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Is it worth learning Cantonese or Mandarin?

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#1 English Tony

Posted 04 October 2012 - 09:49 AM

Is any Chinese speaking expat here? I'm wondering if you found it worth your while learning the language and if so did you learn Cantonese or Mandarin? What would be more useful for me? I'm moving to Hong Kong soon and I'm wondering if it's worth the effort.

#2 (Member banned)

Posted 04 October 2012 - 10:56 AM

If you stay for a longer time in Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan, HongKong, Malaysia, Singapore it's sometimes useful to know some written and spoken Chinese.

Opinions might vary, but I think, the best is for foreigners to focus to the standard Chinese spoken and written only.

Cantonese was the most used Chinese dialect among overseas Chinese anywhere in Vancouver, London etc. and also leading in Singapore/Malaysia/HongKong.

But frequent Chinese lessons in standard Chinese show some results. Many Chinese in Singapore and Malaysia can speak now standard Chinese (Mandarin) and same is true with overseas Chinese in Europe/Northern America or elsewhere.

If you try to speak Chinese, you should always also consider how it is written. Do not give spoken Chinese priority over written Chinese.

About myself, after living such a long time in Japan, I can read/write a lot of Chinese - but my knowledge about spoken Chinese is very poor.

#3 Jack Fancy

Posted 04 October 2012 - 02:03 PM

Actually, Yohan, the mainland kids are making a bigger dent in places like Vancouver these days.

Mandarin is better all around as most Hong Kongers can speak English to communicate with and Mandarin would be easier to start off with anyways.

#4 Captain Chaos

Posted 04 October 2012 - 02:24 PM

View PostJack Fancy, on 04 October 2012 - 02:03 PM, said:

... and Mandarin would be easier to start off with anyways.

Would it? Why so?

#5 Bluecat

Posted 04 October 2012 - 02:28 PM

Sure not easier to start with, but the one you have to learn first indeed.
Except if you intend to stay in Hong Kong forever.


Posted 04 October 2012 - 04:24 PM

View PostCaptain Chaos, on 04 October 2012 - 02:24 PM, said:

Would it? Why so?
-Off the top of my head: availability. More people speak Mandarin. Learning materials, books and even teachers are going to be more easily accessible and readily available, in the general sense. Also, it is my understanding that Cantonese is written in traditional form, whereas much of Mandarin has been simplified, thus the use of simplified characters in Mainland China is becoming more and more common. I could be wrong, but I have never seen Cantonese written in simplified characters. I also don't know whether or not PinYin can be used at all, for learning Cantonese, and unless there is an alternative, phonetic methodology for learning Cantonese, it's going to be much more difficult and tedious to learn.

Like I said, I could be wrong, but if it were me, I'd prefer learning Mandarin over Cantonese any day - whether I was going to live in HK or not.

Is it worth it? That's subjective, but bettering yourself is usually a good thing. What would you spend your time doing, otherwise?

#7 illa

Posted 05 October 2012 - 05:05 AM

I would say no if you are caucasian, as a caucasian speaking Chinese will just confuse Chinese the people... is this even a real poster?

#8 (Member banned)

Posted 05 October 2012 - 05:55 AM

Why should they be confused? There are Caucasians speaking Chinese, Thai, Korean, Japanese and other Asian languages.

Yes, I think, it's a real poster and it is a valid question.

There are more Caucasian speaking Chinese than you might think,
for example the Uyghurs in Central Asia - they belong to the Turkish ethnic group and there are over 8 millions of them in Xinjiang, China.

#9 กำนัน

Posted 05 October 2012 - 05:55 AM

There are certainly Cantonese speaking Gweilos in Hong Kong. All I ever learned when I lived there though was how to tell the taxi driver to take me home and how to order a pack of Marlboros (used to be a smoker). It sure doesn't confuse the locals, it's Hong Kong, it's full of Gweilos with various levels of Cantonese.

If you're being parachuted into Hong Kong for a three year contract i.e. an in and out job, you'll be living in expat land, speaking to other expats, going to bars where English is the default language (most of the staff at such places will be Filipinas or British permanent residents anyway)... then no, of course it's not worth it, unless you have a penchent for difficult hobbies...

If you're likely to be in Hong Kong long term, then yes, it's worth it. I would say learn both... It makes sense to learn the language everyone in Hong Kong speaks i.e. Cantonese... It also make sense to learn Mandarin, especially if your employer has you doing business with mainlanders... as it's likely to future proof you.

