How I learned Cantonese in 2 years

Introduction

 

Cantonese is perceived as a difficult language, with lots of cultural references, tones, characters, the spoken and written divide and so on it can be hard to even know where to begin.

And even if you do get past the beginner stage, Cantonese just doesn't have as many resources available as some other languages, right? How can you start? And how can you break past the beginner stage, through the intermediate plateau and attain fluency?

Lucky for you, Cantonese isn't actually as difficult as many people perceive. With the right plan of attack anyone can attain fluency, and it doesn't even have to take decades to do so.

In this post I will break down step by step, exactly what I did with all the nuts and bolts. I will go into detail on each stage of my learning to achieve fluency in Cantonese after only 2 years. Accompanied by personal insights, resource advice and regular progress videos throughout.

I want to stress that this is what I personally did to learn Cantonese. I go into a lot of detail so you can put my advice to the test, find out what works for you and throw away what doesn't. 

So if you are learning Cantonese, then you are in the right place. So get ready because this is a big one.

For ease of reference, I have also added a table of contents for you to flick through the relevant sections as you need.

Core Principles

In this first section, I want to go over a couple of core principles and ideas that I will be referring to throughout the rest of this blog post. 

 

Focused study time - Focused study time is where the bulk of my learning happens. Every day at the same time, usually before work, I work through whatever I need to do in order to achieve my goals for the month. Typically this is input based, free of distractions, and I spend about one hour each morning

 

Dead Time - This is all of the spare 5 minutes you have throughout the day. Making use of these pockets of time really add up, and is a great way to keep contact with the language throughout the day.

 

Immersion - Any fun contact I have with the language in my downtime. 

Goals - Every month I set one big goal of what I want to achieve. Then in my focused study time, I set off to achieve this goal. Some examples are, complete your beginners textbook by the end of the month, finish Remembering The Hanzi in 3 months, or finish reading the book I am on by the end of the month. 

The idea behind monthly goals is to keep a good variety in the resources I use, while using them long enough to actually make progress. Also this helps keep a good pace and makes sure you keep progressing onto more and more difficult content.

 

Language Dialogues - Whenever I talk about resources or textbooks, with a few exceptions, the majority of the time I spend is listening and reading to the dialogues. I may spend a few minutes flicking through and reading over the explanations, but the large bulk of my time is spent listening and reading.

 

Focused and diffuse mode - In order to maximise my efficiency and focus during my study time, typically I break my hour session up into three sections of 20 minutes.

Between these sections I have 5 minute breaks, usually doing some routine activity to let my mind relax, such as washing up my dishes from breakfast or brushing my teeth. It is important to keep your phone switched off and keep yourself away from distractions in these times otherwise 5 minutes can quickly turn into half an hour.

 

A typical hour of study looks like this:

 

Step 1: 10 minutes - Listen to dialogue over to try and get a sense of what it is about.

Step 2: 10 minutes - Listen to the dialogue while reading the transcript to see what sounds and words I couldn't pick up with my ear alone.

5 minutes - Break

Step 3: 20 minutes - Read through the transcript slowly looking up all the new words you don't know using the word list for reference if available.

5 minutes - Break

Step 4: 10 minutes - Listening and reading along with the dialogue to try and understand everything. If I forget a word go back to the word list or previous notes for reference.

Step 5: 10 minutes - Listening to the audio by itself to make sure I can understand and pick out the sounds without the help of a transcript.  

Jyutping - There are a few different romanization systems for Cantonese, the two most common being Jyutping and Yale. Throughout this post, I will use the word Jyutping to just mean Cantonese romanization. For more details on what resources use which romanization, please see my resources page.

Now I have laid some of the groundwork, let's get started and see what your first few months learning Cantonese will look like.

Road Map

0-3 months - Beginner (3 months)

One of the hardest parts when you first start to learn Cantonese is that all words will just sound like noises. This is completely normal and to be expected for beginners of any language, especially in ones that are distant from your mother tongue. 

Trying to learn everything at the same time, in my experience, is overwhelming and will slow down your initial progress. Not feeling any progress in the early stages can be incredibly demoralising, which is why it's important to feel a sense of achievement and accomplishment early on.

Therefore, the most important aspect when you first start out in Cantonese is improving your listening comprehension. By focusing on listening first, you can get used to the sounds of Cantonese as well as improving your ability to parse words, learn new words, get used to the tones, and improve your pronunciation all at the same time. 

This is why I suggest using your focused time to work through dialogues to improve your listening comprehension and leaving characters to a later date.

