Cantonese

Cantonese, or Standard Cantonese (廣東話, 广东话; originally known as 廣州話, 广州话), is the second major Chinese language, dialect of Yue Chinese originated in the vicinity of Canton in southern China, although it is considered by some scholars as a separate language, due to big differences with the other four major Chinese languages.

South China

Region where Cantonese is spoken

In English, the term “Cantonese” is ambiguous. Cantonese proper is the variety native to the city of Canton, which is the traditional English name of Guangzhou. This narrow sense may be specified as “Canton language” or “Guangzhou language” in English.

The official languages of Hong Kong are Chinese and English, as defined in the Hong Kong Basic Law. The Chinese language has five major (and many other) different varieties, of which Cantonese is the second most used. Given the traditional predominance of Cantonese within Hong Kong, it is the de facto official spoken form of the Chinese language used in the Hong Kong Government and all courts and tribunals. It is also used as the medium of instruction in schools, alongside English.

A similar situation also exists in neighboring Macau, where Chinese is an official language along with Portuguese. As in Hong Kong, Cantonese is the predominant spoken variety of Chinese used in everyday life and is thus, the official form of Chinese used in the government.

Cantonese is also distinguished from modern standard Chinese because it has far fewer consonant sounds at the start of words than the standard Chinese language. Another key trait of the Cantonese dialect is its use of tones to distinguish between words that are similar in their arrangement of consonant and vowel sounds, and would – without tonal distinction – sound identical. While the modern standard Chinese language has only four tones, the Cantonese dialect has at least six (used to teach to non-chinese speakers), although in reality the total number of them is nine.

In addition to the more than 55 million speakers in China, Cantonese is also spoken throughout South-East Asia in Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam. It is also the dominant Chinese language in overseas Chinese communities in United States, Canada, Australia and elsewhere, due to the migration of Chinese people from Hong Kong and Guangdong area. Therefore there are an estimated 20 million additional Cantonese speakers around the world.

For foreigners living in the southern area of China, a basic knowledge of Cantonese can be very useful, as in some very local areas communication in English can be challenging.

Find out more in our Cantonese classes and book a trial lesson!