If you have young children, they're likely to pick up Cantonese as they grow up in Hong Kong and I can think of no disadvantages to that.

#10 (Member banned)

Posted 05 October 2012 - 06:56 AM

View PostMETHOS, on 04 October 2012 - 04:24 PM, said:

.....I have never seen Cantonese written in simplified characters....

It's not really a writing, it's about giving guidance to pronunciation only (for example for songs) as Cantonese is not a literary language. It's a dialect. You can also choose various other characters to write Hokkien or whatever Chinese dialect. Chinese - but not Cantonese native speakers - find it very funny what kind of characters are chosen to present Cantonese pronunciation for a Cantonese native speaker. Some characters are the same, but many are totally different from standard Chinese, often even unknown or rarely used.


Like I said, I could be wrong, but if it were me, I'd prefer learning Mandarin over Cantonese any day - whether I was going to live in HK or not.

Is it worth it? That's subjective, but bettering yourself is usually a good thing. What would you spend your time doing, otherwise?

Yes correct. Living in Far East you will notice soon, that some knowledge of written and spoken Chinese is quite useful.

For the beginner without any knowledge of Chinese at all, the only not confusing way how to study Chinese is to stay firmly with the standard Chinese language in both spoken and written form.

Only if you have a deep insider knowledge about China and its language and dialects, you might try if you find the subject interesting to COMPARE dialects with the standard language.
Otherwise you will end up confused, mixing up all and everything.

About Chinese dialects, they are often so different from standard Chinese that you have to learn them almost like a foreign language - and this is true even for Chinese native speakers themselves.

Standard Chinese in both written and spoken is already complex enough for any beginner who is a native speaker of Western languages. - Stay with it and remove anything else out of your mind.

You should always say

Ni hao and NOT gai ho ma

wo chu kan i kan and NOT ngo hoi tai ya tai

tsai chen - and NOT - tsoy geen

Even if the other person is known to you as a Cantonese, Hokkien etc. dialect-speaker, for sure all educated Chinese worldwide - regardless if in Singapore, Malaysia, Hongkong, Taiwan or from elsewhere including mainland China etc. will understand what you say and can read what you write in standard Chinese.

View Postกำนัน, on 05 October 2012 - 05:55 AM, said:

If you have young children, they're likely to pick up Cantonese as they grow up in Hong Kong ...

It's the only way to pick it up... from Cantonese speaking children... word by word.
Cantonese is a spoken 'language'. There are songs, broadcastings, TV-shows etc. in Cantonese.

#11 Jack Fancy

Posted 05 October 2012 - 12:01 PM

View PostMETHOS, on 04 October 2012 - 04:24 PM, said:

More people speak Mandarin.....the use of simplified characters.....

Exactly.  Simplified Chinese is easier than traditional characters and speaking Mandarin is easier than Cantonese.  But, if you did learn traditional, then you would still be able to use it in places like Taiwan.  As Yohan said, the characters might even be the same but the pronunciation and actual spoken word can be completely different.  I dig reading the Chinese characters in Japanese just for sh*ts and giggles knowing that's not how it sounds in Japanese.

View Postilla, on 05 October 2012 - 05:05 AM, said:

I would say no if you are caucasian, as a caucasian speaking Chinese will just confuse Chinese the people... is this even a real poster?

The only time my Chinese has or still confuses the locals is when before I could read any characters but could speak just fine, a local waitress couldn't quite grasp the understanding that handing me a menu was worthless and could she just give me some recommendations or being just outside the city and being asked where in china I AM FROM or "are you a foreigner?"!!!!

Otherwise, I hope you were joking with that statement.

And, as Mandy said, if you're going to be in HK for a while, then probably best to learn Cantonese AND Mandarin.


Posted 05 October 2012 - 04:19 PM

Good point. Learning traditional Chinese characters can be quite useful.

Even if you never master the tones or pronounce anything correctly, if you know how to write the characters and have something write with, chances are, you will be understood - whether you are in Chengdu, Taipei, Hong Kong or maybe even Tokyo etc.

Edited by METHOS, 05 October 2012 - 04:24 PM.

#13 (Member banned)

Posted 05 October 2012 - 09:26 PM

View PostMETHOS, on 05 October 2012 - 04:19 PM, said:

if you know how to write the characters ... Taipei.... Hongkong... Tokyo etc.
Seoul also should be mentioned.

There are strong similarities between Japanese and Chinese and Korean, between Japan and Taiwan and Korea, it is not really 'the same' of course...

