(Full disclosure: I’ve been a Cantonese teacher online here: italki.com/baggio, and while I draw some of these conclusions from my experiences teaching at italki, I have tried to be as objective as possible while writing this.)
In this article, I want to discuss my views on whether I think it’s better to work with a Cantonese teacher online or to study Cantonese on your own.
To be more specific, I’ll try to answer three questions throughout this article.
- First off, why work with a Cantonese teacher online instead of face to face directly?
- What should a Cantonese teacher do? (And what shouldn’t s/he do?)
- Do I think self studying is better or working with a teacher is better? Why?
Let’s dive right in.
- 1 Why Work With A Cantonese Teacher Online Instead Of Face To Face?
- 2 The Role of Your Cantonese Teacher Online
- 2.1 Unless you’re an absolute beginner, a Cantonese teacher shouldn’t teach you the basics
- 2.2 Cantonese teachers should not teach you Cantonese grammar or vocabulary
- 2.3 Cantonese teachers should not teach with textbooks
- 2.4 Your Cantonese teacher should not talk more than you
- 2.5 A Cantonese teacher should help you set your learning goals and do regular reviews
- 3 Why (I Think) Self Studying Is Better Than Working With A Cantonese Teacher Online
- 4 Tips For Maximizing The Value Of Time With A Cantonese Teacher Online
- 4.1 Tell your Cantonese teacher what you’d like to work on
- 4.2 Focus on speaking if you can help it
- 4.3 Ask lots of questions, during and after class
- 4.4 Write a summary of what you learnt during the lesson
- 4.5 If there are lesson materials for a class, study them beforehand
- 4.6 Review your progress every 4 – 5 sessions
- 4.7 Take classes regularly
- 4.8 Multiple vs. one Cantonese teacher
- 5 A Final Word – Learning Cantonese Is A Personal Endeavour
Why Work With A Cantonese Teacher Online Instead Of Face To Face?
If I’m anything like you, I still remember the days sitting in a dusty classroom on a rainy day staring at the teacher scribbling away at the whiteboard, trying to explain different grammar points and new words to the class.
And if I’m anything like you, I felt it wasn’t really helping.
Learning Cantonese in a traditional classroom, possibly in a learning institution or a university of some kind, can introduce you to the basics of Cantonese. However, it’s neither an effective, nor an interesting way to do so. On top of that, I know this is clichéd, but Cantonese is a spoken language, not a written one, which makes it difficult to learn using traditional classroom methods.
Here are some of the reasons why you might want to consider picking a Cantonese teacher online as opposed to face to face.
Flexible teaching methodology
A Cantonese teacher you work with in person is very likely a teacher who’s used to teaching classes based on a curriculum specified by the school where s/he teachers. While there’s nothing wrong with it, you probably aren’t going to get the personalized one on one attention you need, because it’s a very different dynamic teaching one student, as opposed to an entire class.
In addition, a teacher in a traditional setting will probably have difficulty knowing how to teach the one student. Teaching Cantonese might seem like a simple process – you introduce some new grammar or words, you explain it, and move on – but I can assure you it’s anything but.
Flexible doesn’t mean not having a plan or teaching randomly. But it does mean that the teacher should be able to tailor his / her style to your personal learning style and needs, and I’ve found that many online teachers were able to do that for me when I was learning other languages, and I’ve been able to give students the kind of personal attention that isn’t possible in a classroom as a teacher.
I doubt that can happen with a teacher in real life who’s used to teaching groups.
Cantonese teachers online are more affordable
I remember seeing prices ranging from USD 25 – 60 / hr for face to face hourly sessions (I’m not lying – just Google “Cantonese teacher Hong Kong” and see for yourself), which I think is absolutely ridiculous. No number of educational diplomas or degrees can justify a price that high, especially towards the higher end of the spectrum. And some of the higher tier priced lessons I’ve seen don’t even come with study materials, which makes it very hard for me to recommend these services to any student.
If you really want to give it a try, you can see if there’s any difference in what you end up learning between a teacher who charges $25 / hr, and one who charges $60 / hr. I can almost guarantee that you won’t learn more from the more expensive teacher.
