Mandarin Vs. Cantonese Fact Sheet For Accent Instructors

Feb 05, 2020

If you are are an Accent Instructor or English Pronunciation teacher living or working in The United States, chances are that a big portion of your students or clients will be native speakers of Chinese, specifically the Mandarin and Cantonese dialects.

There are many dialects of the Chinese language, but at this point in time, the majority of native Chinese speakers living in the United States speak either Mandarin or Cantonese as their first language.

Now, these two dialects are so different that speakers often don't understand each other, even though they are both speaking Chinese! 

So, if you are working with (or plan to work with) students or clients who speak Chinese and want to help them improve their American accent or English pronunciation, it's important to know the major differences of these two dialects.

Here are the major differences to know:

  • Mandarin and Cantonese are both dialects of Chinese, not different languages.
  • Mandarin is the majority Chinese dialect in China, spoken by about 65% of the population.  Cantonese is just one of many minority dialects and is spoken by about 5% of the population.
  • Mandarin is the official language of Mainland China and Taiwan.
  • People in Hong Kong speak Cantonese.
  • The majority of Chinese speakers in America speak Cantonese but this is changing over time.
  • Mandarin and Cantonese are both tonal languages (different tones give different meanings to the same word.) Mandarin has 4 tones per sound and Cantonese has 6-9 tones depending on who you ask.

In English, intonation or a change in pitch or tone is used to indicate meaning, emotion, intention, whether a speaker is using a statement, a question, a list, and other cues.  For example, changing the intonation of the word "What" can change your intention or convey a different emotion (think angry, annoyed, happy, asking a question) Also, intonation is the choice of the speaker. 

In Chinese, however, a change in tone can change a word into a completely different vocabulary word, even though the actual sounds of the word are the same.  Tones in Chinese are rules of the language, not choices made by the speaker.

TEACHING TIP:  Explaining the difference between intonation in English and tones in Chinese to a native Chinese speaker is a great way to begin your sessions together, and can be very helpful when learning American rhythm and intonation, and also when working on American vowel sounds.

Want a downloadable PDF of this Fact Sheet?  Click here:

This Fact Sheet is an excerpt taken from my Lesson Plan for Native Chinese Speakers and is available as part of my online Teacher Training Program, Getting Started As An Accent Instructor.  If you are interested in getting a copy of my full Accent and Pronunciation Training Lesson Plans for common native languages AND want to learn how to teach all the sounds and concepts of the lesson plans, consider joining me in the program when enrollment is open. 

Click here for more information about the Teacher Training Program.


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