When you speak of the Chinese language, it is very common to think only of two – Mandarin and Cantonese. In essence, Cantonese is the second most spoken Chinese language. Also known as Yue, it’s the dominant language in Southeastern China. Like Mandarin, they use Cantonese in 13 countries. More than 73.4 million people also speak it at native level. Add second language speakers and Yuehai dialects speakers and you have more than 80 million Cantonese speakers.
Many would think that it is better to learn Mandarin Chinese because it is easier to study than Cantonese. However, it is still a very important language that is worth learning, especially for business.
Standard Cantonese is the official name of the language. They mainly speak it in the Guangdong Province. Its capital is Guangzhou, which used to be called Canton. It is Yue Chinese’s prestige form. Cantonese is the official as well as the dominant language in Macau and Hong Kong. Many countries in Southeast Asia and in the west also use it. Speakers of the language are quite protective of their language, as it is so much a part of their cultural identity.
Even if Cantonese and Mandarin share some words, differences in lexicon, grammar and pronunciation make the two languages mutually unintelligible. There are also differences in sentence structure, especially in verb placements.
Written Cantonese Differs from Spoken Chinese Dialects
In the written form, Cantonese and Mandarin can be recorded directly. However, only a few speakers know the full extent of the written vocabulary. Thus, a non-verbatim but formal written form is devised, which is closer to Mandarin’s written form. Although the text may be similar to look at, the pronunciation is different, which creates confusion.
Guangzhou was traditionally called Canton in English, from which the name of the language came from. Thus some people call it either as Guangzhou language or Canton language.
In many overseas Chinese communities, as well as in Macau and Hong Kong, the language is often referred to as Chinese or Guangdong speech. Because the language developed during the Tang Dynasty, Chinese people living in communities located overseas call themselves people of Tang while they call their language as Tang speech.
Geographic Distribution of Cantonese
In Hong Kong and Macau, Chinese and English are the official languages. it is the de facto official spoken language because of its dominance, although there are several forms of Chinese spoken in Hong Kong. It is the language used by the courts, tribunals and all the government offices in Hong Kong. Together with English, it is the medium of instruction in schools in the island.
In Macau, Portuguese and Chinese are the official languages. Cantonese is also dominant in the region. It is used in everyday speech as well as in the government. The language spoken in these two regions outside mainland China is the same as the version spoken in Guangzhou, except for small differences in vocabulary, pronunciation and accent.
In mainland China the language developed first around Guangzhou, which is a port city located in the Pearl River Delta, which is in China’s southeastern part. Since a long time ago, Guangzhou is a vital center of culture. Thus Cantonese became a prestige dialect that spread into the provinces of Guangxi and Guangdong.
It’s Not All About Geography
Even with the ceding of Hong Kong to Britain in the mid-19th century and Macau to Portugal in the mid-16th century, the Cantonese-speaking immigrants ensured that their language became the prominent language in these areas. Even when the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949 and the government promoted Mandarin as the official language, Cantonese remained dominant in its areas of origin.
The language has its own media. It is used on signage in public transport system in the province of Guangdong. Many schools use the language as their medium of instruction up to the university level. The Chinese government permits the use of the language in parts of mainland China in an effort to offset the influence of Hong Kong because the territory enjoys freedom of speech and the press. The Cantonese media of Hong Kong enjoys wide exposure and has a large following in the Guangdong province.
Cantonese Chinese is widely used in Southeast Asia, aside from speaking other Chinese forms, such as Hakka, Teochew and Hokkien. Cantonese pop culture and media from Hong Kong have wide exposure in the region.
The ethnic Chinese community in Vietnam, which is called the Hoa people, speaks Cantonese as their native tongue. It is the largest Chinese-speaking minority in the country. However, the speakers have a Vietnamese accent and sometimes code switch when needed.
Spoken Far Beyond China
The Malaysian Chinese communities speak Cantonese, particularly in Kuala Lumpur and Klang Valley. Various districts in Sekinchan, Selangor, Perak, Kinta Valley, Sandakan, Sarawak and Pahang also have Cantonese speakers. It is also the language used by Chinese Malaysians, which is largely used by the Chinese language media as well. Hong Kong TV programs and radio shows in Cantonese are widely available in Malaysia as well as pop music and dramas from Hong Kong. However, Mandarin is the medium of instruction and Hokkien is the most spoken form of Chinese in Malaysia.
