"Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall." – Confucius
More and more South Africans are looking at how they can compete on an international level. Learning Chinese is a popular way to improve employment prospects, tap into international opportunities and to become a better world traveller.
With stellar recorded economic growth, increasing international ties with South Africa and a rich, diverse culture, it is no surprise that ambitious businesses and curious South Africans start to look more towards China for their opportunities of growth.
In 2019 the South African Department of Education, under the sponsorship and aid of the Chinese Government, started the implementation of optional Chinese lessons in over 100 public Schools. Their aim is not only to improve international relations, but they know just how much an understanding of language can influence the appreciation people have for different cultures.
Learning Mandarin can most certainly bring you leaps and bounds closer to grasping an understanding of the beautiful Chinese culture. The easiest route for most beginner level students is to do a course in Mandarin Chinese, but did you know that an estimated 30% of the Chinese population cannot speak Mandarin?
Standard Chinese, also called Putonghua or Mandarin, is known as the official language of China. It is spoken by 400 million in the People’s Republic of China and the oldest known written language in the world, all pointing to the country’s rich culture and diverse history.
Chinese is, however, not a singular language, but a family of 13 official languages. With over 300 different dialects from different regions, it gives us a glimpse of how tricky it can be to select the best Chinese language to learn.
Spoken in 13 countries, Cantonese is the second most spoken Chinese language. Let’s learn about the Cantonese language, its dialects and why we think it is the perfect language for students who want to prosper in Hong Kong and Chinese cultural studies.
A Basic Introduction to Cantonese
Also known as Yue Chinese, Cantonese originated from Canton in the Guangdong province of mainland China. Guangzhou, a port city in the Pearl river delta, sits in the South-eastern region where Cantonese continues to flourish until today. But this is not the only place where Cantonese speaking people use their language as an expression of cultural identity.
Together with English, Cantonese enjoys official status in Hong Kong where its used in courts, official government business and schooling. It is the most spoken language in Hong Kong and people enjoy their own media and newspapers as an expression of their freedom of speech.
Cantonese is also the official dominant language in Macau and is widely spoken in a number of countries across Southeast Asia. The Cantonese Chinese spoken in these regions are similar to the originated Guangzhou language, but with differences in accent, vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation, they created three unique dialects in Hong Kong, Macau and Guangzhou.
Developed during the Tang Dynasty, Cantonese has been around for a millennium and speakers will argue its richer than the young 100-year-old Mandarin language.
The Difference Between Speaking Cantonese and Mandarin
Cantonese might have some similar words to Mandarin, but it’s actually a completely different language with its own sounds, grammar and history. Cantonese makes use of the same symbolic writing that uses traditional Chinese characters, but even though its written vocabulary appears to be closely related to Mandarin, it differs completely when it comes to the spoken word.
Just like Mandarin, Cantonese uses traditional Chinese written symbols, but once pronounced these same words sound completely different. This makes it possible for Mandarin learners to read and understand basic Cantonese. Cantonese does however have different sentence structures and verb placements, making it slightly unintelligible for most Mandarin speakers who purely go on sound and tones.
Learners will also notice how the written system of Mandarin is much easier than that of Cantonese. Chinese characters appear more simplified against Cantonese characters and even though the written form of both these enjoy the ability to directly record sounds, there are very few native speakers who know all the words from both these languages.
Cantonese is thus a bit more challenging than Mandarin Chinese to learn due to its multiple tones. Don't be discouraged, with the right course content, a dose of dedication and a good Cantonese teacher you will be speaking Cantonese in a couple of months. You will also discover the different Cantonese spoken dialects, familiar and spoken by people in the following regions:
- Yuehai (Guangzhou City)
- Siyi (Taishan city)
- Gaoyng (Yangjiang city)
- Guinan (Nanning City)
Which Chinese language would you say is the best to learn for you?
Establishing the region where you plan to work in or travel to can answer your questions around the best Chinese language to start with. Mandarin is an obvious step closer to really understanding Chinese and if you want to travel or settle in the Fujian Province, learning min Chinese also be a good option. If you plan to spend a significant amount of time in Shanghai, then we recommend you try and learn the Wu dialect.
Learning Cantonese Tones
Cantonese speakers use different tones to bring meaning to words by emphasising syllables and creating different sounds. A word with the same spelling can thus sound completely different in Mandarin and Cantonese.
A speaker must get the tone right to ensure the word they pronounce have the meaning they intend in Cantonese, which is a bit tricky at first. Cantonese also have up to nine different tones where standard Mandarin only have 4 tones.
One of the sounds often confused by speaking beginners is the difference between the Cantonese pronunciation of ‘ch’ in English and the ‘ts’ in Mandarin where some foreigners find it especially hard to distinguish these two from each other. This is normal when people learn a new language and as you can imagine, a Cantonese person will not really understand what you are trying to say if you pronounce the sound in the way of the mandarin ‘ts’.
Cantonese has fewer initial consonants than standard Chinese and almost double the number of syllables. Cantonese also has a lot more syllables ending with a consonant, and you will notice more differences as you become more familiar with both these languages.
The Chinese developed the Pinyin system where Chinese characters and transcriptions are translated into the western alphabet and sounds, making it easier for the western world to learn and interpret the language. The Pinyin writing system is widely used, especially to aid those learning Mandarin, the language spoken most on the mainland of China.
Cantonese Learning and Finding a Good Cantonese Teacher
Learning a new language has been proven to improve memory, aid decision-making, improve problem solving capabilities and improve people’s linguistic skills is their own language.
But one of the most exciting benefits is the opportunity to truly discover and delve into the Chinese culture. Different regions have different cultural and ethnical traits and in learning Cantonese you’ll become familiar with the language that’s representative of Hong Kong and cities in the Guangdong region.
This is ideal if you plan to work or live in Hong Kong or Guangzhou and it’ll be easier to socialise, negotiate and converse with natives in their own language. There’s nothing like the smile and appreciation of a local when you address and converse with them in their native language, something we are all too familiar with in South Africa.
Your additional linguistic skills will also be a positive contribution if you are seeking employment as most employers site that they appreciate and prefer applicants who can speak more than one language, especially those organisations who trade with China.
You can find an online course to help you learn Mandarin Chinese or Cantonese, but as mentioned in this article, the pronunciation is the tricky part and there’s nothing like good old verbal practice to ensure you get those tones and verbal nuances right. Getting your own private tutor will ensure you get all the hands-on attention and practice you require.
You will also learn to read and write traditional Chinese, contribute to conversational lessons and tweak the tonal aspects around the Cantonese language. This will not only help you to say words correctly, but you’ll also get to improve your vocabulary of the Chinese language and learn about common expressions and phrases.
Learning a new second language might take a long time, patience and loads of practice. Your private Superprof tutor can continue to teach and support you in your journey while you continue to learn Cantonese right here in South Africa. Our tutors are ready to give you online classes and if you live in one of the major cities you might be able to organise face-to-face lessons with one of our affordable and qualified Superprof tutors.
With 13 official Chinese languages and 300 dialects, you’ll just have to decide whether you learn the globally popular Standard Mandarin, Wu Chinese, Min Chinese, Xiang, Hakka or Cantonese?
Find your tutor today and learn the language that will help you travel, work and make friends in one of the most popular regions in China.
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