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What is the difference between Chinese and Mandarin? Here’s your answer!

September 22, 2022
Renán L. CuervoRenán L. Cuervo

Chinese vs. Mandarin: are they separate or the same thing? We get these questions often, so this article will tell you, once and for all, the difference between Chinese and Mandarin.

Chinese vs. Mandarin: The fundamental distinction

First, Chinese, or Sintic, is a branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family. This family is made up of hundreds of mutually unintelligible languages or dialects. Mandarin is one of the 7 main groups of these dialects. 

The main 7 groups under the “Chinese” umbrella include Northern Dialect, Cantonese, Hakka, Wu, Min, Xiang, and Gan. Mandarin stems from the Northern dialect and is the most widely spoken of the 7. 

Mandarin is called 普通话 (pǔ tōng huà in Pinyin), which translates as “the common tongue”, is the official language in China. It’s taught in all schools in the country, and most people speak it as their first or second language. For this reason, Mandarin is known as Standard Chinese.

The Mandarin taught and spoken in Mainland China is based on the Beijing dialect, considered the standard accent. This is important because Mandarin accents vary per region. 

Nowadays, Mandarin has developed with a mix of Northern, Southern, classical grammar, and usage, and reflects a more proper pronunciation of Chinese.

Chinese vs. Mandarin in numbers

Naturally, Chinese as a linguistic branch of different dialects is spoken more globally. Well over 1 billion people speak Chinese natively. Additionally, because of the Chinese diaspora, speakers can be found worldwide, with large communities based in the US, UK, and Australia. 

On the other hand, Mandarin is generally used in the Northern and Southwestern regions. Besides its significance in China, Mandarin is also the official language of Taiwan and Singapore. Lastly, close to 930 million individuals speak Mandarin natively.

 

Two sign in traditional Chinese

Japanese Kanji is based on Traditional Chinese characters
Photo by Evelyn Chai from Pixabay 


Traditional vs. Simplified Chinese characters

You can learn Mandarin in both Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese. The former involves characters from the latter with significantly fewer strokes. The Chinese government created the Simplified system as a way to standardize Chinese and encourage literacy. 

For example, “love” in Traditional Chinese is written as (ài). On the other hand, it’s written as (ài) in Simplified Chinese. While the pronunciation remains unchanged, the latter contains fewer strokes. 

Mainland China and Singapore use Simplified Chinese. Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau use the Traditional system.


What about the difference between Cantonese and Mandarin?

Cantonese and Mandarin are 2 of 7 main dialect groups of Chinese we’ve mentioned. Cantonese, or Yue, is the second most spoken of these forms, boasting 84 million native speakers. 

It is widely spoken in Hong Kong, where it’s the preferred language along with English. It’s also largely used in parts of Southeast China and Macau.

Because most Chinese people speak Mandarin, someone from Hong Kong will most likely understand Mandarin with no problem. However, Mandarin and Cantonese are mutually unintelligible due to phonological, grammatical, and vocabulary differences. 

For instance, one of the main differences has to do with the number of tones both dialects have. Mandarin has 4 key tones, Cantonese uses 9.

Below are a few common words and phrases in Cantonese and Mandarin. They’re illustrated in Chinese characters and Pinyin – the official romanization system for Standard Mandarin Chinese in Mainland China:

 

WordMandarinCantonese
Hello你好 (nǐ hǎo)你好 (Néih hóu)
Thank you谢谢 (xiè xie)多謝 (dō jeh)
How are you?你好吗? (nǐ hǎo ma?)你好嗎? (Néih hóu ma?)
My name is我叫 (wǒ jiào)我叫做 (ngóh giǔ jouh)

 

How to learn Chinese Mandarin

Mandarin is infamously difficult for native English speakers. However, as with any other language, the right tools and methods can make it easier.

For top proven tips on how to master Mandarin, check out our How To Learn Chinese guide. 

If you’re looking to reach fluency in the language, Fluent Forever uses a proven 4-step method to teach you Mandarin in the fastest way possible. Using the Fluent Forever app, you can learn Mandarin pronunciation, key vocabulary, and grammar through effective flashcards and personalized review sessions.

Then, in our Live Coaching program, you pair up with a native Mandarin speaker trained in our teaching method. Through personalized sessions based on your interests and fluency goals, your coach will get you to speak Mandarin in no time! 

Download the app and sign up for Live Coaching to get started. 

That’s it for today! Until next time, folks!

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