Cantonese teachers influenced by Mandarin

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[This is a guest post by Silas S. Brown]

It seems a few native Cantonese speakers employed in the production of Cantonese language courses are quite happy to read out Mandarin vocabulary with Cantonese pronunciation, rather than the actual native Cantonese versions of the words, and I can't help wondering why.

Recent example of many: – for example their "vocabulary builder" recordings, such as the recent one on face-related nouns.  I have been unable to get a response from them about why, for example, they pronounced the Cantonese word for "ear" as yi5doh2 (from 耳朵) instead of yi5jai2 (from 耳仔) among several other "Mandarin-isms".

My Cantonese wife was keen to correct these mistakes, but was unable to suggest a possible reason why they got past the native Cantonese speaker involved in the recording.  There might have been non-native speakers on the production team, but surely the actual recording artist who presents herself as "Nicole" would notice?

Assuming that Nicole and others who do this are (1) real native speakers and (2) not under pressure to rush through their recording jobs without asking questions, the only possible reasons I can think of for their failing to pick up on this are (a) Cantonese people are used to reading written Mandarin, and the act of working from a script can somehow flip them into a special "reading written text" mode instead of "normal spoken Cantonese" mode, and they won't alter the Mandarin-isms while in "reading mode", or (2) the people involved in this kind of work think that foreigners somehow "need" to learn the Mandarin-inspired version of their language, instead of actual Cantonese (this is the old language-teaching fallacy of trying to teach someone to read before they can speak).

Surprisingly, I have been unable to find any negative reviews of the content presented by
Either they have a very good reputation management system, or I'm the only person who's tried their material in the presence of a real Cantonese speaker (or perhaps the world is full of Cantonese speakers who think learners need a Mandarinized version of their language—and/or don't care about learners—and therefore don't say anything).

Once again, cantoneseclass101 are not the only ones to do this.  This is just the latest one to come to our attention, and we're mentioning them only as an example.

The (online-only, non-downloadable) dictionary at gives both Mandarin and Cantonese readings for both 耳朵 and 耳仔, but it clearly marks 耳朵 as Mandarin-only and 耳仔 as Cantonese-only.  On the other hand, it wasn't quite so helpful distinguishing its words for "cheek".

耳仔 is currently in the English Wiktionary but not the Chinese Wiktionary, and not CC-CEDICT, Pristine, Yahoo Dictionary and other services listed on Wenlin web links.  It's a pity that Mandarin-oriented Chinese dictionaries don't include more Cantonese-derived words (marked as Cantonese of course), especially from the point of view of 'word segmentation'—you need data on
what combinations of characters make words regardless of topolect if you want software to segment written text that could have been influenced by any topolect.

It would be interesting to see what the forthcoming ABC Cantonese-English dictionary's take is.  If it manages to steer clear of (or clearly mark) the Mandarin-isms that creep into other sources, that would be a valuable selling point.

Meanwhile, I think we have a warning for anybody involved in employing native Cantonese speakers to record audio: they might not see the need to point out any 'Mandarin-isms' in the script unless you specifically ask them to do so (but if we do then we might have to beware the possibility of over-correction).

We also have a cause for concern in text segmentation: it might be necessary to merge dictionaries from different topolects if we don't know where the source text came from (writing in "real Cantonese" seems to be getting a little more popular than it used to, although it's still on the fringe).


  1. F. said,

    January 9, 2017 @ 9:06 pm

    Cantonese is a very unique dialect, it is a dialect that has a vast difference between the vocabulary we use orally and in written (as Im sure your wife must have already explained to you), unlike most languages which what you say can be what is written down.

    And that is the difference between 耳朵&耳仔. Basically, 耳朵 is the vocabulary we use when we write a text or an article, and 耳仔 we use it when we speak. Therefore we actually use both of these two words.

  2. Timothy Friese said,

    January 9, 2017 @ 9:37 pm

    This is a diglossia problem, generally, right? I see this in Arabic all the time, where courses intended for "Spoken Arabic" involve some kind of barely dialectal pronunciation of Classical Arabic words and structures which real live native speakers would hardly ever use.

  3. Anthony said,

    January 9, 2017 @ 9:47 pm

    As a native Cantonese speaker, I see both 耳朵 and 耳仔 are valid Cantonese vocabularies. 耳朵 is not Mandarin-only. It exists in many other Chinese dialects like Sichuan dialect. It is no doubt that 耳朵 is commonly used in Cantonese. However, 耳朵 in the Cantonese pronunciation can be understood by all native speaker.

    My understanding of Chinese is, there exists a conceptual common Chinese that it does not share a pronunciation system amount people. The common Chinese has it's own vocabulary set and grammar. In our education we called it 書面語 which means the written language. All vocabularies from common Chinese are able to be pronounced by Cantonese. Some of these vocabularies are adopted in Cantonese. However, one important fact that 書面語 is not exactly the same as Mandarin.

