Comparación de Cantonés y Mandarin Chinese Dialects - Which is more difficult, Comparison of Mandarin and Cantonés, Cantonés, Mandarin, compare, language comparison, dialect comparison, Cantonés versus Mandarin, Mandarin versus Cantonés, vs, which is more difficult, Mandarin is easier than Cantonés, Cantonés is harder than Mandarin, Cantonés is more difficult than Mandarin, differences between Mandarin and Cantonés, differences between Cantonés and Mandarin, language difficulty, 學中文, 学中文, 學廣東話, 学广东话, 學粵語, 学粤语, 學普通話, 学普通话, 比较, 难, 简单 A Comparison of Cantonés and Mandarin from a Native English Speaker’s Point of View Written by Andrew White, November 2006, updated January 2009. What are the differences between Mandarin and Cantonés? Which is more difficult, Cantonés or Mandarin, and why? My Background: I’ve studied both Cantonés and Mandarin for 200 hours each at TAFE NSW in Sydney, Australia. I’ve also lived in China on and off for 2 years. I speak everyday Cantonés and Mandarin at a conversational level, but my vocabulary is not yet large enough to be able watch TV and understand it fully. By “conversational level” I mean that I can do the following things without using any English at all: go shopping for food or clothes, buy tickets and catch buses/taxis/train/planes, apply for a visa, watch TV and understand most of a children’s program, understand some but not all phrases in TV commercials, understand most weather forecasts on TV or radio, talk with friends or strangers on the phone or face-to-face about most non-technical topics. I estimate that I know over 1000 spoken words (in each dialect), and around 500 characters (including some Cantonés-specific ones) but these numbers could actually be much larger since it’s very difficult to accurately estimate such things. Some characters I know the meaning of, but cannot remember or have never learned how to pronounce them. Others I can pronounce but do not know the meaning. Out of the 500 characters I can read, I can probably write about 300 of them. It’s much easier to recognize a character than it is to remember how to write it! I guess that I’d need at least another 3 years of continuous exposure to Chinese in order to get to a point where I’d be able to understand most TV shows. It might need another 5 years after that before I consider myself fluent. Motivating oneself to learn such a complex language is not easy, so I rarely study. Instead, I just learn by absorption, i.e. by talking to people and using a dictionary. This document is for those people interested in studying or analyzing the Mandarin and Cantonés dialects of Chinese. Colours: I’ve coloured each section as either green meaning ‘easier’, red meaning ‘harder’, or orange meaning ‘similarly difficult’. Note that the word ‘easier’ does not mean ‘easy’! Notes: The system of Cantonés romanization used in this document is that of Sidney Lau. All comments are written with respect to a native English-speaking learner. If your first language is not English, then some Chinese sounds may be more familiar to you, and Chinese sounds which are familiar to an English speaker may be completely unfamiliar to you. Factor Cantonés Mandarin Speaking (Difficulty of tones) There are 7 tones, but one of them is very rarely used. Because there are so many tones, they are extremely important in pronunciation. The most commonly cited example is the words for buy and sell which have the same pronunciation except for the tone, i.e. maai5 and maai6. There are between 4 and 6 tones depending on how you want to count them. Because there are fewer tones than in Cantonés, they are less important in pronunciation but nevertheless in some situations they are absolutely essential to convey the correct meaning. The most commonly cited example is the words for buy and sell which have the same pronunciation except for the tone, i.e. mǎi and mài. Speaking (Difficultly of phonemes) There are 19 initials and 51 finals that form approximately 590 sounds in modern Cantonés. The most difficult sounds for a native English speaker are the short and long vowel pairs ai/aai, au/aau; the sounds iu, ooi, oon, ui, ut, ue; and the initial sound ng. There are 24 initials and 33 finals that form approximately 420 sounds in modern Mandarin. The most difficult sounds for a native English speaker are the initials z and c; the vowel ü, and the multi-vowels ia, ie, iao, iu/iou, io, ua, uo, uai, ui, and üe. Speaking (Consistency of tones) A Cantonés word does not change tone depending on the word preceding it, or following it, in a sentence. Cantonés words sometimes change tone because they change meaning but this is nothing special since all languages including Mandarin do this. Mandarin words in the 3rd tone change to the 2nd tone when followed by a word in the 3rd tone. Some other Mandarin words, such as yī meaning one, and bù meaning not, change tone in a sentence depending on the tone of the word which follows them. These tone changes make speaking tonally-accurate sentences very difficult. These tonal changes are often omitted in the romanization of Mandarin in textbooks. Listening (Distinctiveness of tones) Cantonés tones are extremely difficult to distinguish for non-native speakers (even for those born in non-Cantonés parts of China). The words for buy and sell are so close that even native speakers mishear them. Mandarin tones are more distinct and easier to hear than Cantonés tones, but in regular-speed speech they are also difficult for an English speaker to distinguish. Listening (Distinctiveness of phonemes) Cantonés sounds are generally more distinct than Mandarin sounds in regular-speed speech, but there are sounds which are difficult to distinguish for learners, e.g. oi/ui, ok/uk, ai/aai, and au/aau. Mandarin sounds are not as distinct as Cantonés sounds. Mandarin has many aspirated consonants which sound similar in regular-speed speech (just like English). Some vowels sound similar to others. Multi-vowel words often have a vowel omitted in regular-speed speech. Listening (Consistency of speakers) One source of confusion is that some speakers omit an initial ng, whereas other speakers add an initial ng to some words starting with a vowel. e.g. The most common pronunciation of I/me is ngoh5 but some people say oh5. The word duck is pronounced aap3* but many people say ngaap3*. Another is that many people say l instead of n (but only in some words), and they say n instead of l (but only in some words). e.g. The word