- 1 Introduction
- 2 Part 0: 7 Questions To Ask Yourself Before Learning Cantonese
- 2.1 Question 1. Why are you learning Cantonese?
- 2.2 Question 2: To what level do you want to learn Cantonese?
- 2.3 Question 3: What do you plan to do with Cantonese?
- 2.4 Question 4: Do you have enough time to devote to learning Cantonese?
- 2.5 Question 5: Is Cantonese going to be the only foreign language you learn, or is it one in many?
- 2.6 Question 6: Do you speak any Asian languages to a good level of fluency?
- 2.7 Question 7: Are you musical?
- 2.8 Related posts from polyglots
- 3 Part 1: How To Sound Like A Native Speaker – Romanization, Jyutping and Tones
- 4 Part 2: Learn To Speak Cantonese Correctly through Structures
- 5 Part 3: How To Be More Precise In Cantonese – Learning Words
- 5.1 New Words Via Direct Translation
- 5.2 How to get to a strong B1~B2 level in Cantonese
- 5.3 Grammar as templates
- 5.4 How To Use A Chinese Dictionary
- 6 Part 4: Learning Chinese Characters – To Do Or Not To Do?
- 6.1 The limits of Cantonese romanization
- 6.2 Chinese characters – to learn or not to learn?
- 6.3 Two Caveats in Learning Characters
- 6.4 Spoken Cantonese vs. written Chinese
- 6.5 21 Videos to Help You Get Started with Learning Chinese Characters
- 6.6 Recommended frequency lists
- 6.7 Tools to learn Chinese characters
- 6.8 How polyglots conquered Chinese characters
- 7 Part 5: How To Find The Right Cantonese Teacher For You
- 8 Part 6: Finding Inspiration When Stuck
- 8.1 Getting to a B1 Cantonese level
- 8.2 My personal thoughts on learning Cantonese
- 8.3 Inspiration from top experts and polyglots
- 8.3.1 On forgetting things
- 8.3.2 On preparation in learning Chinese before speaking
- 8.3.3 On goal setting
- 8.3.4 On speaking from day one
- 8.3.5 On how to speak a language
- 8.3.6 On the importance of the linguistic core
- 8.3.7 On the notion of difficulty
- 8.3.8 On getting used to new sounds in a language
- 8.3.9 On reasons to learn Cantonese
- 8.3.10 On learning like a child
- 8.3.11 On what starting as a stone cold beginner feels like
- 8.3.12 On the importance of knowing the why
- 8.3.13 On the language learning equation
- 8.3.14 On independent learning
- 8.3.15 On language learning obstacles
- 8.3.16 On questioning the “follow a course and do as it says” approach
- 8.3.17 On comparing us to other language learners
- 8.3.18 On “talent”
- 8.3.19 On individual work
- 8.3.20 On perfectionism
- 8.3.21 On learner’s block
- 8.3.22 On celebrating success
- 8.3.23 On learning by yourself
- 8.3.24 On the original purpose of learning languages
- 8.3.25 On motivation for learning Chinese
- 8.3.26 On appreciating foreign scripts
- 8.3.27 On inspiration
- 8.3.28 On the ease and difficulty of every language
- 8.3.29 On the language learning process
- 8.3.30 On the objective of a class from a teacher’s perspective
- 8.3.31 On the most important goal of learning a language
- 9 Part 7: Cantonese Dictionaries And Typing Cantonese
- 10 Cantonese Trivia and FAQ’s
- 11 Closing notes
Learning any language can be daunting. More so when you’re thinking of (or are already) taking on one of the most difficult languages to learn for English speakers – Cantonese. If you’ve wondered about things like “where should I start”, “how do I learn Cantonese tones”, “should I learn Cantonese characters”, you’ve landed in the right place.
In this guide, I will show you everything you will need in order to establish an excellent set of fundamentals in Cantonese moving forward. This isn’t intended to show you how to get to fluency – but I want to show you the ropes to get your Cantonese to a decent intermediate level. In other words, this is like a road map you can use to “see” clearly what things you’ll be doing to get to that level.
*An important note: Before we start with this guide, please know that what I write here is not absolute. As a matter of fact, language learning advice has always been, and always remain subjective and varies according to every language learner.
But I have, to the best of my ability, attempted to represent each component accurately, in writing, based on my personal experiences learning other languages as well as teaching Cantonese. So I hope you’ll see that I, just like you, am just another learner, and you can feel free to disagree with any perspectives I have.
That said, there’s a mix of opinionated, and non-opinionated content in here. For example, I recommend going through pronunciation first when learning Cantonese (opinionated), but I also put up videos introducing you to the exciting world of pronunciation (non-opinionated), in hopes you’ll find them useful.
I’ll also assume you want to learn Cantonese to speak and communicate to around a B1 (~B2) level, so this guide is written with that objective in mind.
Alright, that’s all I have to say for now, let’s dive right in!
Part 0: 7 Questions To Ask Yourself Before Learning Cantonese
Part 1: How To Sound Like A Native Speaker – Romanization, Jyutping and Tones
Part 2: Learn To Speak Cantonese Correctly And Quickly – Structures
Part 3: How To Be More Precise In Cantonese – Learning Words
Part 4: Learning Chinese Characters – To Do Or Not Do?
Part 5: How To Find The Right Cantonese Teacher For You
Part 6: Finding Inspiration When Stuck
Part 7: Cantonese Dictionaries And Typing Cantonese
Updated: 24th June, 2017
Part 0: 7 Questions To Ask Yourself Before Learning Cantonese
Learning Cantonese, or any other language, is a massive undertaking. Before diving into the actual learning process, I highly recommend asking yourself these seven questions to figure out what learning Cantonese means to you. If you take a bit of time to answer them truthfully and to the best of your ability, one year down the road, you’ll look back thanking yourself for taking this seriously.
Here they are.
Question 1. Why are you learning Cantonese?
Since this is quite a huge commitment, I’ll start off with the most important question.
When starting out with the basics, it barely makes a difference whether you know clearly why you’re learning a language or not. After all, the material is generally straightforward, learning the pronunciation, basic structures and words, and it could be fun going through the basics.
But as you continue learning Cantonese, it gets harder. I don’t say this to scare you, the learner, but I say this because that’s when knowing and not knowing the “why” really starts to make a difference – it’ll directly affect whether you’ll be sufficiently motivated to continue or not.
After the initial honeymoon period wears off with Cantonese, you’ll start to think about things like designing a Cantonese study routine, whether to learn Chinese characters or not, getting conversational practice with a native. These are all activities that require a certain time commitment and if your reasons are unclear, you’ll find it very hard to pull through these tasks.
However, I have to insist on pointing out an important distinction: coming up with reasons and coming up with your reasons.
If you do a simple Google search, you’ll easily find articles and blog posts that are titled “10 good reasons to still learn Cantonese” or “Top 20 reasons you should learn a language”. While we should appreciate these reasons, it’s really important to not mix reasons with personal reasons.
In other words, just because, for instance, Cantonese represents quite a large population (around 60 – 100 million speakers), it shouldn’t mean it should become your reason to learn Cantonese. After all, what has 60 million speakers got to do with you anyway?
Compare that with *a student I recently met from Brazil (yup, I teach Cantonese). When I asked him why he wanted to learn Cantonese, he told me that he grew up watching Cantonese movies and was interested in the culture. During our introductory lesson, I could clearly tell he was extremely careful with his pronunciation (romanization and tones), and he was able to produce these sounds really well.
Whether he did so because he liked Cantonese culture, or just because he’s a detail oriented person, I have no way of knowing. What I can be sure of is that, if he’s willing to go the extra mile to pay attention to these details, this dedication will serve him well when he has to move on to an intermediate stage of learning, and beyond.
Or take another student I worked with in the past. She’s American and has a fiancé who’s from Hong Kong. This means that every time during family reunions with her extended family-in-law, because some members of them don’t speak any English, she could either not say very much or learn Cantonese to connect with her fiancé’s relatives.
Because of a very strong reason to learn the language, she has made remarkable progress (and the credit goes to her, not me or other teachers – she invested a lot of time and effort to continually expand her vocabulary and consolidate basic structures in Cantonese) – in just under two years of study, she already has an excellent B2 level of ability with a wide range of vocabulary and expressions that she could take very easily to a C* level.
*Please note that I don’t include students’ names in this guide in order to protect their privacy.
Question 2: To what level do you want to learn Cantonese?
Generally, there are about three “tiers” I divide language learning goals into:
Tier 1: The Traveller’s Proficiency (~A1 – B1)
This is where you can pretty much get around town without too much trouble understanding or communicating. You can go to restaurants and order menu items, you can shop around, you can understand metro announcements just like how a traveller might want to.
Tier 2: The Generalist’s Proficiency (~B2)
This is where you have an excellent grasp of the language and you can pretty much talk about anything you want (save for professional topics), including topics of interest to you, current affairs in society. You can communicate your thoughts clearly and without much struggling for words, much like a “generalist”.
Tier 3: The Maestro’s Proficiency (~C1 – C2)
This is where you’ve pretty much studied in the language, or have listened to or read extensively in the language. You can understand long texts or audio clips and can understand the nuances of the content (including cultural references), and you can pretty much follow along without any visible strain.
Your vocabulary approaches that of an educated native speaker, and you have no problem dancing around words and doing all sorts of mental acrobatics when it comes to expressing yourself, including changing your register according to the social context, adopting local accents and using slang, idioms, metaphors accurately and intuitively.
Which of these categories do you fit under?
Knowing this can help you figure out what amount of learning is appropriate, and when it’s okay to stop and move on from “expansion” to “maintenance”. After all, while language learning is a lifelong task (even for native speakers), if you have a clear idea of the level you want to get to, you simply need to learn up to that level – anything else should be counted as bonuses.
Question 3: What do you plan to do with Cantonese?
Closely related to the previous two questions is – what do you intend to do with Cantonese?
Do you want to go to Hong Kong or Macau for travel?
Do you want to visit a friend in Guangzhou and pick up a few phrases?
Do you have a loved one or extended family that speaks Cantonese?
Are you going to permanently relocate to Hong Kong and want to better connect with locals?
Whatever your purpose, it’s going to directly affect how you learn Cantonese. As I’ll mention below, one of the reasons language learning is so different for everyone is because people use it for different things. For instance, a graphics designer is very likely to have a different vocabulary than a teacher. In the same way, the things you learn will be directly tied to what you intend to do with the language.
Question 4: Do you have enough time to devote to learning Cantonese?
This is where the second question is important. Depending on the level you want to learn Cantonese to, the time you need to spend on learning is different. It goes without saying that the higher your desired level, the greater the time commitment. But this has a few nuances that I want to briefly mention:
- The total time you need to spend learning increases the higher the level you want;
- The higher the level, the greater the average study time per day;
- The higher the level, the greater the importance of consistent study.
So for example, if you’re in a fairly busy profession, and one that has nothing to do with languages, maybe you’re an English speaker working as a circuit engineer, and you already have to devote a lot of time learning about new technologies and attending training classes, it would be difficult to devote a large amount of time to learning a language that’s so different from your native language – Cantonese.
To top that off, you need to consider that because of time restraints, it will be more difficult to get your level of Cantonese to a higher level just because you’re strapped for time. And it will take longer to complete a learning phase where it might have been easier for someone who has more time and flexibility on his hands.
