Learning a language is quite an odd thing – it’s often mentioned as “things people want to do in life”, “an extra hobby project”, “something to try out just for the heck of it”. (Or maybe, if you’re a regular reader of any big website, maybe you’ve seen those “promoted” content at the bottom of posts titled “how to learn a language” + [insert bold claim here]?)
Whether you’re learning a language for fun, for work, for family, you can learn a language to the point where you can rely on it day in day out in a surprisingly short period of time.
Since this is a site on Cantonese, and it’s a bit different than English, I thought it interesting to use Cantonese as a case study to walk us through the process of how to learn a new language.
Read on to see how it’s possible to learn a language in just seven parts (no hacks, no tricks…just blocks that build on each other!).
(Note: I’ve labelled these as “parts” because people go through them in a different order, there’s overlap in different parts, and we tend to go back to them for reinforcement.)
- 1 7 assumptions I’ll make on your language learning journey
- 1.1 Assumption 1: You’re fairly motivated.
- 1.2 Assumption 2: You are a fairly consistent learner.
- 1.3 Assumption 3: You want to get to a B2 / C1 level.
- 1.4 Assumption 4: You are learning for the long term.
- 1.5 Assumption 5: You can spend about 30 minutes / day learning.
- 1.6 Assumption 6: You will not spend time in the target country.
- 1.7 Assumption 7: You don’t just want to learn survival language, you want to have deeper conversations.
- 2 How To Learn A Language (Part 1)
- 3 How To Learn A Language (Part 2)
- 4 How To Learn A Language (Part 3)
- 5 How To Learn A Language (Part 4)
- 6 How To Learn A Language (Part 5)
- 7 How To Learn A Language (Part 6)
- 8 How To Learn A Language (Part 7)
- 9 One and a half year plan to learn a language
7 assumptions I’ll make on your language learning journey
Before we get started, I’ve had this infographic designed and wrote this guide based on a few assumptions, based on the mental image that this is someone learning a language with a full time job, and someone who doesn’t work with languages as part of their profession.
While these are fairly broad assumptions, I assume that at least a part of these assumptions apply to you.
But note that if these assumptions don’t apply, for example, if you have an opportunity to spend time in the country, or you’re aiming for an even higher level, then learning a language can be a different process. However, this can still be a good start, it just means that you can do this even faster than the estimated timeframes.
Okay, let’s talk a little more about these assumptions.
Assumption 1: You’re fairly motivated.
While you don’t have to become glued to learning the language, you do need a bit of motivation to pull through to a B2 level.
In the late Steve Job’s own words, “People say you have to have a lot of passion for what you’re doing, and it’s totally true – the reason is, because it’s so hard, that if you don’t, any rational person would give up.”
Learning a new language isn’t different, it’s a time consuming activity, and it’s not easy fighting through structures, sounds, words.
This is where Part 1 of the process is exceptionally important. So if you do this part, this shouldn’t be a problem.
Assumption 2: You are a fairly consistent learner.
In the beginning, consistency is exceptionally important – because you haven’t gotten to a point where you’ve reached the first finish line, the line where you’re comfortable inputting and outputting that new language.
And because of that, everyday is an upwards fight to reaching that line – not doing at least something can really set us back.
Assumption 3: You want to get to a B2 / C1 level.
If you don’t already know, these language levels are ones defined in the CEFR – the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. Generally, a B2 level is considered a conversational level of proficiency, and levels C1 and C2 are for professionals and academics.
The reason you want to get to this level is because when you do, you’ll have reached that finish line we just talked about – at that point, even if you don’t study consistently, you can still use and learn the language well. It’s almost like you have a certain insulation from your language skills going rusty quickly.
Assumption 4: You are learning for the long term.
I assume that you’re not learning that language as just a learning experiment, only to decide to not use it after you’ve invested a fair amount of effort in it.
The reason I say this is if you’re not learning for the long term, I’ve personally found that it can cut away at your motivation levels. And you can feel rushed if it’s a time limited learning project that doesn’t get re-visited.
In all honesty, isn’t it a shame to spend all that effort into learning a new language, and to not reap the results afterwards?
