Spoken Cantonese vs Written Chinese??

The written and spoken Cantonese divide can be a very confusing at first for new learners of Cantonese. Especially if you aren't aware of why it exists, or even aware it exists at all.

When I started learning Cantonese I had no idea what the difference between written Chinese and spoken Cantonese is.

All I knew is that when I started speaking with my tutor on italki, all I would hear is, "no, not that! That's the written form, you want to say it like this!"

Then I change to the new word, completely confused as to why I was wrong. Why would you write differently to how you speak? I mean surely the written and spoken language is the same right?

Not quite.

And when I eventually accepted that there was a divide between the Spoken and Written language, I still didn't understand why.

And the whole thing just bewildered me.

It wasn't until I understood the reasons behind why, that things finally started to become clear.

What is spoken Cantonese and written Chinese?

So as you might have guessed, the spoken language is how people actually speak from day to day. If you watch a movie, listen to the radio, or hear your friends speaking, this will be in Spoken Cantonese.

Written Chinese refers to the way things are written down. If you read a book, a newspaper, see subtitles on the TV, this will all be in written Chinese, which is different from the spoken form.

So why are they different?

Chinese isn't just one language, in fact in China today there are over 300 different dialects.

Although Mandarin is the national language, hundreds of dialects still exist and are used in daily life. And it isn't uncommon for people in the rural parts of China, or in the older generation especially, to not be able to speak Mandarin at all.

Because of the disparity with languages in China, a common writing system was made as a means of communication for people between dialects.

This is known as standard written Chinese, and is based on the national language, Mandarin.

So this means that when you read a book or newspaper in Cantonese, you are reading the standard written form with Cantonese pronunciation.

If you then speak with the written form, you are in essence speaking Mandarin but with the Cantonese pronunciation of the characters.

The end result is it sounding very odd to native speakers.


How do I avoid mixing up the two?


Now that you know about the difference between spoken Cantonese and written Chinese, you might be thinking to yourself, how to avoid mixing them up?

The main problem this causes is when you look things up in an online dictionary, most of the time the spoken and written form are both listed, and not clearly labelled which is which.

So if you look up and try to use a word, you could end up choosing the wrong one and using the written form instead.

So how do we avoid this?

Firstly, when we start off learning we want to take as much as we can from context. Work through books and courses full of dialogues and listen to them many times.

Try to avoid big vocabulary lists with no context. The vocab lists on Cantoneseclass101 always mix up the spoken and written forms, so even though the dialogues and resources in general are great for beginners, steer well clear of the vocabulary lists.

If you get your vocabulary from context as part of a conversation, you can't go wrong!

Of course, there will be various things you want to learn how to say that won't be in your textbook, so what then?

The best thing to do is find a speaking partner on italki, or get one of your friends to help you. When you have something you want to say, just look up the word and pick one.

If you get the wrong one it's not the end of the world, they will still understand what you mean, and then they can point you in the right direction after.

In fact, this is a very normal problem for beginner learners of Cantonese and nothing to worry about. Keep listening to dialogues in context and practice with people regularly, and you should have no problem at all building up your vocabulary and keeping the two distinct.


Can spoken Cantonese be written down as well?

So if Cantonese is usually written as standard Chinese, does that mean that what is actually said is never written down?

Of course it is! Actual spoken Cantonese is written down more than you think. Check out my Cantonese resources page here!

There are learners books, magazines, comic books, youtube channels with Cantonese subtitles, and even some books published on HK golden!

Not to mention if you text with native speakers, they will use Spoken Cantonese. And this is an incredibly useful way to pick up new phrases and colloquialisms that might be too fast to catch in the speed of full conversation.


Should I learn the written language at all?


This very much depends on what your goals are. If your goal is to be a fully functioning Cantonese native, then you need to learn the written form as well.

All "serious" literature is in standard written Chinese, as are newspapers, materials for school, signs and much more.

However, if your main goal is to speak, and speak well. Then there is no need.

By focusing on the spoken form you can read books and comics, as well as text with your friends, and take the new words and phrases and use them to improve your speaking.




This is a very confusing topic at first but as soon as you get your head around why this duality exists, then everything becomes much easier to understand.

If you are first starting out, I highly recommend ignoring the written language and solely focusing on the spoken one.

If you try to learn both too early, this will most likely result in mixing them up and becoming frustrated further down the line.

If on the other hand you start with the spoken language first, once you have a good enough grounding in the spoken form you can move over to written. This way you should have no trouble keeping the two apart.

Did this confuse you when you first started to learn Cantonese? What else would you like me to cover? Let me know in the comments!