you is pronounced nei5 but many people say lei5. Another is that many people say g instead of gw. e.g. The word country is pronounced gwok3 but many people say gok3. Also, a very small number of words in regular speech are pronounced with a vowel sound omitted, e.g. gam3 is often pronounced g’m3, just as in English running is pronounced runn’n’ in fast or lazy speech. These variations rarely if ever lead to ambiguous meaning. Mandarin is a language that mainland Chinese are forced to learn by the government in order for the country to function in an efficient and unified manner, but most people speak their own province’s or town’s local dialect as their first language. As a result the vast majority of native Chinese speakers don’t speak “standard” Mandarin. The most common mis-pronunciations are saying s instead of sh, z instead of zh, fu instead of hu, and i instead of ü, but there are more than 20 others. The vast number of possible mispronunciations can make it quite difficult for the listener. Reading (Formal) Formal written Cantonés is the same as formal written Mandarin except that full-form characters are used. Full-form characters often give a clue to the pronunciation or meaning of a word. Formal written Cantonés is totally different from spoken Cantonés so this makes it almost like a separate language. Formal written Mandarin is the same as Formal written Cantonés except that simplified characters are used (except in Taiwán). Simplified characters have sometimes lost the clue(s) to the pronunciation or meaning of a word. Some simplified characters have multiple pronunciations since multiple full-form characters were simplified to the same form. Reading (Vernacular) Vernacular Cantonés is almost a language in itself. In fact, many people refer to spoken Cantonés as being “Cantonés”, and to written Cantonés as “Mandarin”, but it is actually possible to write down spoken Cantonés. Cantonés comic books are good place to see this. The special Cantonés-only characters, of which there are hundreds, are often not recognizable or pronounceable by people who haven’t studied Cantonés (even for those born in non-Cantonés parts of China). Vernacular written Mandarin is very similar to formal written Mandarin. Reading vernacular written Mandarin is not particularly difficult. Writing (Formal) Cantonés in Hong Kong is written using full-form characters. Full-form characters are notoriously difficult to write, hence the reason the mainland Chinese government undertook a program of character simplification in the 1950’s, 60’s, and 80’s in an attempt to improve literacy. Cantonés in mainland China is often written using simplified characters. Formal written Mandarin is the same as formal written Cantonés except that simplified characters are used for Mandarin (except in Taiwán). Writing (Vernacular) Vernacular Cantonés characters are very difficult to write since they are rarely taught in school. Native speakers learn them by reading comic books and other vernacular publications. Vernacular written Mandarin is very similar to formal written Mandarin. Writing vernacular Mandarin is not particularly difficult. Grammar Some parts of Cantonés grammar are similar to English but most are totally different. It’s not easy to say which grammar is more or less similar to English. Cantonés and Mandarin grammar differ slightly. Some parts of Mandarin grammar are similar to English but most are totally different. It’s not easy to say which grammar is more or less similar to English. Mandarin and Cantonés grammar differ slightly. Romanizations Many romanizations exist for Cantonés. Over the last 200 or so years, various scholars have come up with newer and better ones as the understanding of world language phonetics has progressed. One of the best and most internally-consistent romanizations is that of Sidney Lau (which itself was based on other romanizations). The system has only 1 internal inconsistency which is so minor that you may not even be able to work out what it is! The pronunciation of letters in Sidney Lau’s system is similar to English, so it’s not that difficult to learn. Many other systems use silent letters to denote tones. They do this solely for the reason that before the advent of the computer age, it was very difficult to put tone marks into publications. This money-saving and labour-saving decision has created a glut of horrible Cantonés romanization systems which are extremely difficult to read and write. Sidney Lau’s system uses number-superscripts to denote tones. The Martha Lam / Stanley Po system is identical to Sidney Lau’s except that it uses diacritics to denote tones. Both these romanization systems are excellent. Mandarin in mainland China is Romanized using PinYin (which literally means “pieces of sound”). Taiwán uses its own system called BoPoMoFo which does not use the Roman alphabet. Taiwán has recently started moving over to using and teaching PinYin because of its ease-of-use on modern English computer keyboards. The PinYin system has been almost universally adopted worldwide in teaching Mandarin. The pronunciation of some letters in PinYin is nothing like English, e.g. q, x, z, and c, plus the PinYin system itself has many inconsistencies which make it very difficult to learn and use. For example, the letter y is used to represent the sound yi, thus the word yie is actually always written as ye, whereas other words containing the same ie sound have the ie written in full, e.g. bie. Another inconsistency is that the sound ü has the umlaut omitted in words starting with j, q, or x, but retains it in words starting with l or n. There are many other inconsistencies but I won’t list them all here. These inconsistencies make learning, reading, and correctly pronouncing PinYin words very difficult. Conclusion: Both Cantonés and Mandarin are extremely difficult to learn for a native English speaker. Tones are almost an alien concept to English speakers, and tones are the most difficult part of learning to speak a Chinese dialect. Written Chinese is also an alien concept to native English speakers since it does not involve an alphabet. Writing Chinese is much harder than speaking it. In terms of which dialect is more difficult overall, even if the student chooses not to learn to read or write Chinese, Cantonés is still slightly more difficult to learn due to it having more tones than Mandarin and no standard Romanisation system. Thanks for reading, and good luck learning Chinese!