As I’ll also mention below, I don’t believe it’s necessary to devote hours of learning every day when it comes to learning a foreign language.
However, consistency is important, especially when you’re above an intermediate stage, and if you’re involved in a stressful job where it’s very likely your work will interfere with that consistency (or language learning will interfere with your work), then it might be wise to consider either taking your expectations down a notch, or I recommend being honest with yourself when it comes to having enough patience to see this journey through, or not.
Question 5: Is Cantonese going to be the only foreign language you learn, or is it one in many?
This is also related to the previous question. Depending on your profession, it could be quite daunting to learn Cantonese as a language. And if Cantonese is simply a “pitstop” among a long list of languages you intend to “stop by” on top of having to juggle with your work responsibilities, I’d recommend setting more reasonable expectations in terms of linguistic level simply because of the sheer time involved in getting your language level to a respectable level.
However, if it’s going to be your only language of study, or your language set isn’t so diverse in terms of language families (compare someone who’s aspiring to learn Cantonese, Icelandic, Russian, Arabic, Korean and Ojibwe to someone who’s aspiring to learn Cantonese, Mandarin and Japanese), then it becomes much more realistic to aim for a very high level.
To top that off, knowing two to three languages really well, maybe even to a near native level, is much more achievable than knowing six, seven or more languages equally well to a near native level.
If you have the opportunity to use Cantonese or written Chinese in your studies or work, it is likely that you’ll also have the opportunity to take your Cantonese to a higher level. If, on the other hand, Cantonese is a language you won’t get to use in a professional or academic capacity, trying to get to a level where you have the ability to eloquently word your thoughts can take more time.
Question 6: Do you speak any Asian languages to a good level of fluency?
I’ll be more specific here: if you speak Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese – it will be much faster for you to pick up Cantonese. Not only is there common vocabulary (or the exact same characters if you already know Mandarin or Japanese), even the pronunciation is similar to a certain extent (Japanese, Korean, and I’ve heard Vietnamese is as well). This means that if you know how equivalent words are pronounced, you will be able to learn cognates very quickly.
This also means that your time spent learning will be considerably shortened compared to learners who do not speak one of these languages. I personally don’t like taking a language’s difficulty into consideration (difficulty is relative anyway) when learning, but don’t underestimate the power of having thousands of cognates in the target language and the languages you already know, and how that affects your 語感 (jyu5 gam2, or feel of a language).
Consider this – imagine someone who’s going to be learning Cantonese as a language that she will rarely use, is very distant to her native culture (as a Spaniard), has no cognates with Spanish, her native language, and has significant cultural differences with her native culture.
It’s not too difficult to imagine that she would require double (if not more) the amount of effort needed to learn Cantonese as opposed to another Romance language such as French.
So if you have an Asian language under your belt, it can be considerably easier to learn Cantonese.
Question 7: Are you musical?
I say this because Cantonese is a tonal language. Unlike most other languages in the world, every word that you learn in Cantonese will consist of four parts: (1) the characters; (2) the romanization; (3) the tones; (4) the meaning. And getting the tones wrong can sometimes prevent other people from being able to understand you correctly.
As you’ll see below, characters are not as difficult to learn as some might think; romanization is fairly easy for speakers of most languages; but tones can be challenging if one can’t distinguish between the six tones, because if one can’t hear them, then one simply can’t reproduce these when speaking.
That said, this represents an extreme minority of learners. Everyone, to a certain extent, has musical ability, and the stronger your musical affinity, the better you will fare with tonal languages. So if you’re a musician, you’ll have an advantage here.
So these are the seven questions I recommend you consider before taking on the commitment to learn Cantonese.
As a final note in this section, I’d like to say this: please don’t take these as delimiting beliefs or restraints I’m trying to impose on you. If you feel that you are capable of doing more, then by all means, please do so!
As a teacher of mine used to say, “passion trumps all.” If you love the Cantonese language and culture (include the cuisine!), then any of the above difficulties I mentioned will just feel like a blip along the way.
Just understand that my intentions are to give you a realistic picture of what the journey looks like in the long term, based on my learning and teaching experiences, with the hopes that this guide will serve as a realistic roadmap for you.
Related posts from polyglots
I’ve also curated a few articles written by polyglots broaching the subject, which I believe is one of the most important ones to talk about when learning a new language.
Part 1: How To Sound Like A Native Speaker – Romanization, Jyutping and Tones
The starting point: pronunciation
My personal belief is that the first thing (technical wise) we need to do when learning a new language is pronunciation. If we don’t understand how the sound system works, our speaking and listening abilities are hindered, and it becomes difficult to communicate.
There are two parts in Cantonese when it comes to pronunciation: romanization and tones.
Fortunately, for English speakers (and possibly for speakers of many other languages), Cantonese is fairly easy to pronounce, because most of the sounds in Cantonese that can be produced already exist in English.
(In contrast, it’s harder for native Cantonese speakers to learn English or other Romance languages like French or Spanish in terms of the pronunciation.)
Tones, however, can be a bit tricky. I won’t talk too much about it here, because I’ll embed a few videos where I take you through tones from zero to understanding what tones are fully in a very short timeframe. With a bit of time, though, I’m confident that any learner can master tones well – after all, there are only six of them!
The importance of pronunciation
Here, I’d also like to talk briefly about the importance of pronunciation.
One question that language learners ask, when it comes to pronunciation, is, “how important is pronunciation?”
Different people have different answers.
For example, in university, I considered switching majors to a language major, and the admissions officer who was in charge of administration told me that “the language department will have to test you before admitting you to the program – after all, if you can’t replicate these sounds, you can’t speak the language.”
The undertones of what the person said was, “if you’re incapable of uttering the language like a native speaker, don’t even think about getting into the department.” As it’s academia, I can understand the standards observed there.
However, I disagree.
My principle when it comes to pronunciation is simple: “learn it to the extent you can make yourself understood.” If you can communicate, it’s good enough. Any work you add on top of that will be a huge bonus that native speakers will surely come to appreciate.
What this means is that, if one’s speaks with an accent so thick, or one’s pronunciation is so inaccurate to the extent that native speakers, even particularly patient ones, have trouble with understanding, then the learner might need to put in more effort in pronunciation.
Based on the fact that Cantonese is a fairly pronounceable language, I would hazard a guess that very few learners would find themselves there.
That said, we shouldn’t underestimate the power of good pronunciation.
The initial stage of learning a language is communication. And that’s one of the most important functions of languages – to communicate.
But once we’ve gone past that stage, we want to delve deeper, and be more precise with our word usage, grammar, and so forth. And it only stands to reason that our accent should accurately reflect the increased depth in our knowledge.
At the higher levels of language learning, I feel having a decent accent becomes more important. Even if someone were to be very eloquent, a strong accent can give the false impression that the person is not as accomplished in that language, which is a shame.
In the case of Cantonese, as we have here, the significance is twofold: firstly, that every single syllable be uttered correctly and secondly, that each word’s tone be on pitch.
So while we shouldn’t put too much stock in the belief that “pronunciation can make or break a person’s language abilities”, we shouldn’t underestimate it either, particularly at the higher levels.
Shadowing your way to pronunciation level fluency
In my personal opinion, I believe that pronunciation isn’t a one off learning project – i.e. it isn’t a “you get it right once, and you’ll get it right forever” kind of thing. I believe that pronunciation practice comes in stages:
Stage I: Pronunciation of individual sounds
Stage II: Pronunciation of words and short phrases
Stage III: Intonation and stress of entire sentences
Stage IV: Changing registers
However, as you can imagine, we don’t move through each stage in a straight line – we have to keep on revisiting pronunciation at each stage.
To top that off, the higher stages aren’t possible without a sufficient vocabulary and a certain degree of fluency.
One method that’s commonly talked about in the world of pronunciation is shadowing.
In a nutshell, shadowing is a fancy way of saying “copying how native speakers speak”. And it means that in a very literal sense – you literally copy word after word, or at a higher level, phrase after phrase after the native speaker. As you can imagine, you’ll need a relatively large body of audio or video material to work with.
Here’s an example of how shadowing would work in Cantonese:
Another thing that makes pronunciation in Cantonese a breeze for foreigners is that the way that Cantonese sounds are constructed makes it possible to map all (that’s right, you heard right), all the possible combinations of sounds in a chart.
And as it so happens, I’ve created one here at Cantolounge that you can visit here:
(Please note that this chart isn’t optimized for mobile viewing (there’s a slight bug that affects how the chart displays on iOS devices). I apologize for the inconvenience, but in the meanwhile, please consider visiting this chart with a desktop browser.)
I’ve also detailed how you can use this guide over here, so you can reference it and get some ideas as to how it’s made, when it could be useful to revisit this chart, and how to use it.
Jyutping vs. Yale – Cantonese romanization systems
As you learn Cantonese, one peculiarity you’ll discover is that unlike its close cousin, Mandarin, it has no official romanization system.
The most popular romanization systems include Jyutping, Yale and the Sidney Lau systems, however, some authors decide to make up their own systems, and the Hong Kong government uses yet another variation of romanization (this system anglicizes Cantonese words so they’re easier to pronounce for foreigners during the British colonial times).
As an example let’s compare how the place name “灣仔” (a place name in Hong Kong) would be written in these systems.
Jyutping: waan1 zai2
Yale: wāan jái
Sidney Lau: waan1 jai2
HK government: wan chai
Regardless of which system is used (the HK government system doesn’t really count, because it’s not a representation, but an anglicized approximation of the actual sound), it’s important to remember one thing: it’s only a representation of the actual sound.
While many of these romanizations are so close to English sounds you can treat them as strange looking English words, some of them are simply approximations – I highly encourage you to refer to the Jyutping chart I’ve linked to earlier to reference how these sounds are pronounced by native speakers (1500+ recordings).
Nowadays, the most popular systems in use are Jyutping and Yale. While you might find many older textbooks using Yale, more publications are adopting Jyutping as the de facto romanization system.
Unfortunately, this means that you’ll have to get used to both systems – the Cantonese learning materials that you will come across will likely use either. The good news is that the switch is fairly easy and intuitive, so it’s very little effort on your part.
By the way, at Cantolounge, we use Jyutping exclusively.
An introduction to Cantonese tones and romanization
I’ve embedded 7 videos I’ve created to introduce you to tones. Hopefully, this will serve as a gentle, but comprehensive introduction to romanization and how Cantonese tones work.
Introduction to Cantonese pronunciation
How many tones are the in Cantonese?
How to remember Cantonese tones
Learning Cantonese tones the instrumental way
Romanization and tones – things to remember
Cantonese sounds difficult for foreigners
Practicing with tongue twisters
Language is music https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eFpzeGoP-Kg
Part 2: Learn To Speak Cantonese Correctly through Structures
Structures vs. Grammar
Some people love grammar, some people can’t stand grammar. When it comes to language learning, I think the common view is that grammar is one of the most boring and tedious things to wade through in the process.
If you’ve studied French, Spanish or German, you might remember going through conjugation tables in class so often until you’re sick of them.
Or maybe you’ve learnt Japanese or Korean before, where there are virtually an unlimited ways you can attach endings to a sentence, and each carries a very, very specific nuance. Conjugating irregular verbs in Korean can be difficult on the spot too, because they’re, well, irregular.