Assumption 5: You can spend about 30 minutes / day learning.
This goes hand in hand with the consistency issue. Even if you have less time, I still feel that some time needs to be spent every day focused on learning or maintaining the language.
This should be doable for anyone, because it could be taken out of your time driving, or perhaps a 15 minute break from lunch.
Again, that consistency is especially important in the beginning, and I highly recommend that you can take around 30 minutes out each day to learn.
Assumption 6: You will not spend time in the target country.
Perhaps that’s badly phrased.
I don’t actually mean that as a choice, but as a restriction – “you don’t have the opportunity to spend enough time in the target country”.
The reason I mention this is because if you did have the time, you can go about the learning process in a different way that can further accelerate your process.
But if you don’t, these seven parts are a good way to get started.
Assumption 7: You don’t just want to learn survival language, you want to have deeper conversations.
This is crucial as well. And this ties in with the motivation issue we mentioned.
When we find ourselves in a bit of a plateau, and I think every learner experiences that at some point, this comes in handy. One possible reason for hitting that plateau is very simply, you’ve already reached your goal and don’t need any more.
But if you do, I think that while we’ll still hit those plateaus, they’ll go away pretty quickly.
Does this make sense?
With these as fundamentals, let’s dive into the first part in how to learn a language – figuring out the “why”.
How To Learn A Language (Part 1)
Why do you want to learn a language? (Duration: 2 weeks)
This is easily the part people gloss over because it sounds so trivial.
(This is also why I recommend spending two weeks, not two minutes thinking about it.)
But from my personal experiences being both a student and a teacher of languages, it’s anything but!
Figuring this part out is literally the difference between pulling through, and not.
There’s no right or wrong answer here – there’s only your answer, and hopefully an honest one.
If you figure out just why you want to learn Cantonese, for example, you’ll be able to find it in yourself to continue learning many months and years into the future.
And if you had an internal conversation, and you found out that you don’t actually want to learn it, that’s perfectly fine! Just move on to something else you want to do.
And because this part of the process is so important, I recommend spending at least a week thinking of those reasons. As a matter of fact, I recommend that you write down those reasons on a piece of paper, and stick it on your wall at home so you can see it everyday.
Example reasons for learning a new language
To help you with the process, let me share with you some of my reasons for learning the languages I’ve learned, and some of the reasons I’ve heard students share with me in the past.
- I wanted to learn Japanese because I fell in love with anime and just wanted to understand everything until it made sense, without having to go through an extra layer of subtitles.
- One student told me he wanted to learn Cantonese because he grew up in a Cantonese speaking family but never had the opportunity to use it at length, and he’d like to reconnect with his family in the language.
- I wanted to learn French because it was something I’ve started learning almost a decade and a half ago, and I’ve always loved the way the language sounded, and the precision of French, something that isn’t possible in English.
- Another student shared with me that she has a family and would like to raise her children in Cantonese, among other languages. She grew up speaking the language, but would like to brush up on specific terminology.
- Another student was married to a Hong Konger, and he’d like to meet and communicate with his in-laws and extended family at a deeper level, to better connect with his wife’s part of the family.
- I’ve met with a student who lives in Hong Kong, and is learning out of pure interest – he wants to better communicate with the locals, and feels he almost needs to learn Cantonese out of a great level of respect and love for the language.
- I have a Korean friend who’s brushing up on his English, because his work requires it, and he finds Western culture fairly interesting.
- I have a Chinese friend who’s learning Cantonese because he wants to take his career to Hong Kong, and feels that it’s indispensable in mingling with the locals here.
- I’ve also seen various friends and students who really liked to watch kung-fu films, and films from the 80’s and 90’s, and are learning Cantonese bit by bit through those films.
- I wanted to learn Korean primarily because I had Korean friends in university, and I found that there were striking similarities between Korean culture and our traditional values, and that got me interested in learning how to communicate in the language and understand it better.
Do these sound familiar? Perhaps some struck a chord?
Because it’s so important, I thought I’d repeat myself here – knowing your reasons in learning a language is critical in helping you pull through difficulties in the future.