The language is also widely spoken in Singapore, Cambodia, Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia.
Reasons to Learn Cantonese
It is an important language despite the popularity of Mandarin. It is an excellent language for tourism, finance or business. Many business opportunities are open for those who learn Cantonese. If you are a person who likes to live in other countries and explore new cultures, learning the language will offer you many options to do that.
You will fare very well in Hong Kong. You’ll have plenty of inspiration from the people, architecture, the arts and culture in the autonomous region. You will be able to communicate effectively with Hong Kong natives, even if they know how to speak English. It is easier to get things done and do business in Hong Kong if you know Cantonese.
If you know the language, it would be a great help when you want to learn Mandarin. It has six tones. Mandarin only has four. Because Cantonese uses the traditional characters, you will have the basic knowledge of the basic radicals. Since Mandarin’s radicals are simplified, it will facilitate learning Mandarin.
If you are interested in the culture of Hong Kong and want to delve deeper into the arts, you need to learn Cantonese. The traditional characters are used in painting and poetry. Knowing the language will open the doors into traditional Chinese art.
Young Hongkongers use Kongish, which is a combination of Cantonese and English, and they use it as a symbol of their identity.
For business owners who want to expand into Southeast China and Southeast Asia, you need to learn Cantonese so you will have access to several businesses in these areas.
Learning the Language
The grammar rules are simpler than other Chinese languages. You do not have to learn conjugations but focus more attention to building a vocabulary.
But there are also challenges to face when learning Cantonese, a tonal language that has more tones than Mandarin. The pitch helps you to understand the meaning of the words.
Moreover, the placement of the words can make the meaning of the sentences differ. It gives prominence to the topic. The particles, markers and adverbs for example, are more important than number, gender or time.
If you live in the United States, it is easier to learn Cantonese because it’s the main form of Chinese in America. The earliest Chinese immigrants to the United States came from Guangdong, which is the central hub of the Cantonese language. Most Chinese immigrants living in Hawaii are also speakers of the language.
Currently, Cantonese and Mandarin combined is the third most spoken non-English language in the U.S. so learners of the language could have Cantonese-speaking friends who can help them learn it. It is faster to learn a language when you have constant exposure to it. Many institutions of higher learning in the U.S. continue to offer courses in Cantonese, using Yale Romanization to facilitate learning.
Immersion Is Not the End All
So if you cannot afford to have Cantonese language immersion in Hong Kong or Southeastern China, you can try finding friends in the Chinese languages community in your city. In you live in New York City, you’ll find many speakers in the Chinese communities in the older parts of NYC.
If you are in the west side of the U.S., the Chinatowns in the San Francisco Bay Area, San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, Temple City, Rosemead and San Gabriel.
Like the United States, Canada also has a large Chinese diaspora, with many immigrants coming from Guangdong. In fact, it is the dominant Chinese language in Canada, as the number of immigrants who speak Mandarin is quite small.
If you are planning to join businesses and corporations owned by Cantonese-speaking business people in the western world, keep in mind that the Cantonese language is also dominant in the United Kingdom, France, Portugal and Australia.
Moreover, if you learn spoken Cantonese, you will be a standout because many students are learning Mandarin and other Chinese languages. The demand for Cantonese speakers is steady, so it is to your advantage to learn the language to take advantage of fewer competition.
Listen to the differences between spoken Cantonese and Mandarin in this video:
The Chinese language as a whole is difficult to learn for a student whose first language is not tonal. However, there are numerous benefits in learning spoken Cantonese, if you are thinking of a career in tourism, finance or business. In the meantime, for accurate and high quality document translation from and into Cantonese and other languages, rely on the expert translators of Day Translations, Inc. We have native speakers located around the world, ready to serve you any time. We are open 24/7, every day of the year. You can reach us quickly by sending an email at Contact us or calling us at 1-800-969-6853.
By User:Cantonese opera (朝暉粵劇團) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
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