It is difficult to say just how many people speak Cantonese. Around 60 million people in the Guangdong area of China, but the language is also a primary language in Hong Kong and Macau. People around the world also speak it as a first language. It is one of the most popular of the 56 varieties of Chinese.
There are many different versions of Chinese spoken in China, but Cantonese is the primary language within Guangdong and the south-eastern part of the country. It’s also an official language of Macau and Hong Kong and one of the primary languages in Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore and other south-eastern parts of Asia. Cantonese is often referred to as more than just a language, for many it’s a cultural identity.
The language is part of the Yue subdivision of the Chinese language. Cantonese is often incorrectly used when referring to other Yue languages. If people speaking different Yue languages get together, they wouldn’t be able to talk to each other.
More specifically, Chinese is part of the Sino-Tibetan family of languages. This covers the likes of Burmese and Tibetan.
Cantonese itself is technically a dialect of the Chinese language. Within Cantonese there are several sub-dialects depending on region and background of the speaker. Some of the most traditional Cantonese is actually spoken abroad in countries like the US, UK or Europe where immigrants have preserved a version of Cantonese that hasn’t been influenced by Mandarin as much as the one that is spoken in Guangdong today.
When it comes to writing and reading the language, there are also the phonetic and classic versions. The phonetic version involves writing out the words and seeing them as they sound, rather than with the Chinese characters.
The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) in the United States categorizes languages to help determine the easiness or difficulty in learning each one. The ratings are determined by the amount of time it would take someone completely new to the language to become fluent in it. The length of time the FSI suggests it would take is just a guide, and there are people around the world who disagree.
For Cantonese, the FSI ranks the language as a Category III. This means that the language is “quite difficult” for English-speaking people to learn. Around 2,200 hours of study would be needed to learn Cantonese fluently, which would mean about 88 weeks of lessons. Other languages in this group include Mandarin, Japanese, and Korean.
Half of that study time is best spent within the country where the dialect is spoken.