 

But what should you use?

 

The two options I used when first starting out were Cantoneseclass101.com and Teach Yourself Complete Cantonese

 

The teach yourself book offers a solid place to start for beginners with decent length dialogues that build on previous chapters, and vocab lists. It is for this reason I recommend starting out with teach yourself in your first month. 

 

 

When you first start out, make sure you pay special attention to the tones. Jyutping indicates which one of the six Cantonese tones is being used by a number next to each word. 

 

For example:                        nei5 hou2

Uses the 5th and 2nd tone. Doing a lot of listening while reading the jyutping will help you pick out the tones and get used to them as they are being used in speech. In turn, this will also help you internalise the tones and use them correctly when it comes to speaking.

 

For more detail on how to deal with tones, see my full guide.

 

3-month progress video:

If you aim to complete half of Teach Yourself in your first month, in month two you can switch to Cantoneseclass101 to get some variety and cover some of the same ground in a different context.

Stay away from the vocabulary lists as they mix up standard Chinese with spoken Cantonese, and make sure to spend your time with the dialogues and not the lengthy podcasts.

Also, because the dialogues are quite short, with some repetition you should have no problem grasping what is being said. Therefore, I recommend skipping most of the beginners content and starting at the lower intermediate level. 

In your final month, you can go back and complete Teach Yourself Complete Cantonese.

For your dead time I recommend using flashcards, my preferred choice is Anki. Only take the most useful words and phrases you want to be able to say and add them to your flashcards. Being selective is key and will help you retain the most important information and actually use it in conversation later.

Context is important because not only is it easier to remember new words if they are surrounded by words you already know, but also adding isolated words you run the risk of knowing a bunch of words without any idea of how to use them.

I recommend English on side 1 and Cantonese on side 2, because this recall mimics what you have to do in the heat of conversation. This will help you to gradually build up your active vocabulary for when you start to speak. 

For immersion as a beginner you will understand little if anything from TV dramas. Therefore, do anything you can to make it fun. I liked watching TV shows with English subtitles as this kept me interested in the culture and kept my motivation high. This also has the added benefit of letting you learn the plot for a wide range of shows, and then when it comes time to watch TV without English subtitles later down the line, you can start by re-watching the shows you are already familiar with. This will make the transition off English subtitles a lot easier. 

4-9 months - intermediate (6 months)

After you finish your beginner resources it's time to take the dive into more authentic content. This will be extremely hard at first, but I want to reassure you that this is completely normal and it is a necessary step to take in order to keep pushing forward. 

The two resources I recommend the most are Cantonese Conversations and Living Cantonese. My personal favourite is Cantonese Conversations as it offers unscripted conversations between Hong Kongers at full speed with full transcripts.

This is great for improving your listening comprehension as is allows you to get used to all the normal stutters, fluctuations of pace and speed of native speakers. It helps you get used to the rhythm of the language as it is spoken at full speed. 

But seeing as we are diving into the deep end here, we need a slightly different strategy to before. Whereas before we tackled the dialogues as a whole and worked through to understand everything in one session, here there is much more content and it is at a higher level so you need to split it up in order to make it more digestible.

What I recommend is splitting each dialogue into parts of roughly 1/3. Go through one third each day and on the fourth day, go over the whole dialogue together and try to understand everything. 

As you are splitting it up, even though the material is at a higher level, now it is in much more digestible chunks. Additionally, the fact that you are going over the whole dialogue on the fourth day builds natural repetition into the whole process. This is great for helping you retain more information.

Like before, I recommend setting monthly goals and switching between Cantonese Conversations and Living Cantonese in order to keep things fresh and interesting. 

Keep going and before long you will start to get more and more used to full speed speech and your listening comprehension will continue to improve.

7-month Progress Video:

When you pick up more momentum and start to learn more and more words, you can split the dialogues into halves instead of thirds, and eventually tackling dialogues as a whole.

Just remember, this is a long process of getting used to the language, and things can't be rushed. If you try going for bigger chunks of dialogue and you find it overwhelming, keep calm and keep on listening and reading until it becomes normal.

Now you are starting to form a base in the language and your comprehension is improving it is time to start putting what you have learned to use. 

For getting my speaking practice, the main place I used was Italki. This is because I found booking online tutors the easiest way to make sure I get regular speaking practice week after week. Alternatively, you can look in the language exchange section if you are tight on money, and also try out the free app hellotalk

When you first start out there will be a lot of repetition going over the most basic topics. Because of this reason, little and often is better. Speaking for about 30 mins 3-4 times a week is ideal as it is long enough to stretch you, yet not so long you run out of things to say while your brain turns into jelly.

