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When reading a book or a newspaper, what language do Cantonese people read in? Do they read in mandarin or Cantonese? Or do they subconsciously translate it into colloquial Cantonese since most words have a direct facsimile from mandarin? Also how do less literate people handle understanding Cantonese songs, which is sung in standard Chinese using Cantonese words? Finally, how do Cantonese schoolchildren learn in school?

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When reading a book or a newspaper, what language do Cantonese people read in? Do they read in mandarin or Cantonese?

In Cantonese, of course.

Cantonese and Mandarin are not mutually intelligible, mainly due to a difference in their phonology. They share the same written language but each has its own set of pronunciation of the characters.

Or do they subconsciously translate it into colloquial Cantonese since most words have a direct facsimile from mandarin?

Cantonese can be written verbatim, but many of the characters are not regularly used. Instead, a non-verbatim formalized written form (same as Mandarin written form) is adopted. When a Cantonese speaker reads aloud a piece of writing, s/he uses Cantonese pronunciation. You, as the listener, will be able to tell that s/he is reading from a text, and not speaking colloquially.

Also how do less literate people handle understanding Cantonese songs, which is sung in standard Chinese using Cantonese words?

It is actually not that difficult, since most of the content words are the same, whether spoken or written. The words that are different from the spoken form are mostly function words.

Finally, how do Cantonese school children learn in school?

Cantonese school children learn in Cantonese. When they learn to read and write, they learn the standard Cantonese pronunciation of the written characters.

I have included a link here if you are interested in reading more about the Cantonese language. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cantonese

You can also google "History of the Cantonese language" for more information.

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  • I think the answers to the last two questions are objectionable. I am a well-educated non-Cantonese-speaking Chinese, who has great difficulty understanding Cantonese conservation or singing. Does China allow teaching using a language other than Mandarin?
    – r13
    Commented Apr 21, 2022 at 2:49
  • @r13 Please define "objectionable" Do you mean "wrong"? Commented Apr 21, 2022 at 3:01
  • @WayneCheah Objectionable 1) Causing disapproval or protest. 2) Liable to objection or debate; used of something one might take exception to. Whichever definition you feel fits my line of writing. Please correct me if I was wrong.
    – r13
    Commented Apr 21, 2022 at 3:31
  • @r13 Answer to the last question is drawn from my own, and the experience of millions of Cantonese speaking school children in Hong Kong, Macau, and possibly in other places, over decades. The OP isn't asking about the school system of the PRC per se.
    – monalisa
    Commented Apr 21, 2022 at 3:44
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    @r13 And the question about less literate people and Cantonese songs, well, my understanding is that the OP wants to know how Cantonese speakers who are not literate handle song lyrics which is often is more formal, written style language. I don't think it has anything to do with non-Cantonese speakers at all.
    – monalisa
    Commented Apr 21, 2022 at 3:48
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I think it is important to separate the written languages and spoken languages here. The Latin alphabet, for example, is used by many spoken European languages, yet almost nobody nowadays would say "I speak Latin" because the written language is simply a writing system with a fossilized name from its roots. The same can be said about the Chinese writing system, especially in older times. For example, 身体 means "body" in both Japanese and Chinese, yet Japanese people would only read it with their specific pronunciation ("shin tai") and Chinese people would use theirs ("shen ti").

A more complicated example is how this sentence is written in Chinese to mean "My name is Shawn.":

我叫肖恩。

And this sentence in Japanese meaning the same thing:

私はショーンです。

Both technically have Chinese characters in the sentence, but you can see the differences become more extreme. With Cantonese, you typically don't have as dramatic of differences given they don't have syllabaries like Japanese, but consider this example for "what is this?" in Mandarin:

這個是什麽? (sounds like: "zhe ge shi shen me")

And in Cantonese:

呢個係咩? (sounds like: "li go hai me")

The pronunciations and characters differ radically despite the sentence meaning essentially the same thing.

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  • Just a small point about songs, which being poetry, essentially has to rhyme. And even though the words used in a Mandarin or Cantonese song maybe the same in its written form, the pronunciation in each case is totally different, and thus different words needed to be selected for the poetic words of the song to rhyme. So, a fluent speaker / reader of Mandarin, Cantonese or even Hokkien could tell quite easily whether a song is a Mandarin, a Cantonese or a Hokkien song just by looking at the words. Commented May 31 at 11:04
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When you say Cantonese/Madarin, it's more about the verbal spoken languages

When you say Traditional/Simplified Chinese, it's definitely about the writing system.

Written Traditional/Simplified Chinese can be read out in Cantonese, Mandarin, Hakka or other forms of verbal Chinese languages. The regime called them 'dialect' which is debatable.

'Chinese' is essentially a family of languages, plural. Madarin speakers is the majority and probably Cantonese speakers comes to the second largest group.

Cantonese can be written in 漢字 in a way that Mandarin speakers find very difficult or inconvenient to understand, colloquially. But typical educated Cantonese speakers can also write formal Traditional/Simplified Chinese that Mandarin speakers understand with no problem.

So, as a Cantonese speaker, I pronounce written Chinese in Cantonese. Many Cantonese pop music has lyrics written in formal Chinese, Mandarin speakers will find reading them easily but may not be able to listen the words being sung. Older form of Cantonese drama are spelled in Cantonese which Mandarin speakers will have difficulty in reading the script. In the schools in Hong Kong, actually we are taught in Cantonese as a medium of instructions, but the Chinese language lesson teaches Traditional Chinese writing, using Cantonese.

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