A dialect or rather a language. Of course, Mandarin is the most popular one. But nonetheless, in Hong Kong, for instance, Cantonese is more popular, it's almost the one Chinese language there and people don't speak Mandarin (at all?).

There are other ones. And now I'm confused and can't start because I hesitate whether the language I want to learn will be useful and understood by Chinese people in many situations and countries.

  • You already know Mandarin is the most popular one and Cantonese is very likely the second, then what are you asking for?
    – NS.X.
    Jul 3, 2013 at 2:22
  • 1
    I think a language is rewarding if you can speak it with other people. Who might you be speaking this with? If you're living in Taiwan, then Taiwanese Min could be fun and rewarding to learn. In HK or Guangdong, Cantonese. In Shanghai, Shanghainese. In Italy, Wenzhounese (lol). Jul 3, 2013 at 2:23
  • Cantonese is not very likely the second Jul 3, 2013 at 2:23
  • @Stan, that's exactly what I'm asking about. If a Chinese person don't speak Mandarin in a daily life, will they be able to understand Mandarin as well? Jul 3, 2013 at 2:56
  • 1
    @MariusKavansky it depends on who you will meet and how well you expect they can understand. In places like schools, McDonald's, international companies, government offices, English would be well accepted. It seems impracticable to communicate with every local people freely in English, though more or less they can understand some as Hong Kong was once a British colony.
    – Stan
    Jul 3, 2013 at 4:33

2 Answers 2


Hope this will help:

From a % speakers/opportunity to practice perspective:

In the world, 12.44% of the total population speaks Mandarin (obviously heavily skewed by China's massive population, but still 12.44% nonetheless), compared to 4.83% native English speakers, and a measly .89% Cantonese speakers. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_languages_by_number_of_native_speakers)

In China, more than half of the population of 1.4 billion (53%) speaks Mandarin. And 66% of city residents speak Mandarin.

In Taiwan, heavy majority Mandarin speakers (don't have %), some Hakka, some Taiwanese, and virtually no Cantonese presence.

In typically majority-Cantonese population provinces:

  • Guang Zhou: percent of Cantonese speakers has dropped below 50%, and Mandarin is on the rise.

  • In Hong Kong, majority of residents speak English and Cantonese, and many understand Mandarin.

From a learning perspective:

  • Mandarin Chinese has 4 tones
  • Cantonese has 6 tones

It's generally much easier for students to learn Mandarin over Cantonese.

From a future perspective:

  • The Chinese government is trying to sell Mandarin as the basis for other dialects, and uses that in most government jobs and mandates it as a base language in schools. That being said, you'll most likely find Mandarin to overwhelmingly overtake Cantonese soon. (http://yolearnchinese.com/archives/mandarin-or-cantonese)

So it depends on your goals...

If you know you want to work, live or study in Hong Kong, then learn Cantonese... But if your goal is to learn a language that you'll have many opportunities to use worldwide/in the business world, then Mandarin is the language to learn.

  • I'm going to live in Hong Kong and at the same time I don't want and have no capacity to learn 2 Chinese languages. So it's not clear yet. Jul 3, 2013 at 3:58
  • Marius, if I've answered your question please consider accepting
    – user3871
    Jul 3, 2013 at 12:17
  • sorry, not yet. Jul 3, 2013 at 12:46
  • Cantonese has 6 tones. I don't know where you get the "majority of residents speak English" part but it's widely optimistic. English fluency is probably at its lowest. It's definitely much worse today than 20 years ago.
    – dda
    Sep 7, 2013 at 13:02
  • My mistake on the tones- not sure where "9" came from. As far as English presence in Hong Kong- en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Languages_of_Hong_Kong suggests that English is widely use in the workplace. Other sites, uk.answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20100109082312AAvroFh suggest that you can communicate easily in English. Where are your sources from?
    – user3871
    Sep 7, 2013 at 15:07

I can only speak from my experience.

But I suggest

  1. If you are going to live in Hong Kong for a long time, learn Cantonese

  2. Otherwise learn Mandarin

I started learning Mandarin back in the UK, but ended up living in Hong Kong for 3.5 years.

Through hard work my Mandarin has improved, but Hong Kong is not a good place to learn Mandarin.

A few reasons why this is the case;

  • Hong Kong mandarin isn't native - you will learn a few cantonese pronunciation and vocabulary bad habits
  • Language lessons are very expensive, and largely focused at business people
  • Cantonese is much better if you want to fit in socially

Of all the other places I've spent time (Shenzhen, Shanghai, Taiwan, Singapore) unquestionably Mandarin is the right language to learn. But you should probably learn a little bit of the local dialect (Shanghainese in particular will open a few more doors)

If you plan to stay in Hong Kong for just a short time (a year or so) then I'd also say Mandarin is the right way to go.

Depends on your life plans.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.