Writing, grammar and pronunciation might be different - but not always so different - It is said, that about 70 percent between written Chinese (in Taiwan) and Japanese are so similar or even identical, that a native speaker of Chinese or Japanese will catch the correct meaning, for example out of 'not so difficult text' from a newspaper, menu of a restaurant, information from a pamphlet  etc. even in case this person never had any instruction of the other language. 70 percent - this is quite a lot.

Spoken language too has a lot of similarities between Korean and Japanese and also in Chinese (especially nouns in case 2 characters are used as a combination).

It takes a native speaker of Japanese only about 3 months of daily regular studies to be able to communicate fairly good in Korean, however with a remarkable accent which is very typical for both languages. Same with Koreans who learn Japanese.

Writing/reading is a different matter however. Nowadays, Koreans are using only about 300 simple Chinese characters and their own Korean letters.

If you look in a Japanese - Chinese textbook, the lesson no. 5 looks about like the lesson no. 30 or 40 in a textbook English - Chinese. Even the first Japanese - Chinese lesson includes already complete simple sentences in written form.

Edited by yohan, 05 October 2012 - 09:30 PM.

#14 English Tony

Posted 05 October 2012 - 11:40 PM

Wow. I never thought to learn both. I don't know how long we'll be there as it's open ended. It could be many years if successful. We have one child and she's six. I also need to look into schooling. The first thing that came to mind wad language because I lived in Paris for five years and I regret not learning some French.

More questions though. Schools, flat, cars. I'm starting from scratch here. Moving to France was easy for me as an EU member. Hong Kong is daunting and also worries my wife (she's Canadian).

#15 cheesindave

Posted 06 October 2012 - 12:48 AM

If you're moving to HK, then Cantonese is going to be more useful, it's certainly not necessary to learn Cantonese in HK but it helps a lot.

I speak both Mandarin and Cantonese, although my level of Mandarin is higher. Mandarin is far easier to learn, mostly down to the tones. In Mandarin there are 4 tones which are quiet easy to master, whereas in Cantonese there are 9 (but 6 is enough to get by). I can only speak basic Cantonese using 6 of the tones, I literally cannot hear the other two. I've heard many complain that Cantonese is quite difficult to learn and I have to agree.

I first tried learning Cantonese years ago and gave up. Then when I lived in China, I started to learn Mandarin. I think it is far easier to learn Cantonese once you have a decent grasp of Mandarin.

Also as some others said in this thread, most definitely learn writing at the same time as speaking. In the long run it will make things much easier.

#16 illa

Posted 06 October 2012 - 02:58 AM

On a similar note I have a friend from the PRC who is planning on moving their family to New York or Atlantis, do you think it is worth while for them learn English or swimming?

#17 (Member banned)

Posted 06 October 2012 - 08:49 AM

View Postcheesindave, on 06 October 2012 - 12:48 AM, said:

my level of Mandarin is higher. Mandarin is far easier to learn...

many complain that Cantonese is quite difficult to learn and I have to agree

During the last decade, standard Chinese 普通话 using simplified characters 簡体字 clearly advanced as the 'leader', leaving Cantonese Chinese and other Chinese 'dialects' far behind.

For international use it is important to create a form of Chinese, which is spoken by many native speakers and is serving as a guideline, as a 'standard'.

The use of personal computers with improved input of foreign languages using totally different writing systems was helping a lot to create large data of Chinese vocabulary, translating software, exercise books for students.

I can only stress again, use 'standard Chinese' for your basic studies - it's no. 1 - and anything else from Cantonese to Hokkien, from Hakka to Jin should only considered as a 'hobby' as no. 2...

I think, there are now maybe something like 15 Chinese major dialects, and they are again divided into subdivisions, totally maybe over 100 groups.

Cantonese might be nice in Hongkong, and Hokkien might be nice in Malaysia, and Hakka be useful for Chinese Thai, however the use of such dialects is declining noticeably within the Chinese communities living overseas in USA, UK, Singapore, Vancouver etc.

Standard Chinese should be studied in both spoken and written form at the same time, a student should be able to use a Chinese character dictionary to look up the meaning of characters he does not know yet. If this is not be done thoroughly, the student might end up as illiterate - able to speak, but unable to read anything whereever he goes in China.

Edited by yohan, 06 October 2012 - 08:55 AM.

#18 Jack Fancy

Posted 06 October 2012 - 01:43 PM

Now, that Chinese netizens have surpassed that of Americans... let's all welcome the (dot)中国 coming soon!

