Mandarin vs. Cantonese

The Issue || Methodology || Difficulty from English || Difficulty Between Dialects || Conclusion || Bibliography

The Issue at Hand

Which is more difficult, Mandarin or Cantonese?  To properly address this question, there are a couple things that need to be cleared up. First, what relation do Mandarin and Cantonese have, and why should they be compared?  Second, what exactly is meant by "difficult?" In order to answer the first question, a little background on Chinese language is needed.

Many believe that Chinese is the language spoken in China. In some ways this is true; in others it is misleading. The statement is akin to remarking that European is the language spoken in Europe. Just as people in various nations of Europe speak different languages, Chinese in different provinces of China speak different languages. Ignoring the 56 official minority languages spoken in mainland China, there are over a hundred dialects of Chinese. These dialects are closely related and come from a common parent language.

The term "dialect" can be misleading. Generally, the idea of dialects differs from that of related languages in that dialects of the same language are mutually intelligible while separate languages are not. Chinese dialects are an exception. Part of the reason Chinese languages are referred to as dialects is that they share a common written language. Another reason is that there exists a continuum of intelligibility within Chinese: some dialects are more closely related than others.

Mandarin is clearly the most influential Chinese dialect and Cantonese is arguably the second most influential. They are also dialects on opposite sides of the Chinese language spectrum. While some speakers of Cantonese who have grown up in close contact with Mandarin speakers often learn to understand spoken Mandarin and vice versa, many others do not develop this ability and those who do not have the advantage of hearing the other language on a regular basis generally understand nothing of the other dialect. Those cases where speakers of one dialect comprehend the other can easily be understood as second language acquisition.

There is something of a rivalry between Mandarin and Cantonese. While Mandarin currently enjoys an exalted position as the official language of The People's Republic of China and of Taiwan, Republic of China, Cantonese has a long history and closer ties to classical Chinese than Mandarin. Additionally, Cantonese still has a strong hold on important business centers in Southeast China and has its own measure of prestige. Cantonese is also the second most widely taught Chinese dialect for non-Chinese.

So then, as a matter of practicality and as a matter of pride, the question of which dialect is the more difficult becomes intriguing. Who has the right to boast, and which requires more effort to learn? Most English speakers who have learned both languages will say that Cantonese is the more difficult. Yet, is there any substance to that claim?

Chinese people can be just as cliquish as any other race, and language can be as clear a dividing line as any. To that end, native Mandarin speakers mock deficiencies in Canton people's pronunciation of Mandarin. There's even a cute rhyme that they use to express this sentiment succinctly:


"Tian bu pa, di bu pa, zhi pa Guangdong ren shuo Putonghua." 

Translation- I fear neither heaven nor earth, I only fear Cantonese speakers trying to speak Mandarin.

Mandarin speakers learning Cantonese generally are encouraged in their efforts, but Canton people are no less proud of their language and culture. The Cantonese version of the rhyme sounds equally true:


"\Tin\ \mh\ \geng\, deih \mh\ \geng\ /ji/ \geng\ -bak- \fong\ \yahn\ /gong/ /gwong/ \dung\ wah \mh\ jehng." 

Translation- I fear neither heaven nor earth, I only fear Mandarin speakers speaking Cantonese so inaccurately.

Many natives of Hong Kong and Guangzhou (where Cantonese is the provincial mother tongue) speak Mandarin as a second language. Relatively few Chinese in Northern China (where Mandarin is the provincial mother tongue) ever learn Cantonese. This is certainly due in large part to the importance of Mandarin as the national language and the government mandate that Mandarin be taught in schools. However, could there be some basis for this in one dialect being more difficult for speakers of the other?

The Issue || Methodology || Difficulty from English || Difficulty Between Dialects || Conclusion || Bibliography


The idea that one language can be inherently harder than another language is not supported by linguistic research. Were this the case, it would logically follow that children whose mother tongue is hard would develop language skills later than children with easy mother tongues. Studies on this subject have shown that children of all languages develop language competency on average at about the same rate.

The difference in language difficulty becomes an issue when learning a language as a second tongue. The measure of difficulty is not easy to define. Languages have many features and tend to be equally complex in their own way. Since languages are equally complex and differences in difficulty only seem to exist when going from a mother language (L1) to a secondary language (L2), the only obvious attribute to measure is the relative distance between mother language and target language.