    Traditional education are seeing written language and spoken language as 2 separated systems. It means you cannot write what you speak。This has been changed once in Vernacular movement 1919. As 文言文 (the old form of 書面語) is highly inconvenient and damage education and literacy rate. People created 書面語 which was pretty much the same as old mandarin. 100 years later, both 書面語 and mandarin have changed.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    January 10, 2017 @ 1:29 am

    The difference between written Zhongwen ("Chinese"), which is based on a grammatical and lexical matrix of literary Mandarin, and spoken Cantonese, is a topic that we have addressed numerous times on Language Log. Here are a few relevant posts:

    "Cantonese and Mandarin are two different languages" (9/25/15)

    "Is Cantonese a language, or a personification of the devil?" (2/9/14)

    "Spoken Hong Kong Cantonese and written Cantonese" (8/29/13)

    "Hong Kong Multilingualism and Polyscriptalism" (7/26/10)

    "Cantonese 'here'" (8/15/15)

    "Cantonese novels" (8/20/13)

    "Token Cantonese" (5/16/15)

    "Mutual Intelligibility of Sinitic Languages" (3/6/09)

    "Thick toast: another new Cantonese pun" (12/11/14)

    Although more or less pure Cantonese texts can be written, in an almost tour de force fashion (see the works by Don Snow and Bob Bauer mentioned in several of the above posts), students are required to write in Zhongwen, which, as mentioned above and in many Language Log posts, is fundamentally a literary form of Mandarin. This means that they have one language for writing and another language for speaking.

  5. Jenny Chu said,

    January 10, 2017 @ 3:18 am

    I studied spoken Cantonese for a little while and learned the spoken form only. Later, I took lessons for a while in written Chinese from a teacher who was originally from mainland China but had been based in HK for many years and claimed to be teaching me "written Cantonese". So within the context of the lessons when reading aloud, I learned to say 是 as "sih" and 的 as "dìk".

    Later, my younger son, who goes to a Cantonese-medium-of-instruction school (but with Chinese taught in Putonghua), told me that when reading Cantonese aloud, you should never actually pronounce "sih" aloud, but only say "haih". I became totally befuddled and gave up. What "should" one really do?

  6. Jenny Chu said,

    January 10, 2017 @ 3:20 am

    Also: when I read silently in English, for example the subtitles of a film in a language I don't know, I still silently think of how words are pronounced.

    So what does that internal voice say to a Cantonese speaker who reads, for example, "不!" on the screen every time the person in the film says, "No!" ?

    Or I am the only one hearing voices in my head? :)

  7. Chaak-ming Lau said,

    January 10, 2017 @ 3:37 am

    I recently found out that some kindergarten teachers use a lot of 書面語 (syumin-jyu, Written Chinese) vocabulary when they speak with kids (to help kids acquire the written language more easily I suppose). I've seen (literally) teachers using 眼睛 ngaan5zing1 耳朵 ji5doe2 嘴巴 zeoi2baa1 etc. to refer to body parts.

  8. David Marjanović said,

    January 10, 2017 @ 7:12 am

    From the post and the comments above, I conclude that there's a widespread belief that 1) there's such a thing as Standard Cantonese, which is what should generally be taught when Cantonese is taught as a foreign language, and 2) Standard Cantonese is just "Standard Chinese" (書面語?) in Cantonese pronunciation – once you use different grammar or vocabulary, that's "just your own dialect" of Cantonese, not the standard.

  9. Guy_H said,

    January 10, 2017 @ 9:46 am

    I'm not surprised at this at all. Cantonese speakers spend their entire lives hearing/speaking/writing/reading both Cantonese and Mandarin vocabulary. Expecting them to rigidly compartmentalize between written 書面語 and vernacular 白話 is a step in mental arithmetic they won't always bother to make, particularly when they easily understand both.

    And of course, there are instances where classical 文言文 and spoken Cantonese can use the same words but it would sound strange in 書面語 e.g. 係 for "is". It is also possible to mix all three registers at the same time e.g. 三及第 writing.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    January 10, 2017 @ 3:57 pm

    From Su-Chong Lim:

    I have noticed this too — or rather I strongly suspected this, and ran it by my son's Cantonese girlfriend, and she confirmed that it ain't real Cantonese. I wondered aloud if it was just creeping mainline China influence getting into written text and newspapers, and maybe it was getting more and more acceptable in HK speech, but she didn't think so. Other common non Cantonese words rendered into Cantonese "read-only" from the Mandarin I have seen are kàn 看 ("look"), hěn 很 ("very"), and chī 吃 ("eat").