Once you are more comfortable and you start to get the basics down then you can increase the time from 30 mins to an hour for 2-3 times a week. This is because as you get better and continue to improve you need to go for longer amounts of time to make sure you branch off and start talking about new topics. 

Get your teacher or partner to write down the words and phrases you struggled with, tried to use, or that came up in conversation that you didn't understand with example sentences. Then you can pick the most useful ones to add to your flashcards. Usually after each lesson my teacher sends me a list of about 15 words/sentences and I only ever add around 5-8 to my flashcards.

Remember, you don't have to learn every word right now, you will see the word again. If not, then perhaps it wasn't that important to begin with.

This is great because you are taking the most relevant and useful words for what you want to talk about, studying them in a controlled and efficient manner using flashcards and recycling them again in conversation later.

But in order to continue improving you still need to keep the focus on improving your listening comprehension, as this is the biggest barrier when it comes to communication. 

By this point, you should have watched a few Hong Kong dramas and your listening should be improving day by day. So if you think you are ready, then make the switch to watching simple content without English subtitles.

Good ones to start with are Kung Fu based films/dramas with lots of action. This way you can get a lot of visual clues and even if you don't understand it is still entertaining to watch. 

I personally really enjoyed the drama "a fist within four walls".

Remember, it is perfectly normal to understand very little when you are first starting out so just relax, spend time with the language, and enjoy what you do understand. These things take time and if you keep on putting in the time as the months go by you will slowly start to understand more and more. 

Additionally, I watched the Cantonese dub of some simple anime to help get the ball rolling such as "Dragon Ball" and "One Piece"

Towards the end of my ninth month, I went on holiday to Hong Kong in order to put my Cantonese to the test. Also, I wanted to improve my spoken level as much as I could before I set out to learn the writing system.

9 months - 1 year - Decoding Chinese Characters - Heisig (3 months)

By this point, you should be starting to understand more of simple TV shows and dramas as well as being able to converse on a variety of simple topics.

This is the perfect time to start learning characters as you can carry on to improve your listening and speaking skills by having fun. Additionally, in order to get past the intermediate stage, it becomes harder and harder to progress if you cannot read, so not learning characters now will only slow you down further down the line. 

In my opinion, the most efficient and effective way to learn Chinese Characters, especially with a ground in speaking already, is to use a book called Remembering The Traditional Hanzi by James Heisig

For a more detail on how to learn Chinese Characters effectively, see the following post.

In essence, you go through associating each of the basic elements of a character as well as characters themselves to a single English keyword. Then by combining the smaller characters and primitive elements to make bigger characters, and learning in a logical order, you can conjure up mnemonics to help you remember characters at a surprisingly fast rate. 

(Here is a free spreadsheet I created containing all 1500 characters in Heisig, with their keyword, frame number and Jyutping)

I recommend also looking at the Jyutping as reference for each character. This allows you to pair up the characters with spoken speech as well as helping you avoid mixing up characters with similar keywords. Not only this, but it also helps you spot when one of the components tells you the pronunciation of the character.

But what do I mean by this?

Take a look at the following example with the meanings taken from Heisig's book:

金 (gam1) - Meaning gold or metal

同 (tung4) - Meaning same

銅 (tung4) - Meaning copper

If you don't know how these characters are pronounced then you have to conjure up a mnemonic by yourself, linking the primitive meanings of "gold" and "same" to the meaning of "copper".

But if you use the jyutping as an aid, this allows you to spot something new.

Notice the character for "same" and "copper" are pronounced exactly the same. This is because 同, in this scenario, acts as an indicator telling you how to pronounce the character. 

The left half gives you the meaning of metal, and the right half the pronunciation "tung". 

This is incredibly common for Chinese characters, and using the Jyutping to help you understand the etymology of the characters will make them that much easier to remember when you need to. Also this can help deepen your understanding of how Chinese Characters work.

If you would like to learn more about how Chinese Characters work, then check out my post here

As you should be starting to understand more from simple tv shows, now would also be a good time to re-watch some of the shows you previously watched with English subtitles.

Re-watching the shows now with Chinese subtitles will help you keep up your listening and help you figure out a lot from context as you already know the plot. 

Additionally, with the Chinese subtitles, you will get more exposure to the characters you are learning and help reinforce what you have learnt.

If the opportunity comes up to speak then go for it, carry on booking lessons on italki if you want to, but this is not necessary if you are struggling for time to keep up with the characters.