So take some time, ponder a bit, and write down your reasons!
How To Learn A Language (Part 2)
Pronunciation in that language (Duration: 1 month)
Okay, so we’re effectively at Part 2 in learning a new language.
I always start by learning pronunciation in the language, because chances are, the language you’re learning doesn’t sound all that similar to your native language.
So how should we go about learning pronunciation?
First of all, it’s important to be able to break down a language into individual sounds.
For English, those are phonics, things like vowels, consonants, diphthongs, hard and soft c’s and g’s, consonant digraphs, accent rules, etc.
English is a fairly complex language to dissect, and so having a good pronunciation workbook might be necessary to help learners navigate through the language, especially considering that it has an insane number of exceptions.
Example resources for Cantonese pronunciation
For Cantonese, however, pronunciation is straightforward. There are initials, finals and a tone (out of six). If you can pronounce English, almost all Cantonese sounds have equivalents in English. It takes a bit of time to get used to the sounds, but all the combinations can be mapped in a table, like the one we have here at Cantolounge:
You can use this chart to go through all of the combinations, and simply copy what you hear out loud.
After understanding how these individual parts work, it’s time to practise listening, and seeing whether you can correctly understand these words. I stumbled across a Jyutping game a few months back, and I thought it’s an excellent way to really hone in your listening skills. It’s called CantoRocks.
After you do that, you’re ready to move on to something longer. I suggest using Glossika, or at least a portion of it, to get started and get used to copying pronunciation in the language.
Glossika isn’t something that can be finished quickly, especially if this is your first foreign language, and your target language, like Cantonese here, doesn’t share cognates / other similarities with your native languages. But I recommend starting it right from the get go just for pronunciation practise. The phrases will make more sense to you as you progress through each stage.
2 week (Jyutping chart) + 2 week (CantoRocks) + Start Glossika = 4 weeks (1 month)
Remember that this is an estimate specific to Cantonese, which we’re using as a case study. If you’re learning a language with fairly complex pronunciation rules, this process might take a bit longer (but not that much!).
How To Learn A Language (Part 3)
Grammar fundamentals (Duration: 2 months)
After going through pronunciation, this is where people tend to do different things. Some people like to get started with speaking right away, while others want to go through some basic grammar first.
Don’t let the idea of grammar scare you away. Grammar isn’t there to intimidate, it’s there to help.
Grammar vs. language – the chicken vs. the egg
Consider this for a moment – which came first, the grammar or the language?
The language existed before the grammar rules, right?
And so why was grammar created?
Grammar was created to ensure that language is standardized, at least when writing. Because spoken languages can be quite different in each local region, grammar is important in making sure that at least the written forms remain consistent.
And it’s these rules that foreign language learners can use to break down the language, so they can find the most common patterns in the language, and learn the standard version of the language. (Local variations can come later.)
So how should we learn grammar?
Quickly, and practically.
Regardless of how complex grammar is in a language, for every language, there’s only so much grammar used everyday.
I personally think that the Pareto Principle is at play here too – i.e. learning just 20% of the grammar can help you deal with 80% of everyday situations.
To work through grammar, the most important thing, first of all, is to identify what that 20% of essential grammar is.
Usually, a grammar guide for beginners is great for highlighting the essentials.
Don’t make the mistake of getting a grammar reference – those aren’t meant to be learned, they’re meant to be referenced!
Instead you want to follow something that’s explained well with plenty of examples, but isn’t too overwhelming.
Topics and resources for Cantonese grammar fundamentals
For Cantonese, for example, you can follow along the Cantonese grammar series here:
While it’s not complete as of this writing, it’s a pretty good way to get started.
I also recommend the classic workbook by Professors Stephen Matthews and Virginia Yip, authors of Basic Cantonese.
To make this even easier for you, I’ve compiled a list of absolute essentials you need to go through, so you know exactly what to look for. For Cantonese, these fundamentals are absolutely necessary to express yourself most of the times. The list is very short because luckily, Cantonese is a fairly “grammar-light” language.