  11. Silas S. Brown said,

    January 10, 2017 @ 5:40 pm

    I just noticed says "Nicole Wai (Laam Wai) is a native Cantonese speaker from Guangdong Province who has spent considerable time in Hong Kong, Beijing, and Newcastle". I suppose there might be slight differences in vocabulary preference between Cantonese speakers who spent their formative years in Guangdong versus those who spent their formative years in Hong Kong.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    January 10, 2017 @ 7:45 pm

    "I suppose there might be slight differences in vocabulary preference between Cantonese speakers who spent their formative years in Guangdong versus those who spent their formative years in Hong Kong."

    That's putting it mildly.

  13. Eidolon said,

    January 10, 2017 @ 8:56 pm

    Exactly so, since Guangdong is within the orbit of mainland language policy, and the younger generations there, like the younger generations across China, are increasingly fluent in Standard Mandarin. Cantonese is not dying out, per say, but it is receiving such a huge amount of influence from Mandarin, and to a lesser degree English, that in a few generations it might not be anything like Hong Kong Cantonese, but a new variety of Chinese that is closer to Mandarin than it is to traditional Cantonese as we understand it today. Hong Kong Cantonese may even end up being mutually unintelligible with it.

    Historically, such shifts were not uncommon within the Sinitic world. Mandarin itself was the product of such a shift, after all.

  14. Leslie said,

    January 10, 2017 @ 9:17 pm


    "It is no doubt that 耳朵 is commonly used in Cantonese. However, 耳朵 in the Cantonese pronunciation can be understood by all native speaker."

    耳朵 is definitely understood by all native Cantonese speakers but I'm doubtful whether it is *truly* commonly used in Cantonese (or specifically Hong Kong style Cantonese). If you ask random Cantonese-speaking people in Hong Kong, none of them will pronounce ear as "耳朵" or mouth as "嘴巴". Why? Because these are not idiomatic/colloquial Cantonese expressions. In the journalistic/broadcasting business, news broadcasters/announcers would most likely "adjust" by changing it to "耳仔" when they read the script out loud. Yes, the script is written in "standard Chinese" or whatever it is called, but 耳朵 just doesn't feel "natural" to native Cantonese speakers. BUT, you may actually hear those young TVB news script readers ("新聞小花") say "耳朵" on air – the pressure to be "politically correct" is so great these days that many in the mainstream news business would automatically hyper-correct themselves.

  15. Chas Belov said,

    January 11, 2017 @ 3:08 am

    Speaking as someone who only learned Cantonese for three semesters in the 1990s and never became fluent, what I noticed from watching Cantonese television and listening to Cantonese music (from Hong Kong) and purchasing the random Hong Kong print materials:

    1) Telenovelas and most radio programs are/were be in colloquial Cantonese
    2) News broadcasts are/were what sounded to me like Cantonese-pronounced Mandarin (complete with 不 pronounced as "bət" Yale: "bat")
    3) Pop and rock songs are/were what sounded to me like Cantonese-pronounced Mandarin
    4) Hip-hop (LMF, Softhard), so far as I can tell, appears to be in colloquial Cantonese during the spoken-word lines and my perceived Cantonese-pronounced Mandarin during the sung lines. For example, in the LMF/Sammi Cheng song 愛是 (note the 是) Sammi Cheng sings the words 的 and 是, while MC Yan raps 唔係 and O既 and sings 不 and, puzzlingly, O既 (if the transcription on the 愛是 video's page is correct).

    And for written materials:
    5) Comic books are/were in colloquial Cantonese
    6) It has been reported to me that news sections are/were in this Cantonese-ized standard Chinese while entertainment sections are in colloquial Cantonese
    7) Entertainment magazines are/were in colloquial Cantonese
    8) Subtitles of Cantonese movies are/were mostly in Mandarin and occasionally, e.g., Queen of Temple Street IIRC, in collequial Cantonese.

    Not sure if this is still true in 2016, as I haven't kept up.

  16. Chas Belov said,

    January 11, 2017 @ 3:15 am

    Um, that "are/were be" was an editing artifact, but I'd still be iffy about words immediately following an are/were construction.

  17. Chas Belov said,

    January 11, 2017 @ 3:27 am

    And MC Phat, not MC Yan

  18. Chaak-Ming Lau said,

    January 11, 2017 @ 5:12 am

    Another problem is that Cantonese learning materials are not always thoroughly checked and we should not assume these materials (online or published) to be faithful representation of the language. (I've seen a phrase book from a famous publisher several years ago that claimed to be Cantonese and turned out to be Standard Written Chinese with messy Cantonese pronunciation.

  19. Lai Ka Yau said,

    January 13, 2017 @ 3:18 am

    @Chaak-Ming Lau: Out of curiosity, how will Mandarin-isms be handled in the LSHK Cantonese exam?

  20. Wentao said,

    January 13, 2017 @ 5:15 am


    "In the journalistic/broadcasting business, news broadcasters/announcers would most likely 'adjust' by changing it to '耳仔' when they read the script out loud."

    Wow, kunyomi in Cantonese! How exciting! :D

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