The good news is that the notions of “conjugation” or “declension” don’t exist in Cantonese. That means that you can rejoice in the fact that you can say goodbye to conjugation tables, gender agreements (at least while learning Cantonese).
That doesn’t mean that Cantonese is a random language. It does have certain rules, but these rules are simpler and fewer when compared to other languages.
“Grammar” is often a word I like to avoid using when talking about Cantonese, because Cantonese grammar is made up of a lot of “structures” – things that you add on to words in order to indicate a particular function.
This is very unique to Chinese languages because a word does not differentiate between a “root form” and its conjugated and declined forms – there’s pretty much the form written in the dictionary, and all other changes simply involve sticking an extra word before, after, or in other positions to indicate various things.
So I’ll refer to “grammar” as “structures” (or use them interchangeably) when speaking of Cantonese “grammar” (structures), because it represents such a large change in thinking about the language compared to other languages.
Why learn structures at all
This is a question that a lot of people then ask – “how do you go about tackling grammar (structures)?” This is a fair question, and I’ll try to answer it.
Following on from the previous part, after you’re done with pronunciation (or at least the basics), where do you go from here? For me, I recommend gaining a basic understanding of grammar.
In relation to “how do you go about tackling structures”, I think it might be interesting to first answer, “why learn structures at all”.
I understand some people are opposed to studying grammar. It’s impractical, and it’s possible to just “pick it up” with enough exposure. There’s also a school of thought that says we should learn grammar on the fly – after all, when it comes up, if you study it then, you’re good enough.
My views are a bit more conservative. In learning a language, I feel that it’s important to start by understanding the basic rules of grammar. To be clear, I’m also opposed to doing a comprehensive study of grammar, but without the basics, it can be difficult to decompose the language into coherent parts.
The reason for doing so is because these “basic elements” are things that you’ll literally see and experience in every sentence you see or produce from that point onwards. An incorrect understanding of those basic rules mean that sentences degrade to a collection of words, and we as learners are prone to making the same basic mistakes over and over again.
Then some might ask questions like, “to what extent should I study grammar?” or “what are these ‘basic elements’ that you talked about?”.
Unfortunately, it’s very hard to give an exact area. However, at this moment, I’ve planned out about 100+ lessons on Cantolounge that talk about structures, but I estimate that the most important ones are the first 20 (maybe up to 30) lessons or so.
I reckon that to read through 20 – 30 explanations on different structures, it should take about 2 months if you read at a fairly leisurely pace (and get a bit of practice). In other words, by spending two month (or less) familiarizing yourself with the basics, you’ll have a much easier time moving forward.
How To Learn Structures
It seems like I went on a longer tangent than I thought. I’ll now circle back to the original question, “how should I go about tackling grammar?”.
First of all, it’s important to have a really good text or resource to work with. I’ll link to two resources that’ll cover all your bases, but if you decide to choose something else, make sure that the resource conforms to these principles:
- It’s not overly technical (in the sense that it has a lot of grammar jargon and writes in an overly complicated way);
- It has explanations that are easy to understand and also discuss the scope of different structures (there are restrictions to how certain structures are used, and it’s important to know them);
- It has enough sample sentences to reference (so you can see how they’re used, typical use cases and contexts).
So, with a grammar resource, I recommend tackling structures the following way:
- Read the chapter title, then pick a sample sentence to read over to gain an intuition of what they’re talking about.
- Then read the explanation once.
- Go back and connect with the sample sentence and see if it makes sense.
- Based on that sentence, try to mimic it and write a similar sentence.
- Then try to write a sentence without these restrictions – any sentence that pops to mind that fits this structure. If possible, have it checked by a native speaker.
I believe this is the best way to consolidate grammar points in Cantonese.
Cantonese grammar decomposition
An important ability that I’d like to share with you here is the ability to distinguish what parts of the sentence are grammar, and what parts of the sentence aren’t. Once you’ve done that, even though it sounds obvious, it’s so much easier to understand and produce sentences than if you take entire sentences and phrases as a whole.
This is also best shown in video, so I’ve created one to demonstrate what I mean.
Grammar decomposition with Cantonese
As you can see, “grammar” is really just a fancy word to describe the rules that make up a language. Once you identify and isolate them, it’s really just a matter of understanding enough words to get the gist of a text, and then to hone in on the details.
This is why learning common Cantonese structures is extremely important – once you can separate the characters that have structural functions from the ones that carry meaning (especially nouns and verbs), you’ll be able to understand Cantonese more intuitively.
Learn a structure once, maybe revise once or twice, and you’re good forever.
Isn’t that a good deal?
Cantonese grammar resources
Most of the grammar you’ll need is surprisingly not a lot, so I’ll draw your attention to only two resources to do with Cantonese grammar. (After all, less is more, right?)
Cantolounge grammar series
Actually, the main bulk of the content here at Cantolounge is devoted to breaking down Cantonese structures and providing examples to supplement them. You can read over them to determine if the style of presentation here is suited to your needs.
Cantonese grammar book (Basic Cantonese)
If you’re really intent on getting a reference book, I have to recommend the classical basic Cantonese grammar text by Virginia Yip and Steven Matthews. The only drawback is they don’t use characters and they use Yale in the book, which I found frustrating to read, but it’s an excellent text that goes through some of the basic elements of Cantonese.
Part 3: How To Be More Precise In Cantonese – Learning Words
After going through basic Cantonese structures, it’s time to expand your vocabulary.
Here, I’d like to repeat what I said in this Cantonese guide. This is a guide for learning Cantonese designed to take a learner to an intermediate level, somewhere around a B1~B2 level.
I’m mentioning this because learning vocabulary up to that level, and beyond that level can be two very different experiences. For the purposes of this guide, however, I’d like to talk about learning vocabulary up to that B1~B2 level.
New Words Via Direct Translation
In the beginning stages of learning, as a general rule, I feel that it’s okay to learn new words through translation (looking up the equivalent word or phrase in the dictionary). The main reason for that, and this is really important, is because words up till this stage are very unlikely to diverge in meaning.
Learning things like “wash my face”, “eat breakfast”, “send a letter”, “go shopping” – if you look these up in the dictionary, they will probably come up with a fairly accurate translation. It’s just a matter of placing that new word in a sentence that you now know is grammatically correct.
But consider words like “bright”, “wrap up”, “consume” – words that take on multiple meanings according to context. These become harder to use translate directly using a dictionary.
By “bright”, do you mean “the lights are bright”, “a bright student”, “a bright future” or something else?
By “wrap up”, do you mean to “wrap up a present”, or to “wrap things up”?
By consume, do you mean “to imbibe”, or “to consume knowledge”?
These variations that often pop up during and after the intermediate stage of learning are more difficult to look up in a traditional dictionary, so we can’t rely on direct translations. But up to around that stage, most words that we learn are fairly straightforward, so it’s okay to do so.
There’s also another reason we want to do direct translation – to translate our most common thoughts into Cantonese. By being aware of what we think about, it’s possible to build a portion of our language core – these are phrases that we can bring out automatically and we’re the most familiar with, because we’re most likely to use them.
How to get to a strong B1~B2 level in Cantonese
Words are undoubtedly the most important element of language learning.
I remember hearing an example once to illustrate this, “if you’re asking a shop assistant where the sugar is in the grocery store, and you know ‘where is the’ but not ‘sugar’, you’ll fail to communicate your question. But if you just know ‘sugar’ but not how to form a question, you’ll get by just fine.” A succinct way to sum up the importance of words.
Once we accept words are important, the question then becomes, “how do we know when’s enough?”
In working with over 100 students in the past few years, the conclusion I’ve come to lies in the word – scope. It sounds a bit silly, but you’ll know that you have enough words when you have enough words. In other words, you have to determine the scope of what you need.
At a B1~B2 level, you should expect to have a sizable vocabulary that falls under two broad categories:
- Situation dialogues (like going to the post office, shopping for groceries);
- Talking about common topics in life (talking about friends, your aspirations, where you’ve travelled to, societal affairs)
The idea behind this strategy is “to have sufficiently prepared answers so you’ll be ready when someone asks you these questions in real life”.
Here are two excellent resources in English that you can use to translate back to Cantonese and get started in preparing your answers.
ITESLJ (The Internet Teachers of English as a Second Language Journal)
For situational dialogues, I highly recommend the Teach Yourself Cantonese series to learn. I’m currently using this with my students as a default text (as well as conversation practice), and it’s wonderful as an introductory text to Cantonese.
Once you’ve finished this, you’ll have a respectable vocabulary count (you’ll learn somewhere around 1100 new words if you’re starting from zero), as well as another chance to consolidate the structures you learnt.
When you’ve gone through most of the questions, you can be confident that you’ll have enough relevant vocabulary to hold a basic conversation on these topics you’ve covered.
Scope and ITESLJ
Grammar as templates
Once you have basic grammar points down, it’s time to test yourself out by translating arbitrary texts. After a certain point in time, you’ll be done with the basics of Cantonese grammar. There’s only so much to learn, after all. And it’s time to get your hands dirty with structures.
Combining the structures you know and looking for new words to place in these structures to express your thoughts in structurally correct sentences is what I like to refer to as “language templating”. Rather than explaining to you what it is, I think it might just be easier to show you with examples.
Instead of thinking of grammar, or even structures, for Cantonese, it might be helpful to think of templates that you can use as scaffolds to place your words in. If I had to visualize it, it looks something like fill in the word exercises that we used to do as kids:
Imagine this for a second…if for every sentence you’re trying to produce, an entire template is already in your mind – all you have to do is to choose the correct word among 3 – 4 words, isn’t that a lot easier than translating the entire thing?
This is the power of understanding some basic grammar, and what comprises a structure, in helping you create interesting Cantonese sentences all on your own.
Because word order is the same as in English (mostly), and Cantonese structures aren’t as rich as they are in Japanese and Korean, it feels like a “five dollar term for a ten cents concept”.
Also, this is obviously a really simple example, but as you move on to create longer sentences, you’ll find that having the concept of scaffolding in your mind really helps (it did for me at least).
How To Use A Chinese Dictionary
In the below video, I’ll talk about some techniques you should be aware of when using a Chinese dictionary, and common pitfalls to avoid.
Recommended Chinese dictionaries
*粵典 (my favourite)
Checking your translations
When you’re coming up with sentences, it’s not too unusual to have doubts about whether those sentences are correct or not. Here are some places you can get corrections.
Cantolounge Questions page
Part 4: Learning Chinese Characters – To Do Or Not To Do?
In this section, I want to talk a little bit about Chinese characters. One of the most common questions Cantonese learners ask when starting out is, “should I learn characters or not?”, and I’ll try to share my thoughts on the topic.
The limits of Cantonese romanization
Try looking at this.
And then try looking at this.
And then try this out.
You probably see where I’m going with this.
When dealing with a foreign language, romanization can be a friendly way to learn the syllabary and see how native speakers have tried to approximate those sounds using the Latin script.
In the beginning, it’s okay to learn Cantonese through Jyutping, because words and phrases are short. Besides, you’re just building up your vocabulary, and I think it’s unreasonable to make the jump to do characters immediately.
The problem is, when you’ve graduated from words and phrases, and you start to work with longer, more complicated sentences, and you start to produce or read paragraphs, it becomes extremely difficult to read in Jyutping.