As long as you keep regular contact with the language through your immersion, then your spoken level won't drop. So for me at this stage, my preference was to focus as much of my time and energy as possible on learning the characters.

1 year - 1 year 4 months - Building a reading core (4 months)

Coming from Heisig, you have learned how to recognise and write 1500 common characters from standard written Chinese.

But in order to make the jump to Cantonese, first, you will need to learn a few of the most common Cantonese only characters. Lucky for you, there are only about 200 of these total, and even more lucky the vast majority are so rare you will hardly encounter them.

I made a frequency list here, which I recommend going down and learning the first 20-30 characters. This should be more than plenty to get you started and should only take a few days with Heisig mentality. 

Now you have learned a lot of characters, what do you do with all that knowledge? How can you make sure character ability transfers to reading and writing skills?

This is one of the hardest stages. Looking at a text at this point you know a lot of the characters, have some sort of sense of what they might be saying, but can't zero in on anything.

At this stage, the most important thing is to practice lots of reading in context. 

Use your focused study time in a similar way to before, focusing on dialogues, but this time choose resources that come with the full text in Cantonese and put the emphasis on improving your reading comprehension. 

My personal favourite choice is a book called Wedding Bells. At a solid intermediate level, this book follows the story of a woman from Hong Kong who meets and falls in love with a Japanese man. 

Having just come from learning Heisig, the first chapter will be very hard. However, every chapter you progress onto will become exponentially easier than the last. This is due to all of the stored knowledge of the characters from Heisig starting to link together.

But if you find this book too difficult at first, then I recommend going back to Teach yourself Complete Cantonese and having a read through some of the dialogues in that. If you used this book starting out, then you will already be somewhat familiar with the dialogues. Also, they are kept short and simple so this should be good for helping to build you up for more difficult content. 

So how exactly should you study to improve your reading? As your listening will be well beyond your reading skills at this point, I recommend the following steps:

Step 1: 10 minutes - Read the dialogue over a few times, to see what words you can understand. If you don't know the word, then do you recognise the meaning from Heisig or do you recognise any of the components? Trying to recognise as much as you can and looking at words in context will be a big help in improving your understanding as well as helping you retain much more information. 

Step 2: 10 minutes - Listen to the dialogue while reading the transcript. This is to see what words you already know and can pick out with your listening, then by reading and listening together, you can pair up the sounds and words you already know to the written characters.

5 minutes - Break

Step 3: 20 minutes - Read through the transcript slowly looking up all the new words you don't know using the word list for reference if available. For looking up characters on your phone, Pleco offers a feature that lets you draw out the characters with your finger to be able to look up unknown characters more easily. 

5 minutes - Break

Step 4: 10 minutes - Listening and reading along with the dialogue to try and understand everything. If you forget a word go back to the word list or previous notes for reference.

Step 5: 10 minutes - Reading the text by itself to make sure you can still understand everything without the help of the audio.

 

First learning how to read Chinese is difficult because everything is still relatively new for you making it very hard to retain information. 

Therefore, in order to help you retain more information, I recommend a method known as sentence mining. 

So what is sentence mining?

Sentence mining, in short, is finding lots and lots of sentences with some written form in Cantonese. This can be books, comics, texts, subtitles or sentences from your teacher on italki

By transferring sentences to review into Anki, you can build up your reading comprehension quickly with a very high retention rate. This will help you build up a solid base during the initial hard stages when otherwise everything just seems to fall out your head.

When looking for sentences to add, you want to look for the following things:

     1) Have a written down form to eliminate guesswork

     2) Be written by or corrected by a native.

     3) Be in spoken Cantonese using traditional Chinese

Here you want to aim to get 1000 sentences built up in your deck across the four months in order to build up a base. This means roughly 7-10 sentences every day.

When you first start out, as the sentences will be quite short you can put the entire transliteration in Jyutping on the backside of the flashcard. However, as you move onto more complicated and longer sentences, this becomes extremely hard to find and pick out the words you want on the backside of the card, as illustrated by the pictures below:

Therefore, after you have got your feet under, I suggest only adding new words on the back of the card for reference. 

At this point, you can carry on speaking with your tutor or language exchange partners and get them to send you a list of all the new words with example sentences as well. 

Additionally, now is a great time for you to be using the language exchange app hellotalk. To see what Cantonese input tools I recommend, see the resource page here, listed under other at the bottom

Using this app is a really fun and light way to practice reading and texting in Cantonese. Using all of the in-app features as well as utilising the dictionary app pleco, you will be able to get in a lot of practice and improve your Cantonese through texting. 

