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Localizing in China: Mandarin vs Cantonese

With a population of nearly 1.4 billion, localizing for the Chinese market is a priority for many global brands. However, in a country of this size, it should come as no surprise that there is no single language that covers the whole country. 

In fact, there are around 300 living languages in China spread across 56 ethnic groups. Thankfully, no one is suggesting you localize into all of them.

Let’s get started with a discussion of the two biggest: Mandarin and Cantonese.

What is Mandarin?

Mandarin is the most widely spoken language in mainland China and is what most people refer to when talking about the “Chinese” language. It is, for example, the Chinese language that is used at the United Nations.

It’s the main official language in mainland China and Taiwan so other regions that don’t speak Mandarin as their first language are taught it and expected to understand it. In fact, the word Mandarin in Chinese is “Pǔtōnghuà” which means “common language”.

With a standardized version based on the dialect used in Beijing, Mandarin is a lingua franca that is taught and used (sometimes as a second language) across all parts of China. This version is also referred to as Standard Chinese, Modern Standard Mandarin, Standard Mandarin, Mandarin Chinese and (of course) Mandarin.

It is estimated that it is spoken as the native language by about 900 million people, some 70% of the Chinese population. It is the language spoken in Beijing and Shanghai, as well as in Taiwan and Singapore. Many other people in regions which don’t use it as a first language speak and understand it as a second language.

The writing system most commonly used for Mandarin is Simplified Chinese. For example, while Mandarin is the official language spoken by the large majority in Taiwan, most people use the traditional Chinese writing system.

What is Cantonese?

Cantonese (known as Yue) is the main language in Hong Kong, Macau and the Guangdong province (including its capital Guangzhou, the third-largest city in China, formerly known as Canton).

It is spoken by 60 million people in the country according to the state-run China Daily and also by a large of number of Chinese communities in Singapore, Malaysia and in Western cities such as London and San Francisco (although Mandarin is also spoken in these communities).

Cantonese is most commonly written using traditional Chinese symbols. People who speak Mandarin and Cantonese can often understand written texts in both languages, but they are not mutually intelligible to each other when conversing because of the differences in pronunciation and grammar.

What are the other Chinese languages?

As mentioned earlier, there are around 300 minority languages in use across China, a number which reflects the size, diversity and history of this vast country. 

The largest of these – sometimes referred to as dialects and sometimes as languages – are as follows:

  • Gan: spoken in Western parts of China, including the Jiangxi province
  • Hakka: spoken by people across different regions including Jiangzi, Guizhou, Guandong, Hong Kong and Taiwan
  • Min: used by speakers in the Fujian province
  • Wu: spoken in Shanghai and around the Yangtze river delta area
  • Xiang: used in the Hunan province

How do I localize for the Chinese market?

As can be inferred from the above, a “one-size-fits-all approach” is not always the best way to localize for the Chinese market. 

To reach the largest audience, localizing into Mandarin using Simplified Chinese script is the most obvious option. If brands want to connect with consumers in Hong Kong and Guandong province, however, localizing into Cantonese using traditional Chinese script is the most audience-focused approach. In Hong Kong specifically, professional localization service providers will often advise on using a wide variety of English terms that are in common usage within this former British colony. In Taiwan, most consumers engage better with content in Mandarin which is written using Traditional Chinese script.

The best advice? Talk to a professional localization service provider with experience in this diverse market about your specific needs and objectives. If you’re keen to talk to us about an upcoming project, email us