Chinese: The Relationship Between Spoken and Written Form

In this post, I would like to address some of the most common questions that people ask me about why I make different language versions of my printables, what the difference between traditional and simplified Chinese is, and which versions can be used with Cantonese and Mandarin. Ultimately, everyone wants to know what they should study when learning Chinese.

I am not a Chinese language expert, but I do know the basics, so I hope I can help you gain a basic understanding of the relationship between the different forms of Chinese and how they work. In the end, I hope you can figure out which one is the best for you and your family to learn right now.

 

 

 

*This post contains affiliate links.

 

A Little Background

Range of Chinese dialect groups according to the Language Atlas of China [Souce]

Chinese is a language with a very long history. The principles of written Chinese have not changed much despite the many changes in dynasties, geography, politics, and society. However, for spoken Chinese, there are a lot of different dialects, so it is not unusual that people from different provinces are able to communicate using written language but are unable to understand each other verbally.

 

In the early 200th century, Mainland China, Taiwan, and Singapore adopted Mandarin (Standard Chinese) as their respective official languages, so many of the communication problems have gone away since then.

 

Today, Mandarin and Cantonese are the two most common Chinese dialects used in the world. Even though most Chinese people speak a minority Chinese dialect, they mostly use it at home and within their own community, and will use Mandarin or Cantonese to communicate with people outside of those communities.

 

Spoken Chinese

Now, let’s look at some of the similarities and differences between Mandarin and Cantonese.

 

 

Mandarin Chinese

Region: Mainland Chinese, Taiwan, Singapore

Sounds & Tones: 4 basic tones

For example:  我是一個女孩。I am a girl.

(Written Mandarin) wŏ shì yī gè nǚ hái

(Spoken Mandarin) wŏ shì yī gè nǚhái

 

Cantonese Chinese

Region: Hong Kong, Macau, and Southern China.

Sounds & Tones: 9 basic tones

For example: 我是一個女孩。I am a girl.

(Written Cantonese) ngòh sih yāt go leuíh haaih

(Spoken Cantonese) ngòh haih yāt go leuíh jaí

 

Cantonese vs. Mandarin

The examples above show that Mandarin speakers speak the same way they write.

But Cantonese is a spoken language with no official written form. Cantonese speakers can, however, read Chinese characters pronounced in Cantonese. What they read, even though it is pronounced in Cantonese, is in fact, a different language, They are closely related but most of the grammar words are different, sentence structure is often different and word choice will often be different. If you some examples, you can listen to audio examples from my vocab books and mini-books.

 

* Notes:

–  When people talk about “Chinese”, they are usually referring to “Mandarin Chinese”. When they want to talk about Cantonese Chinese, they refer it as “Cantonese”.
–  Most of the Chinese immersion school and Chinese schools in the U.S. teach Mandarin Chinese.

 

 

Written Chinese

Traditional Chinese characters were created and developed a long time ago, and most were created with individual meaning. During 1950 to 1960, the government of China promoted the Simplified Chinese characters, and since then the simplified characters have been officially used in Mainland China and Singapore. However, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan have continued to use Traditional Chinese characters.

 

 

Which “Chinese” Should I Learn?

It really depends on your goals, circumstances, and needs.

 

Most people and Chinese schools teach Mandarin. It is the most commonly used form of Chinese – even in Hong Kong, Mandarin is regularly taught and tested – so it is probably the most useful form of Chinese to know. If you plan on visiting, working in, or living in China someday, you probably will want to learn Mandarin.

 

As for written language, you should consider learning the simplified characters if you are interested in Mainland China or Singapore, but you will need to know traditional characters for Taiwan and Hong Kong.

 

If you have Cantonese speaking family and friends (like I do), it might make more sense to learn Cantonese. There are also still overseas communities and cities like Hong Kong that use Cantonese, so that might be another consideration when deciding what to learn.

 

And again, in Hong Kong, kids need to learn both Cantonese and Mandarin at school, so you might consider learning both with your kids too.

 

 

This is a little brief summary of the writing system and language by location for Chinese. I hope it gives you a visual tool to understand better with the writing system and language for Chinese. You can also get a free copy for your own by clicking the icon below.

 

 

 

 

Q & A

Here are my own personal answers to some commonly asked questions.

 

 

1. Is Cantonese harder to learn than Mandarin?

 

Yes. Tonal languages are difficult to learn for English-based language learners, and Cantonese has 5 more tones than Mandarin. Additionally, Cantonese has its own slang and phrases that are difficult to write down. Also, there are more Mandarin speakers than Cantonese, so it is easier to find native Mandarin-speakers to tutor you in Mandarin than Cantonese speakers for Cantonese.

 

2. Is it possible a Cantonese speaker to learn Mandarin and vice versa?

 

Yes, it is possible. For us (native Cantonese speakers), we can pick up Mandarin easily. Also, the government encourages us to learn Mandarin, so in addition to classes at school, we also have access to movies, tv programs, and songs from Mainland China and Taiwan. I mainly picked up Mandarin from the Mandarin songs that my parents sang at their weekly karaoke night. When I was a teenager, I also loved to watch Taiwanese dramas and listen to Taiwanese pop songs, so that’s how I picked up most of the Mandarin sounds and tones.

For Mandarin speakers, they may also need to take Cantonese classes, and really immerse themselves in Cantonese in order to master the language.

 

3. Since Chinese is a tonal language, how do Chinese sing and understand songs?

 

I had never thought about this until people asked me. Yes, you are right that we must do tones differently when we sing. When we sing, we follow the song’s melody not the words’ tones. We understand the song through the context and the meaning of the whole song. I don’t think you can learn Chinese through songs unless you know basic vocabulary which will help you understand the general meaning of the lyrics.

 

4. If I want to study/learn spoken Cantonese, will Chinese books be helpful?

 

If you are ONLY interested in speaking Cantonese, Chinese books won’t be really important because you are learning a dialect not the standard language. However, in Hong Kong at least, we didn’t use any romanization system to learn Cantonese; instead, we learned how to pronounce each character directly in Cantonese. That means if you don’t know any characters, your spoken Cantonese would be very limited.  If you just want to be able to have very simple daily conversations, learning spoken Cantonese through native-speakers should be enough. But if you want to be able to go a little further, and even read-out-loud from books in Cantonese, it won’t be enough.

If you have any other questions or would like to add to my answers, feel free to leave a comment.

 

 

You Might be Interested

1. Fun Cantonese 101: Pilot (Fortune Cookie Mom)

2. What is the Difference Between Mandarin and Cantonese? (Mandarin House)

3. I Want to Learn Chinese, Should I Learn Mandarin or Cantonese? (Omniglot)
 


 

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12 thoughts on “Chinese: The Relationship Between Spoken and Written Form

  1. I do believe all the ideas you’ve presented in your post.
    They’re really convincing and can definitely work.
    Nonetheless, the posts are very short for newbies.
    May just you please extend them a bit from subsequent
    time? Thank you for the post.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I’m glad that this post gives you an idea of the relationship of Chinese spoken and written form. As I go along with the more Chinese printables and learning materials that I’m producing, I’m sure I will extend this information.

  2. Very interesting about the differences in language! I had no idea how in depth and diverse the language is. This post helps many misconceptions of the Chinese language. Thanks for writing this and enlightening me on something new!

  3. I find your blog fascinating. I check it out every week to learn more about the world and cultural differences and similarities. Thanks!

  4. I’ve taught in a very diverse school district with over 340 different languages. Most people assume that when Chinese students speak “Chinese”. They don’t realize the differences in the languages spoken in China. Thanks for your post explaining the differences in Cantonese and Mandarin.

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