variations in regional dialects differ from each other to such a degree that sometimes even the same language becomes mutually unintelligible.
In other words, there are just so many dialects that even sub-dialects can't understand each other. For example, let's take Indo-European languages as an example. If I speak English and you speak Gujarati, will we understand each other? No. That's like Mandarin and Cantonese.

Next - if I speak Marathi and you speak Gujarati, will we understand each other? No. But we're getting closer, at least. That's like a dialect of Min and another dialect of Min.

Despite popular perception of Cantonese as the 'second largest dialect' or 'second largest language' in China, this is definitely not true. The only fact that can be remotely similar is that Cantonese is one of the biggest Chinese 'dialects or languages' spoken overseas. In fact, both Wu (around 80 million) and Min (around 80 million) are the second and third biggest dialects respectively, Cantonese taking the backseat as the fourth biggest dialect with only 60 million speakers.


A (faulty) picture of Chinese dialects.
Please note that 'Taiwanese' and 'Shanghainese'
are generally classified under 'Min' and 'Wu'
respectively, and Hunanese is normally called
'Xiang, Image from Omniglot.
However, that depends on whether or not you consider Wu an actual dialect. My mother, who grew up in Shanghai, has never heard of the word 'Wu' in reference to a dialect. It, however, is used if you talk about the Wu kingdoms throughout history, like the one that existed during the War of the Three Kingdoms (三国演义). In addition, Yang Yang, who posted an article about the differences between Mandarin and Cantonese, classifies Shanghainese as a dialect on the same level as Mandarin and Cantonese. I suppose I can't complain about that, since that means one of the dialects I can understand is elevated to a higher status. :D

There are several questions that this post seeks to answer.
  1. What is Cantonese?
  2. What is a dialect?
  3. Why are there so many southern dialects or languages?
  4. Why is the foreign view of these two dialects so distorted?
  5. Which dialect or language is better for business in China?

What is Cantonese?

Cantonese is a Chinese dialect (or language), with all of its Chinese speakers mostly in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, Macau, and Hong Kong. Elsewhere, many Cantonese speakers live in Malaysia and in Chinatowns - the Chinatown in New York and Massachusetts are especially infamous for their preference of Cantonese over Mandarin.

In China, Cantonese is called Yue. In the same fashion, the Fujian dialect is called Min, not Fujianese. The dialects of Jiangsu, Anhui, and Zhejiang are called Wu, not Jiangsu-Anhui-Zhejiangese.

Further, these dialects are called dialects because they use almost the exact same written script in Standard Chinese. The official pronunciation of Mandarin is actually based off of the Beijing-dialect - and it is universal, with Singapore, Taiwan, and China all using the Beijing dialect.

What is a dialect?

The Oxford Dictionaries define a dialect as a particular form of a language that is peculiar to a specific region or social group. Using such a definition of dialect, Cantonese would definitely be a dialect of the Chinese language.

Here are several reasons why:
  1. Cantonese, as mentioned before, uses the same exact written script - the Standard Chinese script. In other words, the only difference between Cantonese and Min and Mandarin is pronunciation.
  2. Speaking Cantonese is like speaking English with an accent. Just because somebody speaks Texan English doesn't mean that they're speaking a different language.

    Or for a more accurate comparison, let's say you learned English from a teacher who probably didn't understand it either. And you talk with a person who learned English the exact same way. Both of you can't understand each other, though you technically learned the same language.
  3. Mandarin is a dialect of Chinese. So is Wu. And Min. And Hakka. And Cantonese. The latter four are all of equal status - namely, they aren't the official dialect. Even the first isn't the official dialect; more specifically, the Beijing dialect of the Mandarin dialect of Chinese is the official dialect.

Why are there so many Southern Dialects?

Chinese people were originally from the north - the area around Shandong, Shanxi, Henan, and Hubei. Because the North China Plain was relatively flat, it allowed for easy conquest within the plains; difficult mountains did not have to be crossed. The Chinese 'colonized' the North China Plain, driving previous languages extinct. Like German dialects before Standard German, even heavy interaction between different tribes spread around the North China Plain did not allow for the evolution of a single Chinese language.

Instead, there was a Northern Mandarin dialect, Southern Mandarin dialect, and a Western Mandarin dialect. The Northern dialect was around the areas of Gansu to Shandong. The Southern dialect comes from the Mandarin-speaking areas of northern Jiangsu. The Western dialect comes from the areas like Henan and Shaanxi.