The reason is that written Chinese, unlike most other languages, does not have spaces. And so as a learner, it can be difficult to know where a word starts and ends in a sentence. As a matter of fact, this is also a very difficult computing problem to solve, and there are no solutions that can perfectly split a sentence up into individual words.
If it’s already difficult to do so (split words up) with Chinese characters, imagine the difficulty it would entail with Jyutping or another romanization system.
As I’ve mentioned before, there are only so many combinations of romanizations in Jyutping. Even when you combine it with the number of tones, the entries that I have found only total up to about 1,500 Jyutping + tone combinations.
What this means is that it’s very likely that you’ll find lots of repetitions in Jyutping if an article were to be written in it, because multiple characters can have the same reading.
That’s one reason Jyutping doesn’t work as a writing system. And one of the reasons that the notion of pinyin replacing Chinese characters was rejected in China.
In the same way that you wouldn’t want to read the Cyrillic script in romanized English, or Japanese in its romanization, you probably also don’t want to read written Chinese in Jyutping.
Chinese characters – to learn or not to learn?
So getting back to the original question, should you, or should you not learn Chinese characters?
To answer that question, I’ll change the question slightly – is it necessary to learn Chinese characters?
The idealistic answer is no, but the realistic answer is yes, with a slight twist.
As I’ve mentioned before, it’s very difficult to read in Jyutping, or another romanization system, but not impossible. You could, potentially, wade through chunks of text in Jyutping and learn Chinese.
But the fact of the matter is that when you’re approaching an intermediate level, most learning materials you’ll come into contact with won’t be written in Jyutping. If you’re lucky, you might find resources that have Jyutping romanization, but almost nothing exclusively in Jyutping.
And further along that point when you’re ready to move on to more complex things like articles or even fully fledged novels (which you’ll need to vastly expand your vocabulary), it’s impossible to read without knowing characters.
However, as I’ve also said, this is a guide that’s written for someone who wants to get to around a B1 level. And because the focus up till this point is on communication, you can do so even with a limited vocabulary.
I would say up till that point, learning Chinese characters is not necessary. In fact, it might be easier to get a feel for how Cantonese works without learning the characters first – they just add to the burden of learning in the beginning.
So in a nutshell, learn Chinese characters after you’re fairly comfortable with forming sentences in Cantonese and you have a respectable set of words to work with.
Two Caveats in Learning Characters
Some people are scared off by the notion of learning characters. As one of the few non alphabet based languages, being able to write Chinese can seem like a daunting task…or is it?
There are two thoughts I’d like to share with you that could help reduce potential anxiety in learning Chinese characters that I’ve thought of when teaching students or read on the Internet.
Reading Chinese vs. writing Chinese
The first very important thing you should understand is that it’s much more important to be able to recognize characters than to be able to write them. This sounds obvious, but it’s vital that you understand this.
I’ll admit – Chinese, especially Cantonese, isn’t the easiest language to write out.
Have you ever heard of a language where people forget how to spell out words? In English, even for an unusual word like “crwth”, people might be able to spell it out approximately. It might be wrong, but understandable.
Welcome to Chinese languages. It’s not too unusual for native speakers to actually forget how to write characters (as well as other strange phenomena like not knowing how to pronounce other people’s names).
For example, I myself, when I was growing up, always mixed up the characters 旅、族、旋 – I always forgot the part on the right side of the character.
One of the biggest contributors to this phenomenon is the digitization of, well, everything. Unlike in the old days, where we had to write everything out by hand, we can simply type things out with a keyboard.
That’s unfortunate for remembering characters for native speakers, but very fortunate for you as a learner. Because you only have to remember what a character looks like when you see it – you don’t have to write it.
Recognizing characters is a much easier task than writing them. So if we changed the original goal from “writing Chinese” to “reading Chinese”, the difficulty is considerably reduced.
Spoken Cantonese vs. written Chinese
My second piece of advice is to learn written Chinese characters first, instead of characters used in spoken Cantonese. Most texts you’ll see online or in books use standard written Chinese, and that’s where you’ll learn a lot of new words.
For example, learning 的 (dik1) instead of 嘅 (ge3 – the ‘s in Cantonese).
And then in our mind, we equate 的 = (literal pronunciation) dik1; (spoken pronunciation) ge3.
And once you’re comfortable with written Chinese characters, it’s not too difficult to add on a basic set of spoken Cantonese characters. This is how we learnt as children, and I recommend that Cantonese learners do the same.
21 Videos to Help You Get Started with Learning Chinese Characters
Because so many people find it quite daunting to get started with it, I’ve created a series of videos to help answer some common questions on Chinese characters, and how to get started.
As they say, “eighty percent of life is showing up”. The most difficult bit is to get started (that and getting over the “intermediate plateau”) – but once you do, you’ll find that writing and reading characters could be enjoyable.
Traditional or simplified?
Learning the basic radicals and what they mean
Understanding stroke order to make your handwriting more native
Copy the 楷體 font in order to neaten up your handwriting
Hanzicraft to understanding what character components are (⿰)
Recommended frequency lists
Some learners like working with frequency lists as a guide to learning new words and characters. And it makes sense to start with the most commonly used words / characters.
I recommend two resources for doing this.
This is an incredible resource put together by this user https://www.reddit.com/user/Sc07713 and a group of volunteers that has over 44,000 entries. This is an excellent place to start with to learn your top 2000 – 3000 words, and determine which characters to learn.
Even though Cantonese isn’t Mandarin, all Chinese languages share the same script. In this case, the words required by the Mandarin exam for foreigners are a good starting point to determine what written Chinese words you should add to your initial vocabulary.
Tools to learn Chinese characters
While I’m aware of the fact that there are some wonderful tools available for learners to study Chinese characters, because I’ve not used them personally, I can’t really say whether they’re effective or not.
However, virtually everyone I’ve met swears by the effectiveness of Skritter, so I’ll link to it here:
How polyglots conquered Chinese characters
I’ve compiled a list of polyglots who have studied Cantonese, Mandarin or Japanese and their thoughts on learning Chinese characters so you can see what their experiences have been like.
Part 5: How To Find The Right Cantonese Teacher For You
Okay, so you’ve studied grammar, have a sizable vocabulary, and you’ve learnt some basic Chinese characters.
This is where I must make it clear – this guide is divided into “parts”, but it doesn’t mean that each part can only be done when the previous part is completed.
For example, you could just as easily have started with words before structures (though I don’t recommend it), or do words and structures together, or start with Chinese characters right from the beginning.
I divided this guide up into parts based on the rough order I think a learner should follow based on my teaching experiences, but there is bound to be overlap, and you should do what feels right to you.
I mention this because the fifth part of this guide is arguably the most contentious of the entire guide – getting a teacher.
The burning question – “when should I get a teacher?”
Unfortunately, I don’t have a standard response when it comes to this.
And unfortunately, the answer that I will give is simply, “it depends on the learner”. I’m not saying this to avoid answering the question, but it really depends on how a learner learns, how busy a learner is, and the learner’s experiences with learning languages.
For example, for someone has quite a bit of spare time to study, has studied an Asian language before to a high level of fluency, I would recommend getting a teacher in the beginning only to check her pronunciation, and conduct independent self study for the first three months or so.
For someone whose native language is far off from Cantonese, who is extremely busy, and perhaps Cantonese is his first foreign language, having a teacher who can guide you could be much more helpful.
To cite one more example, myself, when I was studying Korean in the beginning, I did it independently for a period of time before I felt the need to practice speaking with a teacher, and that worked out fine for me.
So there really is no standard response I can give – you have to make that judgment by yourself.
However, what I can do is to provide you with some guidelines to working with a teacher. Some common questions people ask when it comes to working with a language teacher is:
- Should I take traditional classes or work with an online teacher?
- What should I do with a Cantonese teacher? (Or perhaps more importantly, what shouldn’t I do with my teacher?)
- Is self studying better than working with a teacher?
Since I’ve already answered all of these questions in a separate post, I’ll link directly to it, so you can see what I think.
If you are thinking of looking for a Cantonese teacher, though, I would highly recommend finding a teacher over at italki.com.
If you don’t already know, italki is one of the largest online platforms where you can find teachers of virtually any language (including Cantonese, of course) to learn with.
Here’s a link to italki’s Cantonese teachers:
Why I don’t recommend doing “language exchanges”
Another question that people often ask is, “should I get a language partner to practice with?”
In my opinion, I’m pretty much against having a language partner. As an extended conclusion, I think that having a friend to exchange language with you is even worse.
(Don’t misunderstand me – I think it’s a wonderful thing to make friends in foreign countries, but to expect these foreign friends to teach you language is not realistic.)
In theory, having a language partner is great because you can get that level of immersion that you might not be able to get if you can’t travel, for instance, to Hong Kong.
Unfortunately, finding the right partner to practice with doesn’t tend to work very well. Let me try to explain why language partners aren’t so good, and why it’s worth paying someone to work on Cantonese with you.
Let’s start by painting a picture of what an ideal exchange partner looks like:
- S/he should be consistently available to do language exchanges with you (either 50:50 in one session, or maybe alternating languages in different sessions);
- S/he should be sufficiently motivated to keep on doing this language exchange with you;
- S/he should be at around the same level in his/her target language, as your level in your target language;
- S/he should have an agreeable personality (is willing to talk, is generally likable, as a bonus, shares similar interests with you, but not necessary – in contrast, someone who’s disagreeable is confrontational, has negative world views, is pessimistic, etc.);
- S/he should be willing to offer you the same level of assistance as you offer them;
- S/he should be patient and willing to slow down for you when you don’t understand;
- S/he should be willing to learn Jyutping or another romanization system to help you with your Cantonese (native Cantonese speakers don’t know any romanization systems, and certainly don’t know Cantonese tones);
- The exchange should be like speaking among friends – there shouldn’t be any commercial, romantic or activities of that nature in the exchange.
There are more, but these are generally the most important traits I’d like to see in my exchange partners.
I’ve done language exchanges a few times in French, Korean, Japanese and Spanish, and they’ve never worked out too well for me.
While I’ve met some wonderful people online, and some of them have become my friends (whom I’ve met in person), most failed mostly because of reasons 2 and 3 above.
You see, to facilitate a language exchange, trait #3, having a partner of roughly the same ability in the target language is extremely vital to the success of this exchange. If one person has a much higher ability in the language, the exchange falls apart very soon, if not instantly.
Because it’s much more difficult to help someone who’s just starting out in a language, than someone who’s at a strong intermediate level. Doing so requires a functional understanding of things like grammar rules and how to teach, which most native speakers simply don’t have.
In addition, my personal experiences have taught me that language exchanges are not for helping you in the beginning stages.
If you’re learning Cantonese, and your partner is learning English, the exchange is extremely unlikely to work if you can’t formulate sentences like “I’m from the States, and I’m currently learning Cantonese because I have extended family I want to speak to”.
In other words, a certain level of fluidity is necessary for the exchange to be successful.
And unfortunately, many Cantonese speakers, especially those from Hong Kong, will have an upper intermediate, if not outright, high level of English ability already, so Cantonese learners might be disadvantaged right off the bat.
I hate to have to say this as well, but good friends don’t make good teachers. As a matter of fact, before we judge their “teacher like qualities”, friends are automatically bad candidates to be teachers.