- Cantonese pronouns
- Possession in Cantonese with 嘅 ge3
- The two “to be’s” 係 hai6 and 喺 hai2
- Cantonese classifiers
- Cantonese adjectives
- Cantonese adverbs
- Comparisons in Cantonese
- Cantonese questions
- Cantonese negation
- Tenses in Cantonese
- Cantonese word order
- Cantonese passive voice
- The 將 zoeng1 construct
- The 到 dou3 construct
(Note: I suggest avoiding the complex Cantonese particles unless you’re a lot more advanced.)
Just 14 things to read and learn to get started!
If you’re so inclined, you can spend a bit more time with them (or other grammar patterns), but it’s not necessary.
To complete all of this to the extent where you’re comfortable, I’d say you’ll need
Why two months?
While you don’t need two months to read 14 articles / chapters, I feel that grammar principles isn’t like learning Maths – you can’t get it right away, you have to see and feel those examples at work, and it’s this understanding process that will take up the major bulk of your time.
How To Learn A Language (Part 4)
Dialogue course in the language (Duration: 3 months)
After you’ve learned the grammar fundamentals, you’re ready to move on to real Cantonese – Cantonese dialogues.
I recommend going through this step when learning a new language as a precursor to the next step, because it helps you familiarize yourself with the language a bit, but if you’re confident enough, you can skip this step directly.
A dialogue course is an integrated way for you to practise all four skills of language learning – but mainly reading and listening, so you can get some initial exposure to the language, and learn some new words and practise understanding grammar within the context of those dialogues.
A great dialogue course is usually made up of a few components:
- A vocabulary list
- A dialogue
- Notes on vocabulary and structures
- Exercises to help guide you through reinforcing vocabulary and structures
- A recording to go with the dialogue
The one I usually recommend is the Teach Yourself Cantonese course for Cantonese, and it’s available for a large selection of languages as well.
I also recommend an SRS app like Quizlet or ANKI to help you remember vocabulary if you have trouble retaining words you’ve learned. This is understandable especially if the target language shares no cognates with your native languages.
If you work through the course at a pace of 2 lessons per week (there are 26 units in total), it’ll take around:
How To Learn A Language (Part 5)
Start speaking in the language! (Duration: 6 months)
At this point, you should be fairly familiar with the language.
While you still don’t have a massive vocabulary in the language, you’re confident listening to the language, and you’re happy to make sentences, both written and orally.
It’s now time to reap the results of your efforts!
I recommend that you find a teacher of that language, preferably a native speaker, and start practising that language, in this case, Cantonese, with him / her.
When picking a teacher, the important thing isn’t in things like gender, whether s/he is bilingual, but rather, whether you feel comfortable with the teacher or not. Think of it as meeting a foreign friend, who’s happy to help you out. Wouldn’t you rather talk with someone you like?
Hopefully that teacher is patient as well, but apart from that, you’re good to go.
Top tips for conversation language lessons
I recommend a few things when working through conversations:
- Have at least 3 sessions each week.
- Start with 30 minute sessions in the beginning, and extend them when you’re more comfortable
- Do NOT come to the lesson unprepared. Always prepare a few topics to talk about, or else the conversation can dry up quickly. While the teacher is a native speaker, a dialogue, as the prefix “di-” suggests, goes both ways.
- If you have more time, I recommend writing a few questions down before the lesson, so you can prepare them and practise them in the lesson. But once you’re more comfortable, you can just prepare a topic, and have a more natural conversation.
- Ask that your teacher doesn’t correct you at every point and turn, unless you make a mistake that makes you incomprehensible. It might still be good if the teacher goes through the major mistakes, but your objective is communication, not perfection.
- Start by talking about topics that are immediately relevant to you. It could be your profession, hobbies, animals, interests, family. These are things that are bound to come up, and you would benefit from talking about them.
If you continue this for six months, you can be guaranteed to speak the language fairly well, with an excellent grasp of using the language.
I recommend italki as a place to get started:
This really depends on how long you want to spend on it, but I recommend at least three months, but six months is ideal. I feel that after six months, which should come to about 72 sessions, you’ll have covered a lot of topics that can be covered in real-life conversations.