Before discussing differences between English and the Chinese dialects and differences between the Chinese dialects themselves, it is important to define the parameters of the various languages. English has several dialects, and aspects of different dialects may make it easier or harder to learn. For the purposes of this comparison, Standard American English will be assumed. There are two prestigious forms of Cantonese: that of Guangzhou and that of Hong Kong. In this analysis, Hong Kong Cantonese will be used as the basis.

Up to this point Mandarin has been referred to as a dialect of Chinese. However, this is only true as it refers to Modern Standard Chinese, or putonghua. Mandarin is actually a group of dialects within Chinese. Mandarin dialects are for the most part mutually intelligible one with another, but pronunciation and syntax can vary significantly from one to the next. The official language of the People's Republic of China is defined in reference to common aspects of the Mandarin dialect group, in reality forming an entirely new dialectal standard.

Scholars generally refer to this standard as Modern Standard Chinese, or putonghua (which means "common speech"). There is another standard of the official language that is based in Taiwan, Republic of China. While completely intelligible with the official speech of the mainland, this variant introduces certain changes in phonology and word choice. The Taiwan standard is called guoyu (meaning "national language). The term "Mandarin", while technically referring to a group of dialects, is commonly used to refer to either of these standards.

Because the people of Canton have more contact with the southern standard dominated by Taiwan's pronunciation, they typically learn the Taiwanese pronunciations. For this reason, the standard for Mandarin used in this report will follow the Taiwanese standard as well, except where explicitly stated otherwise. The terms Mandarin, guoyu, and Common Standard Chinese will be used synonymously to refer to Taiwanese pronunciation and grammar.

Once the parameters of the languages to be compared are set, the next step is to determine a set of criteria to use in the comparison. This proved to be more challenging than one might think, as there is no listing of language features accepted by linguists to measure language difficulty readily accessible. Fortunately, an unpublished document under development has been made available to me to provide an objective means of quantifying the differences.

The document, titled "The Missionary Training Center Language Difficulty Index" (LDI), is intended to quantify and scale language difficulty to better address needs in teaching and training. It measures seven characteristics of languages relative between native and target languages: Writing system, Phonological Structure, Tones, Cognates, Morphology, Syntax, and Socio-linguistic issues. The LDI uses a 60 point scale to quantify difficulty.

Because of the strong relation between Mandarin and Cantonese, it is possible to eliminate several of the categories of comparison. Aspects of language where the two dialects are virtually identical can be removed from consideration. The features of Cognates, Morphology, Syntax, and Socio-linguistic issues can all be safely ignored. Compared with English, the two dialects differ so slightly in these areas that a change in difficulty rating does not register on the scale.

Compared one to another in these categories, any difficulty found in going from one dialect to the other are found going the opposite direction. For example, there are a number of morphemes that are bound in Mandarin which are free in Cantonese. Any such morphemes that meet the criteria of "function words" would increase the difficulty rating going from Mandarin L1 to Cantonese L2. By the same token, however, the fact that those free morphemes in Cantonese are bound in Mandarin increases the difficulty going from Cantonese L1 to Mandarin L2 by an equal amount for a net difference of zero.

The categories of Writing System, Phonological Structure, and Tone offer areas where the two dialects diverge both in comparison to English and in comparison to each other. Additionally, because of the unique tie Chinese dialects have to written Chinese and that fact that most Chinese morphemes are connected with a single allomorph, there is an additional criteria for comparison. These factors and other differences specific to Chinese dialect comparison will influence the difficulty rating and alter it from a strict interpretation from the score rendered by the LDI.

The Issue || Methodology || Difficulty from English || Difficulty Between Dialects || Conclusion || Bibliography

English to Mandarin vs. English to Cantonese

Those familiar with both Mandarin and Cantonese will generally agree that Cantonese is harder to learn than Mandarin for native English speakers. This intuitive observation is borne out under the analysis of the criteria used by the Language Difficulty Index developed for the Missionary Training Center.

Writing System

The first criterion to be considered in determining difficulty in acquiring Mandarin and Cantonese is the writing system. Both dialects use the Chinese set of characters as the written language. English natives trying to acquire reading or writing competency in either language are faced with the challenge of unfamiliar ideograms. While many Chinese characters do include phonetic clues, they require advanced language skill to recognize and are of almost no value to the beginning and intermediate learner. According to the LDI document, that gives both Cantonese and Mandarin a base difficulty based on writing system of 10 (the maximum).

Because both Mandarin and Cantonese have a romanization system to aid in learning and for looking up new words, that difficulty rating is lowered for both dialects. However, the degree to which the difficulty is decreased differs between Cantonese and Mandarin. The two primary reasons for this difference are the official status of the Mandarin romanization system and the fact that oral Cantonese does not correspond to written Chinese.

