Dialects of Chinese: How to Learn Both Mandarin and Cantonese

By OptiLingo


There are five main dialects of Chinese, and each can seem a little like an independent language at times. However, this means that learning a singular dialect may not benefit you if you seek to engross yourself in Chinese life beyond an international business sector or tourist focused way. You may find yourself wondering how to learn mandarin and cantonese, which would be the two biggest of the five dialects.

While it may seem like a lot to work on both at the same time, the question of how to learn mandarin and cantonese actually comes with answers that make the journey seem a little less daunting. Cantonese and Mandarin share similar grammar patterns, and Cantonese materials are primarily written in Mandarin. So, a good stepping stone would be to root yourself in Mandarin until you feel you have a strong foundation, and then to slowly branch out from there.

The main difficulty is that both languages are incredibly tonal in nature, and the pronunciation of the words differs between Mandarin and Cantonese. With excellent listening skills in Mandarin and exposure to natural Cantonese speakers, this should pose less of a problem and become a fun and surmountable challenge.

While learning both is in fact incredibly possible, it is a time intensive task that requires a lot of dedication and work. Learning the proper pronunciation for words in both Cantonese and Mandarin is the hard part not because of the differences, but because of the similarities that come from having developed from the same origin. Cantonese and Mandarin words are mostly cognates to each other, but both languages have their differences despite the similarities in sound patterns and correspondences.

Since the majority of written Cantonese materials use Mandarin instead, and easy way to practice would be to read Mandarin writings with a Cantonese inflection to them. While it may teach you words that are highly unlikely to be spoken aloud in Cantonese, it is an easy way to get an understanding of the languages.

Of course, this is assuming that you’ve already reached at least an intermediary understanding in Mandarin. That means mastering the differences in the tones in Mandarin alone, which is the hardest part of learning Mandarin. Due to the evolution of language overtime, the actual pronunciations of both Mandarin and Cantonese, along with many other Chinese dialects, have changed dramatically and it will take a lot of time to simply highlight those minute details and master the tricks to speak fluently and understandably in either of the two dialects.

Mandarin and Cantonese are perhaps the easiest to master simultaneous due to the fact they both use Mandarin for the written materials that decorate every aspect of society. Their high level of similarity makes it easier to examine the differences and find a way to master both in a short period of time. However, at the same time, the differences they developed through time can trip up a new learner with great ease.

While learning both Cantonese and Mandarin at the same time is not advised, it is far from impossible. The fact that the two share a common origin aides the daring learner that elects to study both simultaneously, while the fact that they operate closer to two different languages rather than two different dialects can confuse the learner. Choosing to learn both can cause the learner to be viewed with a sense of respect, or cause them to be viewed with emotions that fall closer to ones of concern. Learning Mandarin Chinese alone can be an incredibly difficult undertaking as it differs so heavily from the majority of European languages. Learning both Mandarin and Cantonese can be viewed as an undertaking that can leave the learner more confused than educated, as well as mixing the two on the tongue if the learner doesn’t keep a close and rapt attention on what they’re teaching themselves to do.

While you can learn both Cantonese and Mandarin at the same time, the question is less how and more should you. There are a lot a small, intricate details in both Mandarin and Cantonese that could make or break a learner. The focus on tones, the similarities in certain pronunciations, the fact both languages focus on Mandarin for writing, and the fact that many words sound highly similar sound like they could do nothing but facilitate a simultaneous study of the two languages, but in reality these traits could also hinder you in the pursuit of learning both.

The best way to learn both Mandarin and Cantonese is to figure out what works the best for how you learn. Are you a social learner, studying best in a classroom with other students on the same quest? Or do you function better as a solitary learner, pacing yourself through a variety of challenges and designing your own course of study? Do you need to hold your study materials in your hands, or can you function better learning from primarily digital sources? There are a multitude of fellow students and speakers on the internet that are willing to give advice, but none of them fully know how you learn the best.

Once you know how you learn the best, the subtle differences between Mandarin and Cantonese are easily sorted out. Perhaps you need to focus on the cognates so that you know you won’t conflate the languages together because of how similar the words can be. Perhaps you struggle with the tones and precise pronunciation of words, and need to pour your energy into that. Perhaps using a singular shared writing style confuses you rather than helping you. No matter how you learn, it is possible to master both Cantonese and Mandarin rather simply and more rapidly than one might imagine.

It is commonly easiest to at least have some intermediate level of mastery in Mandarin before branching out into the other main Chinese dialects, but there are plenty of learners that prefer the challenge of mastering two similar languages as close together as they possibly can. Or perhaps it isn’t about the challenge at all, and you simply know that learning two complicated and similar languages practically simultaneously is how you will best be able to learn either of them. Whatever the reason is that you want to learn both Cantonese and Mandarin at the same time, there is a simple and easy way to master them that suits your learning style. While there is plenty of material that will warn you how difficult the undertaking will be, there is an equal amount that will support and empower your journey yo learning Cantonese and Mandarin.