How To Learn A Language (Part 6)
Learning Chinese characters (Duration: 6 months)
Unless you need to write in the language, I recommend delaying the learning of Chinese characters until you have more experience speaking the language. You can get by quite well without knowing how to write in the language.
However, somewhere during the process, you’ll start feeling overwhelmed with learning words through romanization, because that’s not how you learn languages generally – you also want to be able to read signs, menus, short articles in the language.
When you start feeling frustrated, that’s a sign you need to learn Chinese characters to move on. This could be anywhere from Month 6 to Month 12 of your learning process – it really just depends on how you want to pace the process.
The objective of learning Chinese characters
There are three things to understand when it comes to Chinese characters:
- Radicals (which usually give a clue to either what the character means)
- Structural patterns (to better help you remember characters and understand character components)
- Strokes and stroke order (each stroke has a name, and a specific way of writing – the more familiar you are with these, the better you’ll retain characters)
Your objective, after understanding these principles, is to learn how to read the most common 1,000 characters, which should allow you to access higher level materials from that point onwards.
The caveat is in the phrasing – your objective is to learn how to read, not how to write those characters. You want to practise writing those characters to help you retain these characters better, but it’s not essential to write, because we have so many input methods nowadays.
Chinese characters vs. Chinese words
The second piece of advice I’d share is that when learning to read Chinese, don’t focus on common characters – focus on common words. It’s important to distinguish between the two, because common characters can be in words in unusual ways that don’t correspond to the meaning of the singular character.
To top that off, a common character might not always be that commonly seen in words. For instance, the word 田 (tin4, field) is commonly introduced as a character, but they’re not necessarily as commonly seen in words, such as 耕田 (gaan1 tin4, to plough), 田園 (tin4 jyun4, garden), 田七 (tin4 cat1, notoginseng, a Chinese medicinal ingredient).
How To Learn A Language (Part 7)
Massive exposure in the language (Duration: 6 months)
After you’ve done that, it’s really just a matter of exposing yourself more to the language you’re learning.
So how should you go about this process?
While you can feel free to continue conversation practise, I will recommend reducing them to maybe 1 – 2 sessions every week, because from that point onwards, most of the learning will come from learning by yourself. The sessions are just a way to help consolidate what you’ve learned, to use them in practice.
But apart from conversation practice, it’s time to dive into more advanced materials – both listening and reading materials.
My recommendation for learning any language is to work with these categories of materials.
Recommended listening materials for advanced language learning
For listening, I’d recommend watching / listening to:
- News / Documentaries
Cartoons are the easiest to pick up, but there’s still a fair amount of slang and interesting expressions you can learn, so they’re definitely worth watching.
News and documentaries come next because the language used is very standard – this means that you’ll be able to get massive repetition, especially when watching the news (it’s really hearing the same topics rehashed over and over again anyway). Documentaries are slightly more advanced, but they’re great for learning topic-based vocabulary.
Dramas are the ones I would stay away from until your language level is at a fairly advanced stage, and you have plenty of reading practice. Anything that’s fiction, be they dramas or movies, is incredibly difficult to understand because there will be plenty of circumstantial expressions, cultural references, slang that are very difficult to listen to unless you already know these expressions.
The good news is that most programs in Cantonese come with subtitles, so you guys should be able to work through these materials fine. (They’re standard Chinese subtitles, but having some subtitles is better than not having any.)
Bridging the beginner-intermediate gap in Cantonese
If you need a bit of help transitioning to a level where you can work with native listening materials, I recommend using something like Authentic Cantonese Transcripts (published here at Cantolounge) to help jumpstart diving into native materials:
You can also reference a large variety of intermediate to advanced materials in this list I’ve compiled:
Recommended reading materials for advanced language learning
As for written materials, I would recommend working with these materials:
This is where you can really see a direct impact from your learning.
When learning a new language, of the four skills, most people tend to excel most at reading, because it’s not in real time (like with speaking and listening), and you can always check words up (unlike in writing).