The Mandarin romanization, called pinyin, is sanctioned by both the governments of the People's Republic of China and Taiwan, Republic of China. Virtually all modern learning texts and lexicons for Mandarin give pronunciations using the pinyin system. Beginning Mandarin learners can utilize many texts and documents to augment the learning process while learning the Chinese character system which will become valuable in learning Mandarin at the intermediate and advanced levels of language study. According to the guidelines in the LDI document, this lowers the difficulty rating for Mandarin.

Cantonese does have a dominant romanization system, Yale Cantonese romanization, but there are other methods being used and others under development, and there is no system that has official support in the same way that Mandarin pinyin does. A learner of Cantonese will have language learning texts which employ romanization, but finding outside text sources, and particularly one that uses the same romanization standard, is difficult.

Secondly, spoken Cantonese does not match with written Chinese. Written Chinese and spoken Mandarin follow the same basic word choice and grammar. While there are literary terms and constructions in written Chinese not used in casual Mandarin, this is no different than literary and colloquial voices found in other languages. Cantonese, on the other hand, differs in many significant ways from the written form. In almost every place Cantonese and Mandarin diverge, Cantonese and written Chinese do the same. Things as basic as the equative "to be" verb, the third person pronoun, the locative aspect particle, the pluralizing morpheme, and the completion aspect particle differ between spoken Cantonese and written Chinese.

Because of the benefits of having romanization systems and the fact that the Chinese written system takes a less direct role in acquiring Chinese dialects for English speakers during the beginning phase, Mandarin and Cantonese do not rate the maximum possible difficulty score possible on the LDI scale. However, because Cantonese does not have as many romanized texts to use as learning resources and Mandarin learners can benefit from learning the Chinese written system earlier in the acquisition process than Cantonese learners can, Cantonese rates a higher difficulty than Mandarin in the area of writing system.

Phonetic and Phonological Differences

The most distinct difference between Mandarin and Cantonese to non-Chinese speakers is the sound. There is a systematic correlation between Mandarin and Cantonese sounds. A speaker of one dialect will quickly begin to find cognates when exposed to the other language in context. A speaker of one dialect learning the other will shortly begin to recognize patterns by which vocabulary from one language can be transferred to the other. This points to underlying similarities and differences in the phonetics of the respective dialects. Comparative Table

There are six initial sounds found in Mandarin that do not occur in English compared to only three initial sounds in Cantonese not found in English. There are several other differences between Chinese initial sounds and English initial sounds, such as that Chinese stops are differentiated by aspiration rather than voicing. However, since these features are seen equally in both dialects, they are not relevant to discussion on comparative difficulty.

Cantonese finals have significantly more differences from English than Mandarin does. Mandarin does not have any ending consonant sounds that do not occur in English. The Cantonese ending consonants p, t, and k differ from their English counterparts in the distinctive feature. In English /p/ and /t/ are differentiated by voicing as are /k/ and /g/. In Cantonese, voicing is not distinctive for these sounds, but rather aspiration or lack of aspiration is what differentiates between the sounds.

There are a few elementary vowel sounds that differ between Mandarin and English, but the same differences exist between Cantonese and English. Cantonese has a couple additional vowel sounds that do not exist in English: /oe:/ and /u:/. Combined with Cantonese final consonants (including the unaspirated stops), these form several complex sounds that do not occur in English. Mandarin does have some vowel combinations that do not occur in English, such as /i/+vowel. Cantonese has this combination form plus one more. Additionally, there are two sounds that are only differentiated by vowel length in Cantonese that have no correspondence in English. These complexities do not exist in Mandarin.

Of the three phonological structure criteria proposed by the Language Difficulty Index, only the first is applicable in this case. Neither Chinese dialect has consonant clusters that do not appear in English. Moreover, distinctive features introduced in one dialect exist in the other as well. Mandarin and Cantonese equal each other in distance from English in these respects.

The first criterion specifies one difficulty point for every five phonemes not in the target language. Instead of determining exactly how many points should be assigned to each dialect, it can safely be concluded that the additional vowel sounds, long and short vowel differentiation, three ending consonants with different distinctive features from English, and additional complexity in vowel combination outweigh the three initial sounds Mandarin has more than Cantonese that are not found in English. According to these criteria, Cantonese is somewhat more difficult for speakers of English than Mandarin.


