Canadian marketers know the importance of reaching their customers in their native language. For example, a campaign in Québec would not be effective unless it was translated into Québec French (as opposed to International French). When reaching out to ethnic markets, especially in the Chinese community, language adaptation should also be a top priority.

Nationwide, over 441 000 people have indicated their mother tongue to be Chinese (not specified), while 389 000 people chose Cantonese, and 255 000 people Mandarin.

While Mandarin is the official language in Mainland China, Singapore and Taiwan, Cantonese is most widely spoken in Hong Kong, Macau and in Guangzhou, capital city of the province of Guangdong.

With over 16% of Canada’s immigrant population speaking one variety of Chinese,  marketers need to know how to adapt their messaging to this diverse audience, in both written and spoken form.

Chinese: A Rich Diversity of Languages


Mandarin vs Cantonese

Until 1991, a common misconception about the language led to “Chinese” being officially considered the most spoken non-native language in Canada. Since then, marketers have realized that rather than being a single language, Chinese is more aptly described as a group of languages and dialects. Speakers of these different versions of Chinese don’t necessarily understand each other and can use different forms of the written language as well. Chinese Canadians, for the most part, fall into one of the following two linguistic groups: Mandarin and Cantonese speakers.

Even though it is possible to write a text using Traditional Chinese characters that both groups can understand, this will likely sound quite unnatural because of differences in idioms, grammar and local usage.

Both Mandarin and Cantonese scripts have evolved differently over time, sometimes even giving rise to new characters that do not exist in the other language.

Chinese: A Rich Diversity of Languages


Traditional vs Simplified Script

Until the 1950s, Chinese were using traditional characters, which have been around for hundreds of years. After the Communist revolution, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) modernized the Chinese script and made it into what we know today as Simplified Chinese, which has since become the national standard. This new form of writing was designed to be more practical and easier to learn. There are fewer strokes in Simplified Chinese, though many characters are identical in both systems.

Because of their distinct political status, Taiwan and Hong Kong opted to keep using the traditional script where it is still in use today.

Best Practice for Marketers: When reaching out to Chinese Canadians online, use cookies to detect keyboard settings, which will indicate which language and script are used. You can use this valuable information to segment your ads in Mandarin/simplified (mainland China & Singapore), Mandarin/traditional (Taiwan) or Cantonese/traditional (Hong Kong/Guangdong). In TV and radio broadcasts, try to find out more about the target audience and localize your content to reflect their language preferences.

Here is a table to easily remember which language and script to use according to each market.

Market Language Writing Style
Mainland China Mandarin Simplified
Hong Kong Cantonese Traditional
Taiwan Mandarin Traditional
Singapore Mandarin Simplified


A Tale of Two Cities

In the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and Metro Vancouver, there are almost one million Chinese Canadians. The remaining half a million immigrants are spread out mostly in other urban areas across the country. To understand the language diversity of one of Canada’s most important non-white communities, the data is analyzed from both major cities:


Vancouver is considered China’s gateway to Canada, and it is home to over 380 000 Chinese Canadians. Over 40% of Richmond speaks one of the Chinese languages, versus 15% across Metro Vancouver.

Vancouver’s Chinese media landscape is diverse; there is one radio channel in Cantonese and one in Mandarin, three Chinese TV channels (two in Mandarin and one in Cantonese), three large Chinese newspapers serving the Taiwanese and Cantonese communities, and many more publications dedicated to mainland Chinese Canadians. In Richmond and across Metro Vancouver, 4 out of 10 Chinese people prefer to read ads in Mandarin.


The most popular neighborhoods for Chinese speakers in the GTA are Markham and Richmond Hill, where 54% and 34% of the migrant population speaks one variety of Chinese. In both neighborhoods, Cantonese is spoken by at least twice as many people as Mandarin. In other neighborhoods where Chinese population is scarce, like downtown or Mississauga, Mandarin is just as popular.

Chinese: A Rich Diversity of Languages


The Evolving Face of the Chinese Canadian Population

For decades, Cantonese was the lingua franca in Chinatowns all over Canada and worldwide. While immigration from Hong Kong has dwindled since the island-city was returned to China in 1997 (after 100 years of British rule), immigrants from the mainland’s rising middle class are making Mandarin a force to be reckoned with.

China’s rise as a global power has made Mandarin more attractive to learn for foreigners, and to Cantonese parents who want to give their children relevant communication skills for the future. There are over 100 million Cantonese speakers worldwide. However, the shift to Mandarin has been felt wherever both languages coexist, including Hong Kong and Guangdong, the province that gave birth to Cantonese.

Canadian immigration trends are showing signs of a growing Mandarin speaking community originating from Mainland China, particularly in Vancouver, whereas Toronto continues to be home to more Cantonese speakers.

In the midst of this variety of spoken and written languages, how can you find creative and effective ways to reach each segment of the Canadian Chinese population?

By keeping an eye out for local demographic shifts and working with the most experienced team in the industry, Maple Diversity, who have both the expertise and local relations needed with ethnic media publishers to reach specific cultural groups in Canada, you can be sure that your ads are understood by each one of your target audiences.