There are probably few things in the world to learn that have such an intimidating reputation as the Chinese languages. From the immediately completely unintelligible Chinese characters to the tonal elements of the spoken language, there are few other languages which are so notoriously different from our own in the western world.
And that’s the thing really. It’s not that Mandarin and Cantonese are intrinsically more difficult. It’s rather that these languages are just so incredibly different.
In this context, to learn to speak Cantonese requires a new mindset. Not one that balks at the prospect of learning a language like Cantonese – but one that accepts the challenge. Because whilst, yes, it will be a difficult process to begin with, it’ll get much easier after the initial hurdles.
That’s what we’re here to help you with: to get over those early issues – from how to learn Chinese characters to how to develop your Cantonese vocab.
So, if you want to head to Hong Kong and Macau on holidays, or if your job is taking you to Guangdong province or Guangxi, it’s worth taking some Cantonese with you. Let’s run through some learning tips on how to learn a language like Cantonese.
There are as many ways to learn a foreign language as there are native speakers – or nearly at least. And if you are intending to nail your new language, you’ve got to work out which one works best for you.
Obviously, learning Cantonese Chinese has its extra hurdles to fluency. Yet, there is nothing that says it’s impossible
Instead, Cantonese language learning requires total commitment – and a particular strategic eye. Let’s take a look at what we mean by that.
The internet is a great place to learn Cantonese vocabulary
We said strategic. And we said it because there is a tendency with those who are learning the language to just dive in.
The enthusiasm needs to be applauded. However, such an approach generally leads to overwhelm. With the attempts to juggle learning Chinese characters with phonology and intonation, speaking Chinese with memorizing new words, it all becomes a bit too much.
Instead, when learning Cantonese, forget the writing system to begin with.
Focus on becoming as fluent and intelligible as you can in conversational Chinese. Then you can go back to the writing later.
With that, you can dive into the world of Cantonese language and culture without being held back by the alienness of written Chinese.
You can talk to a native speaker, listen to Cantonese music and radio and watch films and tv in Cantonese. All of this will develop your speech and language development – and your listening comprehension – and give you a stronger starting point for when you begin to tackle the written language.
Of course, when you are practising speaking in Cantonese, it is helpful to have someone there who can help you with the phonetic elements of the language – the pronunciation, the tones, and the grammar.
Whilst any Cantonese friend may be able to help you here, tutors – who have Cantonese as their mother tongue – usually have a little more experience and patience. Chinese lessons can be, obviously, an excellent way to develop your spoken Cantonese skills.
To hear more about how to learn, check out our advice page on starting learning Cantonese.
When you are developing your spoken language in Cantonese, you will find that you are continually encountering – as well as struggling to memorize – new Chinese words. This brings us round to the importance of learning Chinese vocabulary.
This is an essential part of learning any language. Because, obviously enough, without the words, you can’t speak – no matter how good your grammar might be.
However, there’s a little trick that makes the whole thing easier.
Practice reading Cantonese!
Sure, you’ve heard that there are over fifty thousand characters in Chinese. Great.
The thing about this is that it is such a completely irrelevant figure that it’s amazing it got as much traction as it has.
As in any language, the actual amount of vocabulary that most Chinese people use is a tiny fraction of this. And with that tiny fraction, you’ll have no problem talking to and understanding any Cantonese people you encounter.
So, find out the most common words in Cantonese – say five hundred of them. Memorize them, and you’ll be over halfway to fluency.
And in all of this, keep watching Cantonese cinema and tv – and keep on listening. Consume as much language as you can.
Because, when hearing and talking about things that interest you, you will be picking up the language that you specifically need.
These are the places that you will encounter most of the vocabulary that you will need in life. So, just keep diving in.
Whether on flashcards or in a notebook, it’s important that you write down all the things that you have learned – to make your own phrasebook.
Because writing helps your new knowledge cement in your mind. And the flashcard is one of the most important learning tools for memorization.
With all of your new vocabulary, keep going back over it until it stays.
Read more about learning Cantonese vocabulary!
Speaking Cantonese is one thing. However, you need to go back to the script at some point. If you are taking your learning seriously that is.
But how to start reading Cantonese? How to make sense of all those characters? To begin with, it’s a case of willpower and memorisation. But there are two things that can help you.
You’ll find when learning Cantonese that most Chinese characters in textbooks and the like have a Romanized rendering of the word too.
Whilst, sure, it doesn’t seem super ‘authentic’, this is an awesome help.
Whether Yale, Jyutping, or Cantonese pinyin, these will help you make sense of the pronunciation of these words whilst you are tackling the shape itself.
For reading Cantonese script, the key to your decoding the symbols is the radicals. These are smallest units of meaning within the Cantonese characters – which are the components for the full character itself.
There are 214 of these radicals which contribute to the rest of the fifty thousand characters. Learn these, and you’ll be able to recognise them in all Cantonese script.
Learn even thirty of them and you are laughing.
Find out more about reading Cantonese.
We can say that recognising – i.e. reading – Cantonese characters is one thing but writing them yourself is a different story. However, this wouldn’t exactly be true: reading is always the first step in the process of writing.
When you are approaching Cantonese characters for the first time, you need to have clear in your mind precisely what the character looks like before you intend to write it. Without this knowledge, you’re not going anywhere particularly helpful.
In conversations about writing Cantonese, there is a lot of talk about stroke order. This is a particular set of rules that determine which sort of lines should precede others when you are writing out your Chinese characters.
These might things such as top to bottom and left to write – but they get a little more complicated. Learn them and the construction of your characters will become much more fluid. Your handwriting will become neater – and quicker.
You can learn more about stroke order in our guide to writing in Cantonese.
When you are constructing your characters, you need to just keep to some basic guidelines. Make sure that all of your characters are the same size, make sure that they are legible, and make sure that they are unified.
We say the last because plenty of times have students written characters whose radicals are so far apart that they look like separate characters. Maybe don’t do this.
Tips to learn Cantonese script
When it comes to learning the different characters, there is quite a lot to think about: pronunciation, shape and size, memorizing it, etc etc.
Yet, there are a couple of ways to ensure that all of this goes into your head nice and smoothly.
The first is to recognise and memorise the characters by reference to the radicals rather than the individual strokes that make up the whole.
This is helpful for a number of reasons. Firstly, the radical you’ll see again in many other characters. Secondly, you can link the learning of the pronunciation and meaning directly with the radical – which you can’t do with the stroke.
And, finally, the radical is a unit of meaning that is a whole. As such, it is just easier to remember.
When you are memorising your characters by rote, forget about the brute repetition of again and again and again.
Instead, use the more sophisticated repetition method known as spaced repetition. This is the process whereby the earliest things you learn are to be repeated less and less often, in amongst newly encountered material.
There are apps to help you with this – and they are hugely helpful.
Find more tips in our cheat guide to learning Cantonese characters.