Because of the friendship between you and your friend. If you were to start exchanging language with a friend, your friend might feel that it’s too intrusive to point out your mistakes, and holds back from doing that in order to preserve your friendship.
You don’t learn anything, and for the same reason, your friend doesn’t learn anything, and all you end up with is wasted time.
So spending a small amount of money to pay someone to practice language, I feel, is well worth the investment in the long run.
Part 6: Finding Inspiration When Stuck
I’d like to take this opportunity to share some of my thoughts on learning Cantonese effectively, so you can get the most out of your time learning, and avoid feeling majorly frustrated (slight frustration is inevitable, but constant frustration is a sign that something is wrong).
Let’s dive into this.
Getting to a B1 Cantonese level
As I’ve repeated myself more times than I’d like to count, this guide was written with a Cantonese learner wanting to get to approximately a B1 (going on to B2) level in mind.
And you’ll be surprised just how much you can express even at this level.
Because of the simplicity of Cantonese, you get to skip all of the nuances that are found in different verb endings in Japanese and Korean, and you don’t have to feel like you want to yank your hair out trying to conjugate a word and take word agreement into consideration with the Romance and Slavic languages.
But first of all, I’d like to repeat the CEFR’s definition of what reaching a B1 level means. It consists of four bullet points:
- Can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc.
- Can deal with most situations likely to arise while travelling in an area where the language is spoken.
- Can produce simple connected text on topics that are familiar or of personal interest.
- Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes and ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.
In other words, this is a survival level of language ability – having the basic ability to communicate and express yourself on simple topics.
As an extension of this, I remember reading in one of Olly Richard’s posts that (paraphrasing) “if you learn multiple languages, a recommended target is to get to a strong B2 level. This is because once you’ve reached this level, it’s unlikely the language will disappear even after a period of nonuse.”
In other words, there’s only one level between B1 and B2, and I’m here to, firstly, convince you that getting to B1 is a fairly straightforward task.
There are three main reasons for this (and I hope that this will motivate you to get to this level):
- There is a very well defined scope of words and structures you need to learn;
- The words you learn don’t diverge in meaning too much, and even for the ones that do, you don’t need to be aware of them at this stage (雞翼 gai1 jik6 is chicken wings, 行 haang4 is to walk);
- There are many materials that are designed to get you up to that level.
As a conservative estimate, going through a course like Teach Yourself Cantonese, or going through the first 30 lessons here at Cantolounge, along with 2500 words (an estimate of the equivalent words you need at the equivalent B1 level in the Mandarin exam, which should be a fairly accurate benchmark for Cantonese as well) is enough to get you to a B1 level.
At a leisurely pace, going through 30 lessons might take about two months, going through 2500 words at 20 words a day (which is the default daily word size in ANKI) will take you about four months. This means that a rough time estimate in getting to a B1 level is about half a year – at a very leisurely pace.
(I’m not recommending that you use these exclusively, or that ANKI is the way, or is a thing that you do, but this serves as the basis of what I believe to be a generally reliable estimate.)
If you are extra motivated, or if you’re willing to spend extra time, you can accelerate this even further and reduce the timeframe necessary.
My personal thoughts on learning Cantonese
1. It’s important to be consistent. 15 minutes a day (which is doable for everyone) is preferable to cramming 5 hours a day for a month and then stopping for a year.
2. Pick mini projects to work on and focus exclusively on them for a period of time. For example, if you feel like your ability to produce complex sentences, ones including relative clauses (things like “the person who’s standing there”, or “the cat that’s sleeping on the carpet”), then spend maybe two to three days fixing it. Mini projects that hone in on specific things are more likely to keep you engaged than generic goals like “study for an hour every day”.
3. It’s important to enjoy what you’re doing. Effective methods are only effective if you enjoy them. If you don’t enjoy the activity, it can leave a scar inside you for a long time, and affects your motivation in the future for studying the language.
We should distinguish between this and avoiding doing something because it’s hard, but if it’s something you genuinely don’t enjoy (for example, transcribing), then you might be better off spending your time doing something else.
4. Reflect on your progress and method consistently. I’ve recently added a course on my teaching page called “Language Coaching” (this is not shameless self-promotion, but rather a light mention in relation to this point). The reason I did this is because for students, working with online teachers sometimes means that you’re personally accountable for everything you’re doing, but it doesn’t have to be so.
Every three to four sessions, I feel that it’s useful to have a quick 30 minute consult as a review of what you learnt, or as a way for the teacher to give you feedback on your progress. This shows whether you’ve been diligent in learning, and whether your learning methods are effective.
5. Take a level test to see if you’re really at the level you think you are. This is closely related to the previous thought. We all have a rough idea as to where our abilities lie, but have we overestimated or underestimated them?
The only way is to have a native Cantonese teacher sit down with you, provide you with a test of some sort (perhaps questions of increasing difficulty), and then assess your level based on your performance.This is preferable to sitting a test, and you can do this regularly, somewhat like a health checkup, to see how you’re progressing.
6. Find more chances to integrate Cantonese in your life. This has always been a struggle for me, because while it’s not too difficult to find native speakers to speak to, it’s always difficult to integrate the language more fully in your lives, especially if you’re not in the country.
However, there are still many things you can do. Changing your phone to Cantonese, playing Cantonese music, keeping a Chinese journal, watching TVB dramas – these are all chances to better integrate Cantonese into your life.
7. Don’t forget why you’re learning Cantonese in the first place. This is a huge one. Oftentimes, because we’re so involved with the mechanics, or the “how” of the learning process, we often forget why we’re learning the language in the first place.
It never hurts to write down maybe three reasons for learning Cantonese, and once in a while (or maybe everyday), you can then refer to that piece of paper and read it out loud to remind yourself of those reasons.
8. It’s okay to lapse. Last but not least, it’s okay to lapse. We’ve all been there. It becomes demotivating, frustrating, life gets in the way.
Learn to forgive yourself, look to the future, and move on. Don’t blame yourself if you miss a session here or there – try your best, and you’ll eventually learn to accept that language learning is not smooth sailing – it’s riddled with imperfections, both in strategy and execution.
Inspiration from top experts and polyglots
On top of that, I want to share with you a few tips and inspiration that I got from these experts at learning languages to help you feel better about the Cantonese learning process if you ever feel like you’ve hit a brick wall (and I can guarantee you will – every language learner does).
So here goes.
On forgetting things
“If you learn something quickly you also forget it quickly. Luckily, this has an easy solution: small practice sessions, scheduled in advance.”
– Scott Young
On preparation in learning Chinese before speaking
– Scott Young
(This is for Mandarin, but I suspect it’s about the same for Cantonese.)
On goal setting
“Traditional goal-setting in language learning simply isn’t going to work for 99% of people. … A “Sprint” is when you devote a set period of time to doing one thing, and one thing only, to completion. The idea is to put everything else aside and get this one thing done.”
– Olly Richards
On speaking from day one
“However, I want to suggest a very simple and overlooked reason why the speak from day one advice I so often discuss may well be more preferable than alternatives: it depends on whether you really want to speak the language or not.”
– Benny Lewis
On how to speak a language
“The only way to speak a language is to OPEN YOUR MOUTH AND SAY SOMETHING.”
– Benny Lewis
On the importance of the linguistic core
“Developing a linguistic core provides a solid grounding in the language. Quality of study in the first 8 to 12 months is crucial.”
– Luca Lampariello
On the notion of difficulty
“If someone tells you that you’ll “never learn a language,” that learning a particular language is “impossible”, or that it will take “forever”, realise that that is just that person’s perception of the problem, and likely in no way represents the reality of learning that language.”
– Luca Lampariello
On getting used to new sounds in a language
“To learn any language, you have to take it as it is. …Or else, you’re speaking a new language with the sounds of your native tongue. That is about as effective as waltzing to African drum beats.”
– Susanna Zaraysky
On reasons to learn Cantonese
“你地唔好擔心嗰啲話你應該學普通話或者係廣東話對你嚟講太難嘅朋友，鐘意學乜嘢就學乜嘢，好玩就得嘅喇。(Don’t worry about those who tell you you should learn Mandarin instead, or that Cantonese might be too hard for you, if you like learning it, just learn it, the most important thing is that it should be fun.)”
– Chris Parker
On learning like a child
“Say something wrong. Be corrected. Say the same thing wrong again. Be corrected. Say the same thing wrong again. Be corrected. Etc…. and yet never lose the desire to keep communicating.”
– John Pasden
On what starting as a stone cold beginner feels like
“The notion that these noises make up a real language akin to English is ridiculous to people in this stage.”
– John Pasden
On the importance of knowing the why
“Your attitude is of course closely related to why you want to learn Chinese (if you’re forced to learn Chinese, you will probably be inclined towards a negative attitude), but personality is also an important factor.”
– Olle Linge
On the language learning equation
“I believe there are three main areas into which most other tweaks, hacks and upgrades can be sorted. … Content x Time x Method = Proficiency gain”
– Olle Linge
On independent learning
“The most powerful resource in language learning is the learner. Most people can become effective independent language learners. They just need to be shown how.”
– Steve Kaufmann
On language learning obstacles
“…But what is worse, if they do start to try to learn a language, they often seem to want this structured, “’work’ (grammar, sentence structure, memorizing vocabulary) ” approach, and resist more natural, more enjoyable and more effective approaches.” – Steve Kaufmann
On questioning the “follow a course and do as it says” approach
“I think that even if you’re at a basic level, you can benefit from trying to read inter-mediate content already especially content that you are familiar with in your language and that you enjoy, perhaps content about a hobby that you have and something that really interests you; perhaps like sports or whatever.”
– Gabriel Silva
On comparing us to other language learners
“If we measure our achievements against others’ then we will spiral down into a pit of self-despair and misery and then we probably wouldn’t have any language achievements to share.”
– Lindsay from Lindsay Does Languages
“…Some people might actually have some head-start. But one thing is sure – no magical combinations of neural networks will ever make you a polyglot if you don’t put in the long hours.”
– Bartosz Czekala
On individual work
“What’s more, you shouldn’t forget that the real work is always done in solitude. Teachers or language partners might show you what to concentrate on but it’s up to you to put this knowledge into practice.”
– Bartosz Czekala
“Forget about getting everything right. Embrace sloppiness. Nobody cares if you use the wrong tense or forget a word.”
– Donovan Nagel
On learner’s block
“You have learner’s block (hit a plateau) for one of two reasons: 1) You already achieved your goals. 2) You have no goals (or the ones you have are rubbish).”
– Donovan Nagel
On celebrating success
“Celebrating what you’ve already achieved is how to stay motivated when learning a foreign language. We often focus on the future and the things we haven’t learned yet, and sometimes forget about all the impressive things we already know and do.”
– Agnieszka Murdoch
On learning by yourself
“You can learn more than you think by yourself. With all the language blogs, resources and courses available online, sometimes there’s really no need for a physical class.”
– Agnieszka Murdoch
On the original purpose of learning languages
“The exam papers are about correct grammar and vocabulary. That’s undoubtedly important, but it misses out on the greatest part of learning a language: realizing that you can make an amazing connection, right now.”
– Kerstin, Fluent Language
On motivation for learning Chinese
“For many the idea of learning Chinese is intriguing and they know knowing Chinese would help their daily lives in China, but unfortunately that isn’t necessarily enough for motivating your self to actually make time for studying.”
