Before coming to China, I studied mandarin with a tutor from Beijing with perfectly clear standard Mandarin. She asked me to say the phrase "I'm going to Hong Kong" in Chinese. I answered "wo qu hoeng gong", and she broke out laughing. Turns out I was using a mix of Mandarin and Cantonese. This could be normal for someone from Guangzhou or who grew up in Hong Kong. However, I'm not Chinese and I had never been either to Guangzhou or Hong Kong before. Without a doubt, Cantonese has left its mark, even in the West.
Photo: B.S. Wise
The little we know of the Chinese language before studying it is usually words like bok choy, dim sum, wonton soup or things like tiger balm and Jackie Chan, all Cantonese loanwords, foods or people. It is quite natural then, for a foreigner living in Guangzhou, or old Canton, to learn Cantonese. But just how significant is Cantonese in modern-day China?
Young people in every city in China are learning standard Mandarin in schools, a majority of local families will still speak Cantonese at home and with close friends. Surprisingly, some companies, including foreign operated factories, conduct business Cantonese and give non-local Chinese mandatory Cantonese classes after work hours.
Even today, living in what was once the epicenter of Cantonese culture, you might not be able to escape learning at least a little Cantonese. If you frequent wet markets, most older shopkeepers will address you only in Cantonese with little regard to whether or not you understand them. True to their resilient nature, perhaps they assume that if you are brave enough to shop where the locals shop, it's about time you speak like one. Obviously if one of these older locals happens to be your significant other’s family, learning a few phrases in their language will without a doubt start you off on a good foot. Really, even learning a few common greetings, numbers and a few names of places or foods goes a very long way and will in the very least solicit a smile from any local. What is more, some Hong Kong restaurant chains also seem to hire only local staff who obviously prefer providing services in Cantonese. Although the staff in all likelihood speak fluent Mandarin, there
is often a misconception that foreigners don't understand anything anyway, so they may as well use he language with which they are most comfortable. For all these reasons, learning Cantonese in Guangzhou may seem to be the way to go.
What about studying Cantonese? True, you will hear it spoken every day on the streets of Guangzhou. But don't assume you will pick it up by osmosis. Although not as defined as Mandarin, Cantonese has nine tones compared to mandarin's four. There exists a few Romanized scripts for Cantonese, such as Yale or Jyutping, but none compare in usability to Mandarin pinyin. Cantonese is simply a predominantly spoken language. Many feel that the best way to learn it for many foreigners is to first learn Mandarin. If you are looking for full immersion, a city like Guangzhou still has about half of its population coming from outside of Guangzhou. You will bombarded by a slew of accents and might find it almost impossible to come out speaking any language accurately. The best way to go is to have a private tutor or good friend to practice with. If you speak Mandarin, living in Guangzhou will without doubt help you to naturally understand a little Cantonese.
That being said, is it possible to learn standard Mandarin in a place so entrenched in Cantonese culture? Yes it is. After all, Mandarin is the official language of the country, and is increasingly spoken even in Hong Kong, where it is now taught in public schools. When you do learn standard Mandarin in a place like Guangzhou, you will in a for a constant flow of praise from the Chinese, in the North because they think no one can speak Mandarin down here and from Guangdongren because, truth be told, a lot have very poor Mandarin. And they know it. If you can clearly pronounce 14 and 44 in mandarin, you are already ahead of the game. If you differentiate the pinyin z from zh, you might be considered an expert. If you can understand the mandarin in the South, which is not native and sometimes a bit rough around the edges, understanding a crisp and clear Beijing local (even one who uses the 'er') will be a walk in the park. The Cantonese accent often affects people's tones as well, so it might be a good idea to double-check using a dictionary like Pleco. Don't be afraid to correct a local's Mandarin. If you do it nicely, they are usually good sports about it. If you're goal is to be able to communicate, that will easily be attained in Guangzhou by studying Mandarin and throwing in a few Cantonese phrases just enough to show you care. By far the most practical choice, it seems very likely that the wave of the future will be a Mandarin-speaking global Chinese population.
Now, time to tally up the votes: who comes out ahead, Cantonese or Mandarin?
Learn Cantonese if you want to:
- Converse with anyone over 65 years old
- Live in Hong Kong
- Impress your Cantonese relatives
- Rock any Chinatown around the globe
- Have an ear for languages
- Don’t mind depending on a tutor to learn or are a mainly auditive learner
- Settle down in Guangzhou
- Understand local culture
Learn Mandarin in Guangzhou if you:
- Plan on traveling elsewhere in China
- Want to learn Cantonese (or another dialect) next
- Not sure how long you'll stick around Guangzhou
- Want to study on your own or more of a book learner
- Are interested the ability to communicate with as many people as possible
- Are only here for business
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Keywords: Cantonese Guangzhou Mandarin learning Guangzhou mandarin vs Cantonese guangzhou
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When people switch to a dialect, they effectively lock you out of their discussion, and the feeling is instant alienation. Even when a local is trying their best to communicate with you, an ignorance of their dialect's accent can render their speech unintelligble. My Shanghaiese landlord tried to say in Mandarin to me: "Mu zu le. Mu yiu zi qi." I didn't understand. Later I understood: "我走了。我有事情。" I often hear language politics being discussed among non-locals and foreigners alike. If you're a small independent store owner, it's likely not a big deal, but anyone in larger business deals or corporate world faces a huge language wall. The dialects that will die out quickly will be those from small towns and rural areas. The speakers all will emigrate into a scattered diaspora. But the dialect in an economic powerhouse (Guangzhou or Shanghai) will become more and more powerful because of its exclusivity. When Shanghai was a fishing village, no one cared to know its dialect. When it became one of the largest cities on Earth, people took notice. Suddenly you have a lot of resources dominated by people (landlords, government, business leaders) speaking a dialect. Business is local and building relationships key. If you know you're going to stay in any place long-term, it's definitely worth the investment! You're right: because of Beijing insistence of a Mandarin-only curriculum nationwide, many local youngsters no longer speak their dialect. But, many still can, especially those from larger working class families. They know they are destined to entered a local service sector job in which Shanghaiese will likely be a dominant dialect. I hear Shanghaiese everywhere in shops, stores, bureaus, and the like. My middle school students speak it and so do my 20-something lawyer students. It's not dying out. Locals are intensely proud of their dialect and build their companies around its use wherever possible. I even saw a huge billboard in downtown Shanghai that boldly greeted the street with "上海侬好＂，the Shanghaiese version of 你好. What will happen and has already happened is a semi-convergence between Mandarin and local dialects. The younger generation sprinkles mandarin words into their Shanghaiese. It's like my German: my mother spoke it to me as a child, but since I was raised in the States my German is sometimes inserts English elements. But that doesn't mean my German is unintelligible or useless. The beauty of a language is always lacking when you don't understand it. I felt that way about Mandarin before I learned it. Shanghaiese too. Even German, my semi-mother tongue, is famously grating to the ear; and yet, when I hear "Ich liebe dich" I don't feel a Nazi salute is imminent.
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