For this leg of the journey, I recommend starting with comics, like with listening materials, because you can learn a lot of useful expressions that are circumstantial – how people react to certain situations, what people say in social contexts, interesting slang and expressions – all available to you via short speech bubbles with colourful illustrations that capture a specific situation well.
When you’re comfortable reading sentences, dialogues, I recommend trying to participating in forums. This way, you’re not only just reading what people are writing, you’re also responding to what they say.
Don’t underestimate this – this is an exceptionally important part of your journey, because it provides you with the opportunity to experience first-hand how native speakers balance between formal language and informal language, and the written and spoken word. Short of actually speaking, this is an invaluable experience that’s incredibly rewarding once you’ve done it.
When you’re comfortable with reading messages in forums, you want to up your game by either reading newspaper articles, or perhaps short children’s stories. They’re short enough that you’ll won’t be overwhelmed, yet still challenging enough that you’ll actually learn new words and expressions.
You are in control
Really, it’s up to you to decide how much of this you want to do. You can simply continue doing what I suggested above, or you can further up your game by studying with even more advanced materials, like reading a translated self-help book, a full length novel, or entire movies.
And from that point onwards, you can afford to take it slower with language learning, and spread out getting beyond a B2 level over a longer period of time.
I recommend trying to study at this level for at least another six months before you take things slower, because there are still many things to learn and to get used to at an upper-intermediate to advanced level, especially coming into contact with more Chinese characters, so I’ll say that it’ll take
Don’t forget though, before entering this particular stage, you’re already fairly fluent in Cantonese – and you’ve done this in under a year! Don’t forget to celebrate that achievement, and jump on every opportunity to use your newfound skills!
One and a half year plan to learn a language
To recap, with this infographic, along with this post, we’ve talked about how to break down learning a language in just seven parts, along with a fairly accurate timeline, taking into consideration restraints.
We’ve used Cantonese as our case study language (because Cantonese is presented here at Cantolounge), but these timeframes generally apply to other languages as well (give or take maybe 20%).
How to learn a language quickly?
In language learning circles, there’s often talk about learning a language quickly, and how to learn a language in record time.
While there’s value in developing techniques and attitudes that help us accelerate the process, it’s important to remember that for most people…there’s no need to rush when learning a language.
When learning a new language, you’re learning in order to communicate, not to compete against other people for speed.
Learning a language is more a marathon, not a sprint, and if you keep working at it, with a clear objective in mind, with activities that align with your goals at each step of the journey, achieving that proficiency is very much within our reach.
Summary of timeframe estimates
To wrap our discussion up, let’s have a look at a table that sums up all the timeframe estimates we’ve presented above:
|1||Figuring out your reasons||2 weeks|
|2||Learning pronunciation in the language||1 month|
|3||Going through grammar fundamentals||2 months|
|4||Working through a dialogue course||3 months|
|5||Start speaking in the language!!||6 months|
|6||Learning Chinese characters (Chinese and Japanese)||6 months|
|7||Massive exposure in the language||6 months|
Language learning diagram and milestones
(Arrows point to the midpoint of each activity.)
Despite what it says, this doesn’t total two years and two weeks, because there’s overlap in the activities. To be precise, the process will take around one and a half years, split into three milestones, as shown in the diagram above.
To top that off, while it’s hurray to all those who finish the entire process, it doesn’t take the entire process to become relatively fluent in the language. You’ll see that I’ve labelled three distinct milestones that make up this period of time.
Order of these “steps”
Also, I know I’ve mentioned this already, but because it’s so important, I want to reiterate this here – these “steps” or “parts” don’t have to be done in this particular order. You can easily start with speaking first, for instance, and interleave grammar and characters whenever necessary.
The point is that these are general components of the language learning journey, and talking about this can hopefully help instate clarity in your own adventures into a new language.
Closing note…good luck!
Once you understand this, and pace your learning accordingly, the behemoth of language learning simply regresses into a collection of basic tasks that you hack away at repetitively, taking the mystery and confusion out of the equation.
Best of luck with learning Cantonese (or any other languages)!