The LDI gives a maximum of five difficulty points for tone distinction. For English being a non-tonal language going to tonal target languages, it automatically receives two points of difficulty. Each additional tone distinction gives one point. Mandarin is spoken with five tones: high level, rising, dipping, falling, and neutral. That would add up to seven, but the LDI only goes up to five. Cantonese has anywhere from six to nine tones, depending on how you look at it and what your objectives are. That would be at least one more point on the LDI scale, but the scale is capped at five.

Having a cap on the difficulty ascribed to tones is a practical limitation. After a certain point, there really isn't a significant difference in the difficulty. Because the LDI is a finite scale, it is not appropriate to continue heaping on additional points. However, adding additional tones does add some difficulty to the learning process. Clearly, Cantonese is more difficult for speakers of English as far as tones are concerned.

The Issue || Methodology || Difficulty from English || Difficulty Between Dialects || Conclusion || Bibliography

Mandarin to Cantonese vs. Cantonese to Mandarin

Those familiar with both Mandarin and Cantonese will generally agree that it is more difficult for a native Mandarin speaker to learn Cantonese than it is for a native Cantonese speaker to learn Mandarin. Part of the reason for this observation is that there are many Cantonese who speak Putonghua but very few native Mandarin speakers who learn to speak Cantonese. The same is also true of non-Chinese who speak Cantonese as a second language learning Mandarin as opposed to non-Chinese who have learned Mandarin going on to learn gwongdungwah. However, is this phenomenon due to Mandarin's role as China's official language or are there reasons of learning difficulty that are influencing the ratio? Linguistic analysis seems to support the latter.

Writing System

Mandarin and Cantonese share the same writing system. However, the fact that oral Cantonese and the formal writing system used by Cantonese speakers are different has a significant impact on Mandarin speakers trying to learn Cantonese. The reverse, however, is not true. Because the formal writing style uses the Mandarin vocabulary and grammar, educated Cantonese speakers will already be familiar with differences in grammar between Cantonese and Mandarin and be able to recognize the symbols used for oral Mandarin words that differ from those used in Cantonese.

On the other hand, a Mandarin speaker learning Cantonese would be faced with learning hundreds of Cantonese colloquial characters which are either completely unrecognizable or with unpredictably different meaning correspondence. Using only formal Chinese writing, a learner will only learn the Cantonese pronunciation of written text and not spoken Cantonese. Either the unfamiliarity of the Cantonese characters or the inability to use the written system to learn colloquial Cantonese words adds to the difficulty rating for native Mandarin speakers trying to learn Cantonese.

Using the available romanization systems for Cantonese may reduce the difficulty for Mandarin speakers who already know pinyin due to the use of familiar roman characters and diacritic marks. However, Cantonese does have five symbols in its most commonly used romanization (Yale) that have multiple sound correspondences and an unrecognizable symbol (the symbol "h" would not be intuitively recognized as marking the low tone). These features and the fact that there is no official sanction for any Cantonese romanization make learning Cantonese pingyam more difficult than Mandarin's pinyin on the LDI scale. 

Going from Cantonese to Mandarin would rate zero points of difficulty for differences in the writing system as Cantonese speakers would already know all the symbols and their meanings. The only thing needed would be in attaching sound to the symbols. Learning the official pinyin system of Mandarin would only add to the difficulty if you assume the Cantonese speaker knows neither any Cantonese romanization system (probable) nor any English (improbable).

All things being equal between the learners, the writing system is at a higher difficulty for native Mandarin speakers learning Cantonese than for the other way around. Whether or not a romanization is involved, Cantonese not having exact correspondence with written Chinese and Cantonese having a more difficult romanization makes it harder to learn for Mandarin speakers than Cantonese speakers learning Mandarin based on the written system criteria in the LDI.

Phonetic and Phonological Differences

Significantly, when going from one dialect to another, there is a pattern of sound change. These changes can be expressed as a function from one language to another, the domain being all sounds in L1 and the range being all sounds in L2. See the Comparative Sound Charts

The ratio of a Cantonese sound to corresponding Mandarin sounds averages about 1:4. That means that for a given sound in Cantonese, on average there are four possible sounds in Mandarin to which it could translate. As denoted on the chart by the sounds in boldface type, there are normally only one or two sounds in Mandarin that correspond to the Cantonese sound the majority of the time. Going from a Mandarin sound to Cantonese sounds, the ratio averages closer to 1:6, and there are normally two or three Cantonese sounds that are common for each Mandarin sound.

