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  • Bhanu Vikram

A suggestion to absolute beginner level students learning Cantonese and Mandarin together

I have been learning Cantonese and Mandarin for several months now in my free time. It has been a great journey. Along with the languages, I have learned a lot about the beautiful cultures and traditions of China and Hong Kong.

Most teachers use English writing systems for beginner level students. The English writing system for Cantonese is called Jyutping and for Mandarin, it is called Pinyin.


Here is an example of an English sentence translated to Cantonese and Mandarin, but written using English letters:

English: Where does he go?


Cantonese: keoi5 heoi3 bin1 dou6?


Mandarin: tā qù nǎ lǐ?


{Note: There are a few other systems of writing that use English alphabet for both Cantonese and Mandarin, but Jyutping for Cantonese and Pinyin for Mandarin are the most used. The other systems have issues.}

Both Cantonese and Mandarin are tonal languages. So, numbers or tone marks are used to indicate tones.


If you are learning both the languages, many teachers use numbers to indicate tones for Cantonese, and tone marks to indicate tones for Mandarin. They teach this way because it makes it easier for students to differentiate between Cantonese and Mandarin. So, if the student sees numbers, it is a Cantonese word or phrase, and if the student sees tone marks, it is a Mandarin word or phrase.


Now, if your teacher uses numbers for Mandarin as well, you are fine. But if they use tone marks, you want to continue reading this article.

Typing tone marks is not easy. If you have ever typed tone marks, you will agree with me that it is a lot of work. It takes several additional keystrokes for each word, thereby multiplying the time and effort needed to type.

Each time you want to type Pinyin with tone marks, you need to switch your computer keyboard to the Chinese keyboard. That takes two keystrokes. Then it takes several additional keystrokes to type the tone mark itself. When you are done, it takes two more keystrokes to switch your keyboard back to the standard English keyboard. It is complicated.

Like any other student, I was having a hard time with this and wanted to simplify Pinyin, while also keeping it looking different from Cantonese. So, instead of using tone marks, I decided to use numbers for Mandarin as well, but with a slight twist. What I did is, put the numbers ahead of the words for Mandarin. For example:

English: Where does he go?


Cantonese: keoi5 heoi3 bin1 dou6?


Mandarin: 1ta 4qu 3na 3li?


So, if the number is after the word it is Cantonese, and if the number is before the word it is Mandarin. Simple!

This is super easy to write, type, and read; and it saved me a lot of time and hassle!


Here is an example: you need eleven keystrokes to type and return back to standard English keyboard, but you only need three keystrokes to type 4qu.


After studying for a little while, when the student knows at least one hundred words in each language very well, there won't be much confusion. At that point, the tone number for Mandarin may also be written after the word. But, until then writing the tone number before the word is a much better choice than using tone marks.

© 2020 Bhanu Vikram