#19 (Member banned)

Posted 06 October 2012 - 05:28 PM

Even with so many participants from China, I think, conversation on the internet will continue mainly to be in English.

Chinese is only good among the Chinese themselves for local networks.

Most foreign people without any root or personal relationship to China are not able to carry out any written conversation in Chinese.

The only way to communicate on the internet worldwide is English. For sure English cannot be replaced easily with any other language.

#20 กำนัน

Posted 07 October 2012 - 06:15 AM

View PostJack Fancy, on 06 October 2012 - 01:43 PM, said:

let's all welcome the (dot)中国 coming soon!

When I've got some spare cash, I'll be investing in Chinese translations of some key pages on OE. I've chosen to go with Hong Kong and they'll be at the domain 生活在亚洲.香港

#21 English Tony

Posted 10 October 2012 - 09:15 AM

great advice all. How about schools and other things I should be looking into? What about cars?

#22 กำนัน

Posted 10 October 2012 - 09:20 AM

Please start new threads for each subject.

#23 Mowong84

Posted 12 October 2012 - 10:05 AM

If you are dealing business with Chinese (from china). Mandarin is quiet useful. Also Chinese are spread all over the world. Their population in anywhere will grow bigger only not less. So, if your job or future work will related to Chinese, it will be good for yourself, also your CV will look impressed. In the other side, Cantonese is not that useful compare with mandarin...

#24 MoneySheep

Posted 15 October 2012 - 03:38 PM

First thing is to know when you are referred to as "white". Gweilo is cantonese. Laowai is mandarin.

Each individual eventually will adopt fluency to his degree. I speak cantonese fluently, and I speak broken mandarin but good enough to live day to day, even in Beijing. My friend howerver, also white, speaks only cantonese, he speaks broken english.

If I were to pick one, I will drill on Mandarin.

Edited by MoneySheep, 15 October 2012 - 03:39 PM.

#25 Jack Fancy

Posted 16 October 2012 - 02:27 AM

View PostMoneySheep, on 15 October 2012 - 03:38 PM, said:

First thing is to know when you are referred to as "white". Gweilo is cantonese. Laowai is mandarin.

How does 老外 (laowai)  translate into 白皮肤的外国人?(white-skinned foreigner?)

Every person NOT from China is a laowai.  What's funny is when Chinese are NOT in China and still call a local person a laowai.
Better mannered and educated people will say waiguoren, instead.

#26 JustB

Posted 17 October 2012 - 09:48 AM

Came across this on Flipboard... http://www.bbc.co.uk...guages/chinese/ which might help start you going...

Edited by JustB, 17 October 2012 - 09:48 AM.

#27 MrFantabulous

Posted 20 October 2012 - 09:57 PM

Which do you guys think SOUNDS nicer?   Both mandarin and Cantonese are not very nice sounding languages. . but out of the two I'd say mandarin sounds much nicer to the ears.   Unless it's spoken by a Beijing cab driver or shrieking lady.

#28 cheesindave

Posted 21 October 2012 - 12:06 AM

I prefer the sound of Cantonese, it can sound almost like singing. Mandarin sounds a little harsh to my ears. Funnily I felt the opposite when I lived in the PRC.

#29 (Member banned)

Posted 21 October 2012 - 04:41 AM

View PostMrFantabulous, on 20 October 2012 - 09:57 PM, said:

Which do you guys think SOUNDS nicer?  

Cantonese sounds better for Japanese people or otherwise Japanese speakers like myself.

There is a big difference in sound, and somebody who has no idea, hearing both languages will say, these are clearly 2 different languages.

For me Hokkien Chinese sounds terrible, like a group of cats, singing and fighting in the night....

#30 Starseeker

Posted 05 November 2012 - 01:12 PM

People tend to say that southern Chinese dialects are nicer to the ear than northern ones.  Hangzhou, or Taiwanese dialects are said to be particularly soft and more "feminine" in a way.  Apparently, most exchange students from China can't get enough of Taiwanese girls speaking in the local dialect.  One can sort of compare them to guns, since different guns sounds differently depending on the type, rate of fire and individual preferences.  It is usually thought that northern dialects to be harder and more l-i-k-e this.

Traditional characters triumphs over simplified anytime of the day, but I am too lazy to get into that argument.  Suffice to say that, traditional characters will actually cause less confusion among newbies.   F**k goods/dry goods anyone?

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