Cantonese vs Mandarin Scripts Look the Same but Sound So Different!

Cantonese vs. Mandarin scripts Chinese lanternsIt happens all the time. A client will come to us with a burning need for some international voiceover recordings. They might need Spanish voice recordings for Spain, or French recordings for France, and all that is easy enough. But oftentimes when a customer comes to us with a need for recordings (and possibly voice translations) for China, they will ask for “Chinese”. But the Chinese language is a bit more complicated than that, as there are major differences between Cantonese vs Mandarin scripts.

To look at a Cantonese or a Mandarin script, you might be confused as to why there is such a difference. The characters are functionally identical to one another, whether you are looking at a Cantonese script or a Mandarin one. But it is in the reading of those characters, in the specific dialects used to shape those characters, that Cantonese and Mandarin are wildly different from one another.

Mandarin is the official language of China. It is the main spoken dialect of the larger cities, including Beijing, and is the primary dialect of northern and central China. In addition, Mandarin is the primary dialect of Taiwan. However, “Taiwanese Mandarin” is its own distinct dialect and requires a different voice talent than standard, “neutral” Mandarin.

Cantonese is a minority dialect, but this is where things get interesting. The vast majority of speakers in China utilize Mandarin over Cantonese, with an estimated 933 million Mandarin speakers rather than 63 million Cantonese speakers.


But! This is where things get a little more complicated/more interesting! You see, Cantonese is the primary dialect of southeast China, including the Guangdong Province. The Guangdong Province accounts for a disproportionally large percentage of the Chinese population that went to live abroad, and so even though Cantonese is the minority language in China itself, it is the primary language of the Chinese diaspora. Meaning that if you are encountering the Chinese language somewhere other than China, the dialect you are most likely hearing is actually Cantonese.

As one example, Cantonese is the primary dialect in Hong Kong. You will find that whilst most people, and businesses, in Hong Kong are fluent in Mandarin, the preferred dialect is Cantonese and using Mandarin in casual conversation might earn you some dirty looks.

So what does all this mean for you as you construct your on hold messages or IVR prompts? It means that you should approach the script for a new voice message by asking yourself who is your intended audience, and how can you best communicate with them? Ask yourself how and where these recordings will be deployed, and then tailor the messages to reflect that need.

Determining whether you need Cantonese vs. Mandarin scripts is just one part of the process for creating messaging intended for a global audience. Marketing Messages offers voice talents in both dialects, so be sure to take a peek at our library of available voices.