Mandarin or Cantonese: Which should you learn?

Mandarin or Cantonese: Which should you learn?

Learning a foreign language has great advantages that cut across educational benefits, tourist purposes, esteem and even diplomatic purposes. There are certain considerations for learning a new language. If you have English, French and Spanish covered, you probably will be considering visiting China at some point. Peoples’ Republic of China has the largest single population in the world, and has a variety of spoken languages.

The most popular Chinese language is Mandarin, and the second language in terms of popularity is Cantonese. It’s often a tough decision to make when choosing which one to learn first. Taking this into consideration it would make sense to learn Mandarin, however at the end of the day the decisionis up to you

However, if you’re at a crossroads right now about which of the languages to learn-Mandarin or Cantonese- you’ve come to the right place as we’ll help you choose.

Which Chinese dialect should you learn?

Explanation of how the Chinese language works

When it comes to learning Chinese generally, you have to be ready to face the excitement of an adventurous challenge as Chinese dialects use representations of ideas in the form of symbols, rather than words of a language. Let me break this down some more. You must have come across words in Chinese either through subtitles of movies or some other means. Have you noticed that they do not use alphabets or words, but symbols that might mean a collection of words? This is the beauty of the Chinese language.

Another characteristic of the Chinese dialect is that the languages are quite different that citizens of certain parts of China might not understand the language spoken by other citizens in a different part of the country. However, this difference in speaking is not as obvious in writing because the different dialects have some similarities in symbols, making it easier for the Chinese to understand themselves when they write, rather than when they speak!

So, which Chinese dialect should you learn?

The Chinese language is made up of different dialects such as Taiwanese, Hunanese, Hakka, Shanghainese, Cantonese and Mandarin. Mandarin is the most popular spoken language in China, covering a large chuck of the world. Mandarin is the official language of China and is the second most spoken language globally, after English.

Another popular Chinese language is Cantonese, originating from Guangzhou in China and is believed to preserve the historic features of the Chinese language. Cantonese is also spoken in other countries such as Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau. Deciding on the dialect to learn depends on certain reasons such as your reason for learning the language, the ease with which you can learn the language, and possibly the time frame you have dedicated to learning.

Which is easier to learn?

This is a question you must ask yourself when you decide that you are ready to learn Chinese. The ease with which you can learn a foreign language depends on a few things such as your learning abilityavailability of resources (both physical and online) and time.

·       Learning ability

Learning abilities differ in people, as what might be difficult to one person might be quite easy for the other. This is why some people will tell you that it is easier to learn Cantonese, while some others would readily disagree and say it is easier to learn Mandarin.

Another thing that influences learning is the tone and grammatical structure of the language. The tone of the language determines how words will be pronounced with certain meanings. Mandarin has 4 major tones of the language, while Cantonese has almost 9 major tones of the language. This means that generally, Mandarin should be easier to understand.

·       Availability of resources

Due to the fact that Mandarin has a wider reach globally than Cantonese, there are a lot of resources available for you to learn. These materials are both physical and online and they make it easier for you to learn Mandarin. There are also resources available for learning Cantonese, but they are not as many as those available to aid your learning in Mandarin.

·       Time

Time is also an important factor that can determine the ease with which you can learn a language. Time in this sense means two things; one, the time dedicated to learning the language and two, the language you decide to learn first. If you have a shorter duration to learn a particular language, it might not be as easy as when the duration of learning is quite long.

Also, if you want to learn both Mandarin and Cantonese and you start with learning Cantonese first (which has more tones and should be more difficult to learn), there is a chance that you will agree that Cantonese is easier to learn and vice versa!

Which is more popular in the world? Mandarin or Cantonese?