In the first few dynasties, the Western dialect was the official dialect. This was true beginning with the Qin and Han and would end with the Yuan.

Meanwhile, the Han were the first dynasty to begin colonizing the south. They successfully conquered the Minyue (in present-day Fujian). Unfortunately for the colonizers, the southern areas are generally very very mountainous. You can't look outside a window in the South and not see a mountain. That means communities are more isolated from the capital.

As a result, southern dialects emerged - still Han Chinese, but different sounding. They didn't just separate from Mandarin - no, they diversified themselves, with each city and village having its own unique little dialect. For example, in the general 'Chinese language' category, there's a southern dialect called Min.

It has its own dialect called Minzhong - and that dialect has many of its own dialects, like Fuzhou-nese, and literally a dialect for each city.

Why is the foreign view on Mandarin and Cantonese so distorted?

Though I am of Chinese descent (not Cantonese or Mandarin, though), I speak Mandarin. And guess what? If a Cantonese and a non-Cantonese Chinese person meet, they talk in English (or the national language of the area).

But in New York City's Chinatown, the lingua franca is Cantonese, just like in Boston. It's because the Cantonese were the first to emigrate from China. And there's one reason why they're the first to emigrate from China - Hong Kong.

You're probably sitting there thinking, "This guy is nuts. How does some random previously-British city cause most of us to think that Cantonese speakers are around equal in number to Mandarin speakers?"

Hong Kong, a backwater part of Guangdong, was snatched by Britain after China's humiliating and crushing defeat in the first Opium War. Hong Kong was a trading factory for Brits to trade with China. It grew larger and larger, with more Cantonese speakers moving there in search of better economic opportunities (certainly better than on mainland China).

In addition, Hong Kong was actually British soil - and they had much more freedom of movement than on mainland China, where emigration was banned and blocked (but happened anyways). With greater freedom of movement, it seems inevitable for Cantonese speakers to naturally form a wider and larger diaspora.

On the other hand, Min speakers (mostly in Fujian, Hainan, and Taiwan) also form a large and wide diaspora, though not as big as Cantonese speakers. Most of us know them as Hokkiens and Teochew, though these are southern Min languages. Many Chinese restaurant owners across America are actually Min speakers who (illegally or legally, though normally leaning towards the former) emigrated to America and opened up a shop.

Which dialect is better for business in China?

Based on what you've heard so far, I'd guess you should know by now - but in case you skipped most of it, here's the gist of it all. Mandarin is better for business in China, even if you're going to the Guangzhou or Hong Kong provinces. Why? You can travel literally anywhere in China and talk to people; English is taught, but outside the well-educated urban elite in the cities, you won't find any good English speakers. Cantonese is useful only in Guangzhou or Hong Kong, and good luck if you want to be in Macau. Min is useful only on Taiwan, Fujian, and Hainan, and even then, its own dialects can't understand each other. Wu is the same; the Hangzhou dialect is completely different from the rest, including the Shanghainese dialect.

Other than that, Larry Salibra gives seven amazing reasons why Cantonese might eventually face extinction - the final crowning moment of Mandarin, which has dominated the nation since the beginning of Chinese civilization.
  1. Everyone in Canton speaks Mandarin
  2. Everyone in China speaks Mandarin
  3. Mandarin is the language of business and money
  4. New York Chinatown Kids Speak English Not Cantonese
  5. Kids play in Mandarin
  6. Entertainment is in Mandarin
  7. Mandarin is taking over Hong Kong
In addition, the dialects are all fading with better communication - especially Shanghainese, which is under assault by hordes of Mandarin speakers from the north. Without any reason to learn the local dialect, Mandarin is becoming the lingua franca across all of China. Even my little cousin from Fujian never understood any Min dialect. It's a shame that all these dialects are either fading, dying out, or doing both, and I hope the Chinese government tries to preserve them. But considering the current trend of the Chinese government, they seem to be gleeful that the dialects are slowly disappearing, so I wouldn't count on it.

On the other hand, if your question was "Which dialect is better for business in Guangzhou and Hong Kong?" Well then, there's also only one answer. Cantonese would be better if you plan on sticking to those two only, of course. In fact, if you want to learn Mandarin, several people from Hong Kong use...interesting...methods to teach Mandarin words (online, of course), with the website SexyMandarin. You'll see what I mean by interesting if you read it.

If you have a different opinion about this subject than us, feel free to comment and explain why. But please remain cordial.

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