The result of this is that Cantonese speakers have less trouble recognizing the probable Mandarin pronunciation for a given Cantonese sound than Mandarin speakers do for a probable Cantonese pronunciation of a Mandarin sound. This comparison is not listed as a criterion for language difficulty on the LDI because very few languages can be compared in this manner. However, the result of this analysis clearly points to Cantonese being the more difficult from a phonological standpoint.

Likewise, the LDI's phonological criteria support Cantonese as being more difficult. There are 19 initials and 51 finals that form approximately 590 sounds in modern Cantonese. There are 24 initials and 33 finals that form approximately 420 sounds in modern Mandarin. Without breaking down the languages to their elemental phonemes, it is already clear that the 18 additional finals Cantonese has more than Mandarin more than outweigh the 5 additional initial sounds that Mandarin has more than Cantonese. According to the first listed phonological criterion (the only applicable one), this rates Cantonese as more difficult than Mandarin for speakers of the opposite dialect on a phonological basis.

Tonal Differences

According to the LDI, a single point of difficulty is given for every additional tone L2 has more than L1. Even including the neutral tone to give Mandarin a total of five and excluding Cantonese's high falling tone (as it can generally be transformed to the high tone) to give Cantonese only six tones instead of the seven or nine that can be ascribed to the language, Cantonese still has at least one more tone than Mandarin. According to the Language Difficulty Index developed for the Missionary Training Center, Mandarin would score a zero for tonal complexity for a Cantonese speaker and Cantonese would score at least a one for a Mandarin speaker.

Additionally, there are patterns for tone assimilation from one Chinese dialect to the next. The pattern from Cantonese to Mandarin is more straightforward and can be more intuitively learned than that of Mandarin to Cantonese. Scholars of Chinese have been able to reconstruct with a reasonable degree of certainty how Chinese sounded back anciently, at least as far back as the Tang Dynasty. From these sources it was discovered that some ancient Chinese scholars had devised an organization of the tone systems in Chinese. Basically, there were 8 tone categories. Four main categories divided appropriately into yin and yang. By mapping both dialects back to the Middle Chinese tone categories, tonal conversion charts for the languages can be developed. See the Tonal Conversion Chart.

Here, the full complexity of the Cantonese tonal system must be accounted for as all nine tones must be used to create the correlation. Four of the nine Cantonese tones map directly to a Mandarin tone. Three of the remaining tones map to two of the Mandarin tones each. Only two of the nine Cantonese tones cannot be predicted. On the other hand, no Mandarin tone maps directly to a Cantonese tone. While a Cantonese speaker learning Mandarin can intuitively learn to predict the tone conversion to Mandarin in a limited sense, the task is much more difficult for Mandarin speakers learning Cantonese and not really intuitive for them.

The Issue || Methodology || Difficulty from English || Difficulty Between Dialects || Conclusion || Bibliography


Because Cantonese is more difficult than Mandarin for English speakers in every relevant category given in the Language Difficulty Index, it is unnecessary to count the number of points in order to determine that Cantonese is more difficult for native English speakers according to the criteria provided. The same is true for determining that it is more difficult for Mandarin speakers to learn Cantonese than for Cantonese speakers to learn Mandarin. Not only does Cantonese rate a higher difficulty score according to every measure taken in the LDI for both cases, but all additional aspects considered from outside the base criteria also support Cantonese as more difficult for the L1 languages considered.

There is clear linguistic evidence in support of the feeling that Cantonese is more difficult than Mandarin for English speakers and that Mandarin speakers have a greater difficulty in acquiring Cantonese than Cantonese speakers have acquiring Mandarin. Both Chinese dialects are clearly difficult for English speakers to learn as a second language. Both dialects are relatively easy to learn for speakers of the other dialect when compared to learning less similar languages. Yet even a small distinction in difficulty level may be cause to view the process of learning the two Chinese dialects differently.

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The Issue || Methodology || Difficulty from English || Difficulty Between Dialects || Conclusion || Bibliography


Hill, Harold.  Chinese Romanization Charts.  <> 11 April 2002.

Kwan, Choi Wah.  The Right Word in Cantonese.  Hong Kong: The Commercial Press, 1998.

Matthews, Stephen and Virginia Yip.  Cantonese: A Comprehensive Grammar.  New York: Routledge, 1996.

Norman, Jerry.  Chinese.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Steinagel, et. al.  The Missionary Training Center Language Difficulty Index.  Unpublished document.

Stewart, Thomas W. Jr. and Nathan Vaillette, eds.  Language Files: Materials for an Introduction to Language and Linguistics.  Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2001.

The Issue || Methodology || Difficulty from English || Difficulty Between Dialects || Conclusion || Bibliography

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