In stark contrast to that, on a platform like italki (where I’ve taught before), you can work with a teacher at very affordable rates at around USD 15 – 20 / hr, find some really good teachers who are patient, and customize materials based on your needs. So there’s absolutely no need to break the bank when working with a teacher.
Online Cantonese teachers usually offer flexible courses on more flexible schedules
With traditional institutions, they often require that you sign up for specific predetermined timeslots. The fact of the matter is that not all students want to sign up for a specific course, nor a specific time. Life can get busy and it’s nice to be able to schedule lessons at different times, which simply isn’t possible at a traditional school.
In other words, with an online teacher, you get to learn what you want, when you want and how you want, at more affordable prices, which, to me, beats subscribing to traditional courses every time.
The Role of Your Cantonese Teacher Online
If you ever decide to learn Cantonese with a teacher, I hope I’ve convinced you having online Cantonese lessons is the way to go about it.
And slowly but surely, students coming from different backgrounds and age groups all over the world are more and more willing to give online Cantonese teachers a go, which I think is wonderful.
But at this point, many students fall short – typically, students schedule a lesson, and go in without any idea of how their Cantonese teachers are supposed to help them. This leaves disappointed (sometimes bitter) students (feeling they haven’t learnt much), and disappointed teachers (feeling they haven’t done their jobs).
So, what exactly should a Cantonese teacher do to help you?
I’ll start off by sharing what I think a Cantonese teacher shouldn’t do and justify these appropriately.
Unless you’re an absolute beginner, a Cantonese teacher shouldn’t teach you the basics
Ironically, most students I’ve met were ones who wanted to learn the fundamentals of Cantonese, but I believe it’s one of the worst ways to work with a Cantonese teacher. Anyone can go to a bookstore, or maybe Amazon and pick up a beginner’s course working through a standard Cantonese beginner’s course and get the basics down in about 3 months of regular study.
So why do students still do it?
The fact of the matter is that it’s easier to have a teacher guide you and prod you in the right direction – language learning solo is hard, and it’s easy to lose motivation. A teacher, then can help you stay on track to make sure you’re rounding up a good set of fundamentals in Cantonese.
Cantonese teachers should not teach you Cantonese grammar or vocabulary
This is sort of ironic as well because Cantolounge, this site, will have (or already has, depending on when you’re reading this) a repository of videos and articles devoted just to Cantonese grammar. But this is a different sort of teaching, so it doesn’t really fall into the one on one teaching label.
But I firmly believe you shouldn’t spend your precious lesson time going over grammar principles with your teacher, because these are things you can look up on your own in your own time, with or without a teacher.
Let me clarify – by “teach”, I mean prepare a lesson that’s solely based on grammar and a set of new words. This is a terrible way of studying with a teacher, and I recommend against it. There’s nothing wrong, however, with clarifying grammar principles when they come up.
Cantonese teachers should not teach with textbooks
I stand very strongly on this. I feel there is absolutely no value in having a teacher read to you a textbook when you can do that yourself in your own time. If you ever meet a teacher who advocates teaching with a textbook, I highly encourage you to reconsider.
Just to clarify, by “teaching with a textbook”, I mean just going through the text and exercises with you. While I highly discourage this, some teachers like using a textbook as a basis for a lesson, and supplement that with their own materials and extend it with different activities and discussions – this is perfectly fine.
Your Cantonese teacher should not talk more than you
The teacher is supposed to be here to help you. But if you find that during your lessons, your teacher seems to be talking more than you, unless s/he’s explaining something relatively convoluted, and you’re silent for long periods of time, then I would suggest staying away from that teacher as well. The lesson is about you, not the teacher.
So, having read this, what should a Cantonese teacher do with and for you?
A Cantonese teacher should help you set your learning goals and do regular reviews
A good Cantonese teacher always starts by ascertaining why you want to learn Cantonese, how you learn Cantonese, your experience with language learning, and also your hobbies, your personality, the time you have available, and so forth, then takes these into consideration when discussing your learning goals with you.
In addition, a great Cantonese teacher will hold regular review sessions with you to gauge your progress. I’ve always expressed to my students that as a teacher, I’m sad to see students go, but also happy to let them go when they’ve reached their objectives, because they can probably pursue their next objectives, once having reached this milestone in their learning journeys.
