- 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
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 “what’s the best way to learn Cantonese”, “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: 12nd July, 2017
1st July, 2017 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 learn Cantonese 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
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 learning Cantonese phrases and words, 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 Cantonese, 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.