– Sara Jaaksola
On appreciating foreign scripts
“The writing system is also part of the culture of the country and should not be left out but appreciated and studied in detail, such as the stroke order for Chinese characters or the Korean hangul alphabet.”
– Linda, Linda Goes East
“Inspiration only comes knocking at your door if you create the right situation for it. And the right situation is any time you spend with your learning materials.”
– Shannon Kennedy
On the ease and difficulty of every language
“While every language will pose specific challenges, every language also blesses learners with some aspects that are rather easy (especially for native speakers of English).”
– John Fotheringham
On the language learning process
“Learning a language may not be easy, but it’s certainly not complicated. All you have to do is “show up” and give your brain the exposure and practice it needs to make sense of the new sounds, patterns, and symbols. Do this enough times in meaningful contexts, and your brain will automatically perform its amazing evolutionary feat: building the robust procedural memories that enable you to understand and produce a language at lightning speed.”
– John Fotheringham
On the objective of a class from a teacher’s perspective
“…the aim of the whole teaching session is not to tell the student what mistake, or every single mistake, he has made, that’s not the aim of the session. The aim of the session should be very functional, and very effective, that is, the student should leave the class speaking better than he came in.”
– Vladimir Skultety
On the most important goal of learning a language
“…that actually this is the main goal – to start speaking as fast as you can, and start practising the language as fast as you can.” – Vladimir Skultety
All of the above quotes are from some of the most respected polyglots around the world, and while not all of it is strictly related to learning Cantonese, you’ll find that the advice they’ve given is true and can hopefully provide you with a motivational boost and direction whenever you feel stuck (I know they have in the past for me).
Part 7: Cantonese Dictionaries And Typing Cantonese
Learning Cantonese, fortunately or unfortunately, comes with two additional complications – learning how to type Chinese characters, and learning how to look up words in dictionaries (although it’s becoming a lot easier nowadays).
Problems with Typing Chinese
The disadvantages of not having an alphabet based language means that you can’t actually spell out a word – typing a Chinese word out involves two steps:
- Typing out the romanization (of either a single character or a word)
- Browsing through a list of words and selecting the right one
This isn’t really possible for new words because you wouldn’t know how a word is pronounced. You can sometimes guess, but guesses can be wrong.
Do you see why we mentioned that recognizing Chinese characters is more important than writing Chinese characters out by hand now?
To type at a normal speed, you have to be able to browse through many characters quickly.
This is what it usually looks like to select a character from a list of characters:
This isn’t much of a problem for most words, because Chinese typing software nowadays do an excellent job at predicting what you’re trying to type (words appear based on their frequencies, and based on your typing history).
Have a look at the screenshot below when trying to type “游水” (jau4 seoi2, swimming). Can you spot the right entry?
However, the problem comes when you’re trying to type things like words that have single characters, specialized names that the typing software might not have seen before, or rare characters that might not even be in the system.
Let’s try 特幼嬰兒棉棒 (dak6 jau3 jing1 ji4 min4 paang5, super slim baby cotton tips):
Things like these, even if you split it up into three components “特幼 / 嬰兒 / 棉棒”, it would still not be entirely correct.
In this case, we have to type out each character, search through a few pages of characters before being able to input the right one.
However, the good news is that this is rarely the case. Most of the things we need to communicate, unless they’re extremely complicated, can be correctly predicted by Chinese typing software, and it usually comes up in the top three results, if not the first one.
Using a Chinese dictionary
Looking up a Chinese character or word in a Chinese dictionary, however, is more challenging.
Chinese is probably the only language (alongside Japanese) where learning how to look a word up in the dictionary is an actual skill.
I’m not joking.
The other day I was in the bookstore, there was actually a booklet in one of the dictionaries I was browsing that teaches students (native Cantonese speakers) how to use the dictionary.
Assuming you use an online dictionary, it’s still not that easy. In order to input the character, you must either be able to draw out the strokes, or know how it’s pronounced. Either activity has a certain learning curve, and guessing the pronunciation of a word is sometimes just that – guesswork.
And sometimes, the character doesn’t even exist.
Or, at least, this was how it used to be.
In the modern age, fortunately, there’s no need to struggle with either of these activities. In the below video, I’ll show you how to use two different tools to help input characters you’re unfamiliar with, without having to handwrite the character, or guess its pronunciation.
Two Types of Chinese Dictionaries
In Chinese, also unlike most languages, there are two types of dictionaries you can purchase (and I’m not referring to slang dictionaries, thesauruses and idioms dictionaries): the 字典 (zi6 din2) and 詞典 (ci4 din2).
(Occasionally, you’ll see dictionaries called 辭典 ci4 din2, but this is not the same as 詞典. These are more complex, e.g. technical areas like law and medicine and are generally not the ones you want.)
As I’ve explained before, in English, there are 26 letters that make the alphabet. These are the smallest units, or graphemes, of the language. The equivalent in Chinese is characters.
This is an important distinction that might confuse the beginner learner, so I’ll repeat it: a character is the smallest standalone unit in Chinese, and a Chinese word is made up of one or more characters.
The reason I’m mentioning it again is because in Chinese, you’ll find that there are “字典”, which are character dictionaries, and “詞典”, which are word dictionaries.
The type you want to look for, should you decide to get a Chinese Chinese dictionary, is the word dictionary.
7 Videos on Cantonese typing and using Chinese dictionaries
Because it’s rather lengthy to explain this in text, I’d like to share seven videos I shot to show you how to actually type in Cantonese (perhaps the above screenshots intrigued you), and how to use Chinese dictionaries (electronic and paperback ones).
How to use a paper dictionary
How to split a Chinese sentence
How to type Cantonese
Practice typing to improve your character recognition
Recommended Cantonese dictionaries
Pleco’s ABC Cantonese Dictionary (USD 29.99)
This is the only dictionary on the list that’s paid, but because it’s such an amazing dictionary, I feel compelled to list it at the top of the list. It’s amazing not only in terms of its editorial quality, but also because of the amount of effort that went into writing this dictionary from scratch. The author of this Cantonese English dictionary, Professor Robert Bauer, spent over a decade writing and editing this massive dictionary. With over 16,000 Cantonese specific words, and spanning 15,000 example sentences, you’ll find that this is the most up-to-date, the most comprehensive Cantonese English dictionary on the planet.
As one of the rare Cantonese dictionaries out there, I highly encourage you to pay a visit to the Pleco store – it’s an indispensable part of your journey in learning Cantonese.
It’s currently only available on Android and iOS devices, but I will update this once it becomes available on other devices.
As a beginner, because it’s still one of the most comprehensive dictionaries around, I’d still recommend using Adam Sheik’s dictionary.
However, there have been alternative dictionaries that have popped up the past few years and show much potential, so even though they don’t have as many entries (as of this writing), you might find them to be of better quality, or as alternative resources you can look to.
粵典 (jyut6 din2)
This is one of my favourite dictionaries. While it only supports searching Chinese words for now, the collection of words are extremely colloquial (Cantonese only words), they have sample sentences (which is simply amazing), and they have English translations.
This isn’t just any random dictionary that a bunch of people pulled from another data file, this is actually a dictionary written by a group of native Cantonese speakers. As such, I have confidence that the group who put this together will continue to develop a fantastic Cantonese dictionary in the years to come.
Please be sure to bookmark them!
粵語審音配詞字庫 (jyut6 jyu5 sam2 jam1 pui3 ci4 zi6 fu3)
This is a Cantonese words dictionary published by the Chinese University in Hong Kong, one of the most respected institutions in the region. I often use this site when I have words I don’t know how to pronounce. This is possibly the most authoritative dictionary online when it comes to looking up the pronunciation of individual characters.
However, it’s not a dictionary in the sense that it doesn’t have words nor definitions of any sort. But because it’s so useful, I have to mention it.
This is by far my favourite resource online. I’ve never been a huge fan of translation sites…until I found this site.
As you can see from my word usage, this isn’t so much a dictionary as it is a translation site.
But don’t get me wrong – these are not generated by machines – these are samples of texts that are scoured from the web from bilingual or multilingual sites from trusted, authoritative sources, so the translation quality is extremely high.
I used this mostly for French-English translations, but its Chinese-English translation site is just as comprehensive.
However, all the Chinese text doesn’t come with any romanization, and it’s all in characters. This is why it’s not strictly a resource you can use in the beginning, but at an intermediate stage or above, this is something I’m certain you’ll come to love, if not rely on.
Character to Jyutping converters – to use or not to use?
Since we’re on the subject of dictionaries, I thought I’d mention character to Jyutping converter tools.
In the beginning, it’s very tempting to just input an entire sentence (or maybe even a paragraph) into a character to Jyutping converter. However, this is an extremely bad idea.
As I’ve mentioned above in the video, Chinese doesn’t have spaces. Computer scientists have designed very clever algorithms to split Chinese text, but they’re still not 100% accurate.
The ones I’ve seen don’t split text properly, which is why they were riddled with errors.
The second problem with most converters I’ve seen is that characters can have multiple readings depending on the context, and these converters have limited functionality that don’t take this into consideration.
I recommend splitting the sentence up yourself based on the structural rules you learnt about Cantonese, then inputting unfamiliar words into one of the above dictionaries I mentioned.
Because I don’t recommend the use of these converters, I won’t link to them.
Cantonese Trivia and FAQ’s
In this section, I’ve compiled a list of the most commonly asked questions and some trivia about Cantonese. Here goes.
- Where is Cantonese spoken?
According to Ethnologue, one of the most authoritative bodies on keeping track of statistics to do with languages, Cantonese in total has about 72.9 million speakers worldwide. It’s mainly spoken in the Guangdong province in China, and to a lesser extent in the Guangxi, Hainan and Hunan provinces.
In terms of other regions that use it, Cantonese is also spoken in Australia, Brunei, Canada, Hong Kong, Macau, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Suriname, Thailand and Vietnam, as well as many overseas Chinese communities.
- How different are Mandarin and Cantonese?
All Chinese languages share the same written form, which is based on the Beijing dialect, usually seen as the de facto basis of comparison for spoken Mandarin nowadays. In terms of writing, the major difference is the use of simplified characters in China and Singapore, and traditional characters in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.
However, books that are written by Chinese, Taiwanese and Hong Kong authors vary slightly in style, due to the influence of local dialects on word choice, but there is generally no difficulty in understanding texts written by different Chinese people.
Spoken Cantonese, however, is different from Mandarin. It’s generally accepted that Mandarin native speakers cannot understand Cantonese, and vice versa. However, while either is lauded (or notorious) for being some of the most difficult languages to learn in the world, switching from one to the other is fairly non-trivial (Cantonese to Mandarin more so than the other way round).
In terms of grammar, Mandarin and Cantonese share the same syntactic makeup (word order, no tenses, etc.). There are slight differences in grammar, for example, Cantonese classifiers are different than Mandarin classifiers, Cantonese has a richer range of final particles (語氣助詞 jyu5 hei3 zo6 ci4), and they’re much more nuanced, and specific to expressing certain moods or situations.