I’m sad, however, to see students go before they’ve completed their goals. There can be a variety of reasons, but I feel disappointed because that’s an indicator I haven’t done my job as a teacher.
Regular review sessions make sure you’re on track to hit your learning objectives, and see whether you’ve reached them or not.
A good Cantonese teacher teaches Cantonese, a great Cantonese teacher inspires
I will repeat what I said a little earlier before because I think it’s so paramount that I get this across: a teacher’s role is not to teach you the specifics of Cantonese. This is in stark contrast to the traditional pedagogic methods that have subsisted throughout the ages where the teacher has been seen as a facilitator of knowledge regurgitation.
Instead of teaching you constructs and words (I’m not saying it’s bad, but it shouldn’t be the only thing s/he does), the great teacher should inspire you to learn Cantonese by showing you tips and strategies to better your Cantonese, offer you suggestions to make your Cantonese sound natural, and share his/her love of the language with you.
This, in turn, should spur you to take your Cantonese to the next level, and rekindle your inner fire whenever it’s dimming.
A good technical Cantonese teacher teaches you translation
This is where it gets a bit tricky. One of the questions that’s asked in language teaching is whether monolingual or bilingual teachers are better equipped to teach students the target language. From what I’ve seen, it seems like it doesn’t matter. In an ideal setting, learners should be exposed to the language as much as possible, so knowledge of the learners’ mother tongues is irrelevant.
But is it?
In a realistic setting, the fastest way to a language is through translation. There’s no better way to get started learning a language than through translating your every thought to the target language, if it is translatable and appropriate.
And there’s no one more well equipped than a bilingual teacher to offer you a glance into the exciting world of switching between languages – s/he probably had an entire lifetime of balancing between Cantonese and another language, and can show you how to do the same as well.
In addition, you’ll find that if you’re still a beginner, there’s no one better equipped to help break down the Cantonese language for you the same way a bilingual can do. Cantonese is tricky sometimes, because compared to English, for instance, it can seem very “flat” and literal. And sometimes, the things that people say don’t make a lot of sense when translated back to English. A bilingual can help explain away these discrepancies.
Why (I Think) Self Studying Is Better Than Working With A Cantonese Teacher Online
That said, by now, you probably would’ve guessed my stance on the original question: do I think self studying Cantonese or working with a teacher is better?
Without a doubt, self studying is my preferred style. And this is irrespective of whether you’re an “introvert” or an “extrovert”. (Some people assume introverts prefer studying, extroverts prefer working with a teacher.) It just means introverts might have a slightly easier time with self studying.
So why would you want to self study instead of working with a teacher?
You know yourself better than anyone else
A good teacher can determine your approximate level and guide you moving forward, but no one else knows precisely what words you know, what words you don’t, your learning strengths and weaknesses, the structures you’re familiar with, the ones you’re not, and so on.
And precisely because you know yourself so much better than anyone else, it makes sense to study on your own because you will know the areas you need to work on the most, and you can focus on those specifically to strengthen those areas. A teacher might be able to assist, but no one can get more specific than you, and specific is important to making real, measurable progress.
For example, if you know you often get the Cantonese past tense aspect markers mixed up, while a teacher can clarify these, and even give you examples to help you distinguish between them, you have to put in the work yourself to make sure you’re getting them right. The teacher can then help you check whether your understanding is right or wrong.
Self studying is a lot faster
Take, for example, if you want to listen to a dialogue and study it. You listen to it, you study the text by reading it once or twice, and do the exercises after. All of this involves only one participant – you. You don’t need to discuss the dialogue with anyone, and having a teacher guide you through the dialogue is unlikely to be faster than what you can get through in the same period of time.
That said, if you have bits you don’t understand, it’s helpful to ask a Cantonese teacher to clarify that for you. Structures map horribly between English and Cantonese, and it’s sometimes off putting to the English speaker to see something in Cantonese that translates into something funky back in English.
And who doesn’t want to learn efficiently and quickly? 🙂
Cantonese is an extremely imprecise language
As a Cantonese learner, you’re probably aware of the existence of something that has pained Cantonese teachers and learners alike for the longest time – particles. They contain so much expressive power, but are close to impossible to teach. (I hope to do something about it, but it’s not the kind of thing that has a definitive answer like 1+1.)