This goes without saying; Mandarin is the more popular language compared to Cantonese. To understand how this language became popular, you will need to study the history of China and its languages. Let’s go down memory lane and see why

China, the country as we know it today is a refined form of itself dating as far back as 1949. But before then, it had gone through certain eras with unique characteristics, starting from the pre-historic era (dating back to the years before 1600BC) to ancient China era (1600BC to 221BC). Then came the Imperial Chinese era from 221BC to 1912AD, which led to the creation of a Republic of China from 1912AD to 1949AD. Each of these eras before modern China had their unique characteristics, but they were all characterized by Dynastic rule.

However, the advent of foreign leadership in China led to the abolition of the more popular dynastic rule and created a more steady country. But there was still confusion as almost every tribe in China had a dialect that was not understood by other tribes; and the confusion in the land was a great cause for concern for the nation’s peace.

There was therefore a need for unification especially in terms of language, as China had come under foreign rule. This unified language was also needed for the country to advance globally. This led to the creation of a common language, known as Mandarin which became the official language of the People’s Republic of China in 1955.

It became compulsory to teach Mandarin in schools in order to get the people accustomed to the language; and then the use of the language began to spread outwards to other formal places like offices and industries until it became an international language. Currently, Mandarin is one of the official languages of the United Nations, and is also spoken in countries like Taiwan and Singapore.

However, not every part of China speaks Mandarin. It is estimated that 30% of people in China speak other languages apart from Mandarin. In fact, according to the BBC, this number is estimated to be about 400 million. These other languages include Cantonese, Hakka, Taiwanese, Hunanese and Shanghainese.

Why you should learn Mandarin first

China is a beautiful country with a mix of culture and inherent dialects. However, Mandarin is the most popular language spoken not only in China but in the world at large. This means that there is a global popularity to the language Mandarin. This is, perhaps, one of the major reasons why you should learn Mandarin before any other Chinese dialect! Other reasons that might interest you include;

·       Culture

Although Cantonese is a more “cultural” language (in that it has its roots in ancient China) as compared to Mandarin, a lot of Chinese Culture is depicted using Mandarin, which makes it easier for both citizens and foreigners to learn the rich culture of the Peoples’ Republic of China!

·       Business advantage

Many businesses and offices in China speak Mandarin. So if you are about to broker an important deal with a Chinese company; it would be wise (and also useful) that you learn Mandarin. In fact, the amount of Mandarin you learn is directly proportionate to the amount of money you can make in partnerships!

·       Travel

Mandarin is not just spoken in China alone, but in neighboring countries across the Southeastern part of Asia. Therefore, if you can speak Mandarin, chances are that you will be able to “survive” in at least 4 other countries in Asia, and you will make more friends at a faster pace!

·       Improvement in brain function

Learning a new language is a creative way to test and improve your brain power. Reports have shown that learning Mandarin ensures you use both sides of your brain, which is a subtle way of unlocking your creative genius and helping you multitask. Safe to say, you increase your cognitive function when you study Mandarin!

·       Career Advancement

If you have been searching for a foreign job for a while and it looks like the odds are against you, why don’t you try learning Mandarin? First, China is a fast growing economy in the world, and some other “top-economy” countries speak Mandarin as well. So, you have a dual advantage of learning a new language, and getting the job of your dreams while at it!

Consider where you are traveling when choosing

Not all parts of China speak Mandarin as their official language, so when it comes to learning Chinese, location is as important as the effort you put into learning the language. What do I mean? It would be quite frustrating if you spend a lot of time learning Cantonese and then you move to a part of China that largely speaks Mandarin. The same applies to learning Mandarin and then relocating to a part of China that speaks Cantonese (or even a country like Hong Kong that speaks Cantonese as well).

So, before you expend all that energy into learning either Mandarin or Cantonese (or even both), you need to consider where you are more likely to travel. And if location is still giving you doubts on which Chinese language to learn, then consider the purpose for your travel. This will give insight into which language you should learn!

No matter the language you choose to learn, do not forget that both Mandarin and Cantonese are beautiful languages from a rich culture that offer great advantages when learnt. For its popularity and acceptance, Mandarin does seem like a great place to start.

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