All of the extra character knowledge will start to come together, and the extra exposure through reading will start to boost your spoken level as well.

Here is a video I shot with my friend Lucas a.k.a The Cantonese Guy, after about 1 year and 3 months of learning.

For your dead time, you will have lots of reviews on Anki to do. So this should be taking up all of your dead time. 

If you start to get sick of reviews on Anki and the count starts to get too high, then take a break for a week. Don't make any new cards. Focus on reading, watching videos and speaking, and let your reviews die down a bit before you pile on more cards.

The most important thing is to not get overwhelmed and keep the process fun. If you find that you don't like flashcards when the reviews get too much, this is completely fine. 

One great thing you can try is watching videos on Youtube with Cantonese subs. Some examples of channels are listed on my Cantonese Resource Page under the Youtube section

Remember, although you are adding sentences to Anki this is just a crutch to help you understand your input. The main emphasis still needs to be on listening and reading to the whole language. So don't feel like you have to add every single word, being selective, not relying on Anki too much and enjoying your listening and reading is by far the most important thing and this leads me onto your next and final stage of learning.

1 year 5 months - 2 years - Mass Immersion (8 months)

By far the longest stage of your learning, but the good thing here is it is also the most fun.

By this point you should have built a pretty solid base in all of your skills and if you are anything like me, starting to become extremely bored with Anki. 

At this point, stop making flashcards altogether. Anki has served its purpose in getting you over the initial hurdle.

Now, all that is left is to swim in a sea of rich, authentic and interesting content. Do whatever you want, integrate Cantonese into your life as much as you possibly can.

Watch Cantonese dramas, make friends and go out to socialise, watch youtube videos, text on hellotalk. And the most important thing of all, read lots of books!

Here I would replace all of your focused study time with extensive reading, and just try to cover as much ground and enjoy as many stories as you can.

Out of all of the things that I have done to learn Cantonese, if I had to attribute my success to one thing, it would be reading.

Read whenever you have the chance. In this day and age with modern technology, it's easier than ever. You can take your favourite stories or books with you wherever you go right in your pocket!

Reading in any language is by far the most efficient way to pick up new words. What's even more, is that Cantonese actually has a few fiction novels published with movies based on the books.

So by reading the books first, you learn all of the relevant vocabulary and plot lines in much more detail and in a richer context than the film. Therefore, when it comes time to watch the film after, you will be boasting almost 100% comprehension!

This was huge for me, and it will be for you too! Before this point, I was watching dramas and odd videos being able to follow the general plot and what was going on, but some details were always lost. 

But after reading the book first, everything was clear, everything was easy, everything was finally falling into place.

 1 year and 7 months video:

Now you might be thinking, it's all well and good telling me to read in Cantonese, but my friends told me Cantonese is never written down.

How am I supposed to find these books anyway?

Easy. Simply check my first and second post here on top Cantonese literature. 

Alternatively, if non-fiction is your thing and you are interested in reading about Cantonese history or language learning methods in Cantonese, then you can check out my own Cantonese resources for advanced learners

From here on out, all that is left to do is the slow and gradual process of spending lots and lots of time with Cantonese every single day. As the hours and months go by, you will get more and more used to Cantonese, and if you keep on reading on a variety of subjects your vocabulary will continue to increase exponentially. 

And then, if you keep this up until the two-year mark then congratulations, you are now a fluent speaker of Cantonese!

Conclusion

 

And that's it. Learning Cantonese has had a lot of ups and downs for me, but I speak truthfully when I say it has been one of the most rewarding and enriching experiences of my life.

You have a whole new culture, a whole new world to explore, tons of TV shows to watch, places to travel and friends to make. I will never forget my time travelling around Guangzhou or Hong Kong and seeing the look of joy and shock on people's faces when I started to speak to them in Cantonese.

If you follow the steps in this guide, you will be well on your way to fluency before you know it. Just remember, this is specifically what I did to learn Cantonese. There are a million ways to learn a language and this is merely one of them. You need to experiment and find what works for you, try out the methods in this guide, take what you like and discard the rest.

As you keep on spending more time with Cantonese, listening, reading and speaking. Gradually, what seemed foreign to you at first will start to become normal. What seemed alien, will start to feel comfortable. And over time, you will only get more and more confident speaking Cantonese until you eventually reach fluency.

When that day comes, remember this post, come here and give me a comment, and share this post with your friends.