As China develops, it is seeing itself transform into a hub for travelling and business. In the translation industry, the Chinese market shows considerable promise and is interesting to explore. However, there are still many myths surrounding Chinese dialects.

For example, are Mandarin and Cantonese different? What is the difference between Traditional and Simplified Chinese?

We aim to answer these without generalisation below.

Shanghai - Chinese Dialects

Mandarin and Cantonese

Mandarin is the “official language” in China. It was adapted from the northern dialects and shares many similarities with the Beijing dialect. Now, most schools in China teach  in Mandarin and is used to cover important events as Mandarin is the language that is mostly spoken.

Cantonese, (粤语 Yue Language) is mostly used in Canton (Guangdong), Hong Kong and Macau. It is also popular among Chinese expats. As the economy and business blossom in southern China, the use of Cantonese is more popular and needed.

What is the difference between Mandarin and Cantonese? First of all, they are similar to a large extent. Even though there are some different words, which are only used in Cantonese, the characters and pronunciation are not completely different. That is why, those that can only speak Mandarin, might not find it difficult to understand Cantonese if they stayed in Canton or Hong Kong for two months or even less. Some Chinese even could speak Cantonese very well within 5-12 months living with Cantonese.

Despite these similarities, they are different in many ways. There are many old Chinese expressions that remain only in Cantonese, which could date back to 300-1000 years ago. Cantonese also preserves some older grammatical constructions that Mandarin no longer use.

The third major difference is that, for Mandarin, you could write down exactly what you say and it makes sense. But Cantonese words may not be directly written to match what was said. There are many words and expressions in Cantonese that are only used in speaking. Thus, a written official Cantonese text could be really similar to a Mandarin text, while if the text is merely a record of a Cantonese spoken conversation, the text could be unreadable for a Mandarin speaker.

So if you are doing business with a Chinese company and need an interpreter, it would be wise to know beforehand whether you need a Mandarin or Cantonese interpreter. But for translation, most of the time, there might not be a significant difference between the written texts of Mandarin and Cantonese.

Hong Kong - Chinese Dialects

Simplified and Traditional Chinese

When talking about Simplified or Traditional Chinese, here we mean the difference of Chinese characters. Simplified Chinese characters were promoted by the Chinese government in the 1950s and 1960s, and now it is officially used in mainland China and Singapore. Traditional Chinese characters, most of the time, are more complicated than the simplified ones and are used in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau. One important reason for promoting Simplified Chinese is because they have less strokes compared to Traditional Characters.

Dragon in Simplified Chinese - Chinese Dialects

For instance, the simplified Chinese character “龙” (pronunciation: long; meaning: dragon) only has 5 strokes, while its traditional one “龍”, with 16 strokes, is much more complicated and could be time and effort consuming.

What is the relationship between Traditional Chinese and Cantonese? Cantonese is a dialect, while Traditional Chinese refers to the characters that are used. People in Canton speak Cantonese, while most of them use Simplified Chinese characters. On the other hand, people in Hong Kong write in Traditional Chinese and speak Cantonese. Most of the time, Cantonese speakers can speak or understand Mandarin and Simplified Chinese characters. Also users of Simplified Chinese characters can understand or write in Traditional Chinese characters.

I hope what I have said above is not too confusing, because in reality, Chinese dialects and languages are, in fact, much more complicated. People in China speak more than Mandarin and Cantonese. Even people from the same province may find it difficult to understand each other. As for Chinese characters, now more and more people try to learn and use Traditional Chinese characters as they find the traditional one beautiful and artistic. If you are interested in Chinese culture or learning Chinese, have a try at drawing characters. It will either scare you away from learning Chinese or inspire you to become a Chinese expert.

Written by Chen Song.

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