As for word choice, the differences can be huge or none depending on the context. For everyday word usage, Cantonese often has very colloquial, colourful expressions to express certain concepts. For example, 上岸 (soeng5 on6) means to “get on shore”, but it can also mean “to get rich”. This nuance doesn’t exist in Mandarin (although the two languages tend to borrow colloquial terms from each other, like how Cantonese speakers sometimes say 高富帥 gou1 fu3 seoi3, which means “tall, rich and handsome”, when it originated from Mandarin).
However, when talking about topics of a more technical nature, especially when it comes to names, proper terms, and so forth – these tend to remain consistent between Mandarin and Cantonese.
For example, 醫療機構 (ji1 liu4 gei1 kau3, medical organization) is the same in both languages; 研究中心 (jin4 gau3 zung1 sam1) is the same as well. Some differences exist, but users of either adopt the other easily. For instance, a police station is 警署 (ging2 cyu5) in Cantonese and 派出所 (pinyin – pai4 chu1 suo3) in Mandarin.
There are also more tones in Cantonese than in Mandarin, but generally, with enough work and patience, it’s not difficult to go from one to the other.
As a matter of fact, Cantonese sounds are easier to pronounce for English speakers than Mandarin speakers, and Cantonese doesn’t have a silent tone, nor do we have to deal with tone changes (which can get quite annoying when you have three, four or more consecutive third tones in Mandarin).
So to answer the original question, they are undoubtedly different languages (or dialects, I won’t argue this here), but they share more in common than many would think. An analogy I’d use is perhaps going from British English to Australian English, and switching between Mandarin and Cantonese would be a step up from that in terms of difficulty.
- What are the differences between written and spoken Cantonese?
To be more precise, there’s only “spoken Cantonese” and “written Chinese”. Cantonese is generally not written down except for in informal settings such as chatting with friends, maybe in local Hong Kong advertisements, when updating one’s Facebook status, etc.
And when it is written down in text, there are a lot of characters that are generally represented with homonyms (different words with the same sound), because many characters are either too difficult to write down, the real character is unknown, or there’s really no consensus as to what the standard character is. For example, 仲 and 重 (zung6, yet) are often used interchangeably.
For official purposes, however, only standard written Chinese or English is used.
Written Chinese and spoken Cantonese are different. There are words that are used only in written Chinese, some that are used only in spoken Cantonese, and those that can be used in either. Learning how to distinguish between the two can seem daunting, but generally, if it’s understandable, mixing the two up isn’t a huge problem for learners.
For example, 馬騮 (maa5 lau1) is the spoken Cantonese form for monkey, and 猴子 (hau4 zi2) is the proper written version. They’re generally mutually exclusive in usage, but it’s understood even if you mix them up.
In terms of learning, it’s easier to learn standard written Chinese, and then make the shift slowly to spoken Cantonese. Cantonese is rarely written down, and it is therefore more difficult to learn Cantonese specific words. Speaking the same way one writes might make the learner sound a bit more robotic, but with enough exchanges with natives, most of this “robotic” feel will fade away.
- What are Cantonese particles?
Cantonese grammar has something unique that doesn’t exist in European languages – final particles.
A really good way of understanding particles, surprisingly, isn’t through Cantonese, but through Singlish (Singaporean English).
Perhaps you’ve seen something like the image below?
In Singlish (and I don’t claim to know it, I’ve just heard explanations of it online), you can add many things to the end of a sentence or question that changes what you mean slightly, and can also change your tone. We have something similar in Cantonese, and we call them “particles”.
Particles are usually made up of one, two or three characters. They’re short, but surprisingly contain a lot of a speaker’s sentiment. While dropping them doesn’t affect the meaning of a sentence, it can change how the sentence feels entirely.
heoi3 m4 heoi3 sik6 faan6?
Shall we eat? (neutral)
heoi3 m4 heoi3 sik6 faan6 ne1?
Shall we eat? (softened tone)
heoi3 m4 heoi3 sik6 faan6 zek1?
Do you want to eat or not? (irritation)
heoi3 m4 heoi3 sik6 faan6 ge2?
Are you going to eat or not? (if not, I’ll go myself, want clarification)
My advice for beginners is simply to ignore particles except maybe the first few essential ones.
Try to listen how particles are spoken (what emotion do you feel the speaker is feeling when s/he speaks), but don’t worry too much about using them. Understanding is more important than production, and even with understanding, you want to focus on what someone’s saying before tuning in to how they’re saying it.
- How can I guess the reading of a Chinese character?
Characters still represent one of the most difficult tasks for a foreign learner. However, as we’ve mentioned above, our objective is to learn how to recognize characters, not write them. This simplifies the task a lot.
Guessing the pronunciation of a Chinese character is actually possible in some cases. You can never know for sure, but you can generate a good guess.
However, to be able to guess, you must already have a basic set of characters – if you have zero characters, it’s impossible to guess how a character is pronounced, much unlike an English word where sound information is embedded into the spelling of a word.
For example, it’s generally accepted that for chemical elements, you’ll typically find that even though you might not have seen the character before, the pronunciation of it is probably based on the right hand side (if applicable) component of the character.
Look at the following chemical elements and their corresponding characters:
You probably already know similar characters, like
(Did you notice that these all share the same radical – 金 gam1, meaning gold?)
If you guessed they’re similar in pronunciation, you’re absolutely right. The correct pronunciations are:
Magnesium 鎂 mei5
Sodium 鈉 naap6
Aluminium 鋁 leoi5
Manganese 錳 maang5
Copper 銅 tung4
Tungsten 鎢 wu1
The only one that’s incongruent is 內 and 鈉, but you’ll soon learn that there is, indeed, a similarly pronounced character – 納 (naap6). We just based the reading off the wrong character.
This is an excellent video that talks about how the sound system for Chinese characters work. It’s made for Mandarin, but the principles applies to Cantonese as well. Take a look here.
The awesome team behind the dictionary built on those principles:
The original post that goes more in depth to do with Chinese’s sound system
- What’s a Chinese character?
A Chinese character is the smallest unit of the Chinese language that contains meaning.
I guess you could argue that the smallest unit in Chinese is radicals, components, or even strokes, but these on their own don’t carry any meaning.
- Is there a proficiency exam like the HSK?
HSK (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi) is the official language exam for Mandarin in China.
As of this writing, there isn’t an official Cantonese exam recognized in Hong Kong or Macau by the government (that I’m aware of), but there are Cantonese exams.
This is the Computerized Oral Proficiency Assessment (COPA), which is held regularly at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. There are different exams depending on whether you’re an English, Japanese or Korean speaker, but it looks to me like a practical exam for assessing Cantonese proficiency.
The Hong Kong government also assess the Chinese proficiency of candidates who wish to enter civil service (for certain posts, and among certain candidates), but it seems only to test written Chinese, and is relatively difficult for foreigners. Here’s a sample set of questions for those who are interested:
The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) also have Cantonese as an available language for testing. Here’s a link for your reference:
- How long will it take me to learn Cantonese?
This is a question that many people ask, and the best answer I’ve come across is simply “it depends”. Specifically, it depends on the following (and maybe more factors):
- Passion / interest in Cantonese
- Time you can spend studying Cantonese everyday
- Effectiveness of your learning methodology
- Linguistic distance between your native languages and Cantonese
- Your language learning experience
- Regular exposure to Cantonese
- Whether you need Cantonese or not (work, communicating with family, etc.)
- Whether you have the opportunity to study in a Cantonese medium environment or not
- The level you’re aiming for
- Whether you choose to learn characters or not
- Whether you read or not
The more you score in each factor, the faster you’ll learn Cantonese.
The official answer given by the FSI (Foreign Service Institute) is that for English speakers, it involves roughly 2200 hours in 88 weeks (a little over 1.5 years) of study time to be proficient at it. That’s roughly 25 hours per week, so that might come close to about five hours of study a day, five days a week.
But, that estimate is based on how much time it takes to get to a relatively high level. If you’re aiming for a conversational proficiency, it’ll only take a fraction of that. And if you’re open minded about learning languages, you can start speaking Cantonese from day one if you want.
So my answer would be “quite long for English speakers and for speakers from other language groups that don’t have cognates with Chinese to get to a relatively good level”, but “not very long to start communicating”.
- Is it possible to learn to speak Cantonese without knowing how to write it?
This really depends on what level you want to take your Cantonese to. For the purposes of this guide, I assume you want to communicate with others in Cantonese. People think that Chinese languages are hard to learn, but that’s only half true – Chinese is hard to write, but compared to European languages, or even other Asian languages, it’s easy to speak (the grammar is straightforward, and the pronunciation is easy for speakers of most languages).
So if you want to communicate and speak only, then yes, you can speak Cantonese (and speak it really well) without ever needing to know how to read or write.
But if you want to take your Cantonese to the next level, maybe you want to use it for correspondence at work, or to write letters, or even a journal in Chinese, then you’d obviously need to write it. Not the mention you’ll be missing out on newspapers, magazines, books, and Cantonese movies in Chinese (in Hong Kong, Taiwan and China) if you decide to not learn characters.
Learning vocabulary at the higher levels is tough without knowing the script. If you have been around romanization for a while, you’ll come to agree that it’s not an ideal way to write Chinese.
So the short answer is yes (up till a strong intermediate, communicative level), but no (if you want an all rounded, higher level proficiency).
- How hard is learning Cantonese?
Difficulty is relative, and it mainly depends on what your native languages are. If they’re not close to Chinese at all (like Russian), then it will be harder than for someone who speaks a language related to Cantonese (like Vietnamese).
The most crippling aspect of learning Cantonese, however, isn’t so much related to the technical aspect of learning the language. Take Japanese, for example. It’s also a very hard language for English speakers, and yet there are many proficient speakers around the world. The reason is because it has many wonderful learning resources for learning Japanese.
Cantonese suffers from not having enough learning materials for foreigners. That is the main difficulty in learning Cantonese. Even Mandarin, its close cousin, is easier than Cantonese just because it has thousands (if not more) of organizations, and countless Mandarin teachers around the world to bridge that gap.
More importantly, Mandarin is standardized. Standardized romanization, consistency between the written and spoken word, and consistent across China. Cantonese has never been standardized – its growth and usage has mainly been dependent on the socioeconomic climate of Hong Kong and Macau.
This is, in part, what Cantolounge is for. While it’s just a small site, I hope it can contribute towards helping foreigners who would like to learn Cantonese bridge the gap between English and Cantonese.
- Should I take classes to learn Cantonese?
My philosophy in taking classes is two fold:
- Never do something in class that you can do on your own;
- The exception to that rule is if you feel that you’re trying your best but not making progress, or maybe you’re too busy and need someone to help keep you accountable.
The main activity that falls under the first category is speaking. While you can study new words and Cantonese structures on your own, reciting a monologue is a very different experience than having a two way dialogue (though monologues, surprisingly, are helpful in learning).
So when you feel like speaking, yes, you should definitely consider taking conversation classes with a native Cantonese teacher. But if it’s for learning the basics, I would strongly recommend against it.
- Should I learn Cantonese?
Quite frankly, I have no idea. Everyone learns languages for different reasons – having a reason is better than no reason, but it’s not unheard of that people learn languages “just because they want to”.
What I will say is this: don’t let things like “economic value”, and “number of speakers” be reasons for choosing a language. They’re important things to consider, but if you want to do something, no one should stand in the way between you and your objective.