You can spend an entire hour having a teacher explain to you just one particle, and you might be left even more confused than when you started.
I remember a conversation I recently had with a friend learning Mandarin who’s facing the same problems. He’s doing phenomenally in all aspects of Mandarin – translating, reading passages from novels, comics, conversation – I’m constantly surprised to hear about his remarkable progress. But despite his best efforts, he still struggles to grasp particles.
My advice to him, when he asked me about it, is something that sounds very unscientific: “you have to feel particles”. This resonates to my own personal experiences learning Japanese and Korean particles – it’s impossible to understand how they’re used from a textbook definition – you have to read over the definition, and try to feel the mood that comes attached to the particles when native speakers speak.
It’s no different with Cantonese.
And you bet that these are things you can only glean on your own with your own efforts, not with a teacher.
A teacher cannot teach you how to listen in Cantonese
Out of the four skills, there is one skill that cannot be taught – listening.
Improving listening comprehension is extremely difficult, even more so when you’re listening to native speakers speak at normal speed with a meagre vocabulary.
If you were expecting me to offer a solution, I’m afraid I’ll have to disappoint: there isn’t one. You yourself have to put in the work to try and isolate the important information and attune your ears to the sounds of Cantonese, increasing your comprehension bit by bit through continued exposure.
This is something your teacher cannot help you with.
Having said that, let me clarify my stance: I’m not saying there’s no value working with a teacher online. There are tremendous benefits to improving your Cantonese with a teacher that you simply can’t facilitate on your own.
The problem, however, is when learners take the question literally, as a dichotomy – and treat it as an “either a teacher or self study” choice.
In my opinion, I feel that’s misguided.
The ideal learning method is to mix learning yourself with time spent with your Cantonese teacher, and to take it one step further, with a split in time of 80:20 between the two.
Yes – in other words, I believe that most of your time should be spent self studying, for the reasons mentioned above, with your teacher acting as a guide and person who can answer your questions when you’re stuck.
Tips For Maximizing The Value Of Time With A Cantonese Teacher Online
You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned anything about “how to self study Cantonese” in this article. This is because this article is aimed at convincing you of the importance of self studying, as opposed to working solely with a teacher. Strategies for self studying, specifically Cantonese, will be dealt with in a series of articles, because this is a vast topic that needs a lot of real estate to broach.
Instead, since we’ve established that self studying should take up the majority of your time learning Cantonese, but working with a Cantonese teacher can still be helpful, I’d like to share some tips to help get the most out of your online Cantonese lessons.
Tell your Cantonese teacher what you’d like to work on
This is extremely vital. From my years teaching online, I’ve noticed that the students who stuck with me the longest are the ones who are extremely clear on what they want. To give you some examples, I’ve worked with a Canadian student who always prepares a topic beforehand before our sessions. We don’t chat regularly, but every time that we do, she tells me exactly what she wants to cover (could be working with children, gardening, fairy tale vocabulary), and leaves satisfied her questions are answered.
Another example would be another student who’s a teacher herself, and she always comes to the lesson with some materials prepped, or requests that I work on a specific topic with her. We’ve worked on analyzing video dialogue extensively, breaking down sentences and vocabulary, and having open discussions around those topics, we’ve worked on going in depth with a specific topic like teaching related vocabulary, and she takes all of that and looks over the materials after class to reinforce the new words so she can use them.
To cite a third example, I’ve worked with a native Chinese Mandarin speaker learning Cantonese, and her objective was to improve her locution. We poured over article after article and worked on smoothing out some of the discrepancies between Mandarin and Cantonese, correcting for mispronounced words and rough translations along the way. She used that as a basis to improve her ability to communicate in Cantonese in her daily life, which was already good to begin with, but coupled with her efforts, she became even better by knowing what bits to focus on.
Focus on speaking if you can help it
Remember, the caveat with working with teachers is “do things with him/her that you can’t do yourself to improve your Cantonese”.
After all, if you can learn something on your own, what’s the point of having a teacher?