So if you don’t want to learn Cantonese, that’s fine. Move on to another language, or do something else you like. If you want to learn Cantonese, that’s great. Give it a test drive and see how it feels. 🙂
- When should I start to learn Chinese characters?
In part, I’ve answered this question in question nine. My recommendation is to start learning characters only after you’re familiar with the basic structures in Cantonese, and you have a sizable vocabulary. If you feel the need to learn new words, and you see that most materials that are interesting to you are all in Chinese, then maybe that’s a good indicator to start learning characters.
- Are there some budget ways to learn Cantonese?
I’m assuming the asker means “are there budget ways to take Cantonese classes”.
Actually there could be. For instance, if you’re in Hong Kong, you can enrol in Cantonese classes pretty much for free (it’s HKD 100, or USD 13 for 50 hours of instruction as of this writing).
Here’s a link to the Cantonese classes offered by ISS:
If you’re not in Hong Kong, I would try to find local Cantonese speaking communities and see if they offer classes to foreigners. Even if they don’t, they’re likely to have communities of Cantonese speaking parents who want to pass it on to their children.
Perhaps you can offer to do something for them in exchange for being included in the community and having a chance to expose yourself to Cantonese (maybe you can help with teaching English to children, or another language if you’re multilingual, or maybe you can offer to help with organizing events).
Teachers at italki are also a very low budget way to find Cantonese teachers to have regular sessions with, as I’ve mentioned above. I’ll link to the site again:
Again, just based on my personal experience, I recommend against doing language exchanges because of the fickle nature of these sessions. But if you’re okay with the possible problems people face during exchanges, by all means, give it a shot.
- Can Mandarin speakers understand Cantonese? And vice versa?
As I’ve mentioned in question two, the short answer is no. However, the learning curve for either is very quick (we’re talking in terms of months), despite some discrepancies between the two languages.
- Do children in Hong Kong learn Cantonese through romanization?
This is actually another interesting question I saw. You’d expect that like children in mainland China, who are taught Mandarin pinyin in primary school (it’s a required part of the curriculum), Hong Kong children are taught Cantonese through a romanization system, maybe Jyutping.
Instead, as Mandarin grows in importance, children are taught to read Chinese in Mandarin, and don’t know Jyutping.
I can attest to that – when I was younger, I was taught pinyin in primary school in our Mandarin classes, but it was only until when I started teaching Cantonese around 15 years later that I learnt Jyutping.
So no, Cantonese is passed on orally from generation to generation and in schools.
- Which is harder – Cantonese or Mandarin?
I’ve already answered this in question ten, but the short answer is Cantonese.
- Are there six, seven or nine tones?
I’ve answered this question through a video, but because people ask this question so often, I feel compelled to answer it in writing.
Most systems agree that there are pretty much six distinctive tones. By “distinctive tone”, we’re talking about a unique “pitch” (could be level, could be not) that’s different from other tones. So that’s where the number “six” comes from.
To recap, the six tones are
The seven tones system is generally used in the Yale system. This system splits tone 1 into two separate tones – high level, and high falling. Tone 1 sounds completely flat to me, and the high falling tone corresponds to the fourth tone in Mandarin, but in practice, I’ve never heard Cantonese speakers speaking that tone unless in an exaggerated way (maybe in a 60’s drama or a Cantonese opera). But nowadays, it’s also generally accepted that these two tones are treated as one tone (the high level tone).
The nine tones system is an extension of the six tones system, and generally the three extra tones are just repeats of the previous ones. To be precise, tones 7, 8, and 9 correspond respectively to tones 1, 3 and 6 in terms of pitch.
So what’s different?
The extra three tones must end in p, t or k – words that are end in these letters sound shorter.
沙 saa1 vs. 濕 sap7
怕 paa3 vs. 拍 paak8
做 zou6 vs. 族 zuk9
For folks who want to learn more, you can read this paper on six tones vs. nine tones.
- Is Cantonese a dying language?
I feel like questions like this and “is Cantonese a language or a dialect” tend to be very controversial, and seeing I’m not a huge fan of controversy, I’m tempted to shy away from answering.
But this is a valid question, and that’s a terrible reason to dodge a question anyway.
I’ve read many answers where people say “Cantonese is dying”.
I personally disagree.
As long as there are communities of people that speak it (and their children continue to speak it), a language is unlikely to die out. Besides, from the number of speakers in the world (if it’s accurate), a language shared by 72.9 million people in the world is unlikely to die out anytime soon – it’s just a matter of numbers.
(This is also roughly the number of Korean speakers, which has around 77 million speakers around the world. Have you ever heard anyone say that Korean is dying?)
But there is no denying it – it’s decreasing in usage.
In Hong Kong, due to the growing importance of Mandarin, there are now schools that are making the switch to teaching official subjects in Mandarin, while reserving Cantonese usage to a small number of classes. Not all schools do this, but the landscape of the official languages used in Hong Kong in the foreseeable future remains unsure.
It’s not just Cantonese, English is also decreasing in importance compared to Mandarin, which is inevitable. I don’t know whether that’s necessarily a good thing or not, but this is an undisputable fact.
In areas outside of Hong Kong, Cantonese is also decreasing in usage.
In the Guangdong province, where the majority of the world’s Cantonese speakers reside, because children are compelled to speak Mandarin at school, it’s no wonder more and more people who grew up under the system are growing increasingly distant from Cantonese. It’s not a matter of “patriotism” or “pride”, it’s simply a matter of fluency – why choose a tongue you stutter in when there’s a language you’re fluent in (or maybe even sound eloquent) and is used by 70% of the Chinese population (at 1.4 billion people now)?
Of course, this isn’t true everywhere. From citizens of the previous generations, and also Chinese citizens proud of our Cantonese heritage, passing on the language is a no-brainer.
I once remember reading a story about a father sternly scolding his son for speaking Mandarin to ask for something he wanted to eat, saying that “we’re native born and bred Guangdong people”. The surrounding folks in the restaurant broke into applause.
The next largest group of Cantonese speakers belong to the overseas Chinese communities. These are people who’ve immigrated to foreign countries from Guangdong. I’m no history expert, but I remember reading that Guangdong produced the first bunch of Chinese immigrants overseas. It’s no wonder Chinatowns around the world still have sizable Cantonese speaking communities.
Whether Cantonese is dying in these enclaves is difficult to tell.
On the one hand, most parents want their children to grow up speaking the local language fluently, like a native. Some think that Cantonese isn’t conducive to that, or might even be a hindrance to that. Others might refer back to their dreams of moving abroad and adopting a Western lifestyle when they eventually make the move, and the decision to discontinue the use of Cantonese is an extension of that desire.
Others, on the other hand, adopt the stance that “regardless of where we are in the world, we are first and foremost Chinese citizens, and we are Guangdong people”. And among those parents, you’ll see children who grow up bilingually, or in multilingual households speaking Cantonese and the local language, although children who grow up overseas have a lower proficiency of Cantonese than those who grow up in Hong Kong.
(This is just a general observation – there are those who grow up in Hong Kong who don’t speak Cantonese, and those who’ve never been to Hong Kong who speak more eloquently than the most well educated Cantonese speakers.)
Cantonese is also a unique Chinese language in the sense that it remains the few Chinese languages that is used for official purposes.
Trials in court, interrogation of suspects at the police station, news broadcasting, not to mention the Hong Kong film industry and the Cantopop music industry – this is living proof that Cantonese is still in widespread use in Hong Kong and Macau, and possibly beyond our borders.
However, it should come as no surprise to anyone that (if my understanding is correct) the Chinese government wishes for linguistic homogeneity. In other words, they want to promote the use of Mandarin as much as possible, for informal and official purposes.
From the government’s perspective, this is a massive undertaking, but an important one. Economic objectives are often at the top of a government’s agenda. According to World Bank, trade is equivalent to 40% of China’s GDP. If a nation can’t even unify a language, how will it trade with its foreign partners? And how will businesses communicate across provinces?
This, of course, will have an impact on the many varieties of Chinese languages, among which Cantonese is one.
So my answer is, no I don’t think that Cantonese will die out soon, but yes, it’s decreasing in usage around the world. The only question that remains is “by how much” it has decreased compared to maybe the 1990’s. Since this is difficult to answer, it’s difficult to determine whether Cantonese is indeed “dying”.
But, just based on the fact that it’s still widely used in Hong Kong and Macau, and to a lesser extent the Guangdong province (one of China’s wealthiest and most populous regions), which will have an impact on Cantonese communities around the world, I have to say that Cantonese is here to stay.
However, this might change entirely If Hong Kong and Macau had to replace our official languages from English, Cantonese, Mandarin and Portuguese to just Mandarin – that will be the turning point for Cantonese – and somewhere down the road, it would surely die out.
One possible time for that to happen would be 2047, and 2049 respectively for Hong Kong and Macau, 50 years since the handover of these two regions from Britain and Portugal.
But it is also possible that tensions between Hong Kong and China will have cooled at that time, leaving for more room for maneuver when discussing the future landscape of the region, including its language policy.
Only time will tell. `
Here are some other takes on the topic:
- What is CEFR? What are proficiency levels?
CEFR stands for the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. While this was developed in Europe, I feel that the descriptors are widely applicable to any language in the world.
There are six levels of proficiency ranging from A1 (basic user) – C2 (proficient user), and the following document taken from the Council of Europe itself describes these levels across the four skills (listening, reading, speaking and writing) in gruelling detail:
As for proficiency levels, I’ll link directly to two fantastic pages that provide incredible benchmarks on proficiency levels, which can also serve as guidelines to judge how well you know Cantonese, and to use to direct your Cantonese studies.
Berlitz’s definitions of proficiency levels
Chinese University of Hong Kong’s definition as well as samples at each level
- How popular is Cantonese compared to other Asian languages?
Since a picture is worth a thousand words, I’ll include this here.
As you can see, among the CJK triplet (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or affectionately CJK), Japanese is steadily at the top, and then Chinese (but Korean is probably close or has overtaken Chinese), then Mandarin, and last of all Cantonese.
However, this is just conjecture, but I think that while there are much fewer people learning Cantonese, the people who are learning Cantonese usually have much stronger reasons for doing so, and so they tend to stick around much longer, and are in it for good. I’ve noticed that while there are many more people learning Japanese and Korean, many tend to peak at the beginners’ levels, and stop there.
(There’s nothing wrong with that, and of course, and this is just my observation, but I wanted to share what I thought with you.)
So in this guide, I assumed the reader would like to get to a good level of communicative ability, and I’ve tried to put together all the necessary information on the “what’s” and “how’s” of the learning process, so all you have to do is to start learning, without being lost in the process.
But if there’s only one thing I hope you’ll take away from this guide, it’s this: remember why you’re learning Cantonese.
If you really love the language, and it could be due to a number of reasons, you will find that learning the language is enjoyable and fun. Heck, you might even get to make a few Cantonese friends, and use the language more in your daily life.
But forgetting that reason, or not pinpointing what it is in the first place can lead to frustrations, disappointments and even resentment towards learning the language.
It takes maybe 10 – 15 minutes to write down why you would like to learn.
But once you’ve done that, it’ll stick with you forever.
That’s it! I hope you’ve found this guide a useful introduction to the Cantonese language, as well as a roadmap to learning the language, and if you have a few moments to spare, I would really appreciate it if you’d share it on Facebook! 😀
Please come back often!