Speaking is one of those things. As a matter of fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s the most important thing you can work on with a teacher. Whenever you can help it, practice having a genuine conversation, and try to speak as much as possible, pausing to clarify if you don’t understand, because this is the perfect opportunity to polish your Cantonese accent, pronunciation and constructs.
Ask lots of questions, during and after class
One of the things that has disappointed me a lot as a teacher is that, from day one, I always tell my students that I’m always available to answer any questions after class if they have any follow up questions or questions in general.
To this day, I think I only ever received one question after class, and I’ve had very few questions during class. This could be an indicator that I’m an outstanding teacher – maybe I’ve already explained everything so well there are no more questions to asked, or maybe I’m not prodding enough for my students to continue a line of inquiry into the lesson materials.
I’m a fairly optimistic person, but I’m going to say the latter’s more probable.
If you get the opportunity to ask questions – please use it! Some questions you can ask can include things like exceptions to a particular construct, whether a word can be used in a particular context, how to translate something from English (or a different language) to Cantonese, something you’ve heard in a video clip but couldn’t quite make sense of it, why people say certain things in Cantonese when English (or other language) speakers would never say something like that, etc.
Ask away! That’s the way you’ll make definite progress.
Write a summary of what you learnt during the lesson
This is something I did actually with an English student, not a Cantonese student.
During class, we would discuss different topics and cover different words. In order to consolidate those words, I usually set homework in the form of writing a summary of the main things we discussed in class, as a way to help reinforce those words and iron out grammar gotchas.
This is a great way to make sure you retain what you learn from class a month, three months, a year or even longer after the class.
If there are lesson materials for a class, study them beforehand
As I’ve repeatedly said before in this article, whatever you can do on your own, you should do. Class time should be reserved doing activities that you can’t do yourself.
Prepping for a class can increase your retention rates considerably after class. Think about it – if you come into class with a baseline familiarity of the materials, it’s kind of like reinforcing it a second time, and you get to ask questions you don’t understand in class. You will learn new words and constructs so much better this way.
Review your progress every 4 – 5 sessions
Every once in a while, ask to have a review session with your teacher. Even the best students forget, and you need to refresh your memory to keep those words fresh and also to make sure your understanding of those words and concepts covered in class are correct.
But there’s another purpose of review sessions – you can use this opportunity to gauge your progress against your goals. So if you were a beginner learning the basics of Cantonese, you want to compare your state now with the you from the start, and see how far you’ve come, and how much left you have to go before breaking through to the next stage.
Take classes regularly
It’s extremely important to have a schedule…and stick to it. It doesn’t have to be strenuous, like cramming in an hour a day everyday, it could be something casual like an hour every week or two, but make sure you can stick to it, because there’s no faster way to lose what you’ve learnt than not using it.
Multiple vs. one Cantonese teacher
This is an interesting subject. My preference has always been to find a good teacher and stick to one teacher, but ideally, you should practice with different teachers. Cantonese, especially, being the imprecise language it is, can be spoken in a variety of tones, registers, voices and accents, and every teacher has a unique background and story to bring to the table so it’ll be beneficial either way to expose you to a variety of Cantonese speakers.
A Final Word – Learning Cantonese Is A Personal Endeavour
Before leaving, I’d like to share with you a final thought.
Learning any language is a highly personal endeavour. I remember watching a documentary on polyglots once that says “it is ironic that polyglots can speak with so many people of different linguistic backgrounds and yet the journey to polyglotism is a solo one”. (Maybe not those exact words, but something similar.)
(Actually I’ve found the clip here, I’ll embed it here – it’s a really interesting watch if you have 15 minutes to spare.)
The quote is at the 10:42 marker, and the narrator says, “…the irony of being able to be so social by speaking so many languages is that being a hyper polyglot can also be a solitary experience with so few other people being capable of the same feat”.
To sum up my stance regarding the topic of this article: it never hurts to have a teacher to consult when you’re stuck on something, you need clarifying a particularly difficult concept, you need advice, or a check up on progress – but the majority of the Cantonese you learn will come from the efforts you put in by yourself independently outside of class.
By all means, find a great Cantonese teacher online and learn loads from him / her!
But don’t forget that all forms of learning, at the end of the day, boil down to self learning. If we want to learn Cantonese well, there’s no way around the hard work.