How to deal with a new writing system

When learning a new language that's very different to English, a lot of the time you will have to contest with a new writing system.

It can be confusing to know the best time to learn the writing system or even if you should learn it at all.

If we choose to not learn the new script we can save time and build up our listening and speaking ability much quicker, but if we do learn then a plethora of native material becomes available that we can use to learn with.

So which is better?

When taking into account the best way forward, it is important to take a few things into consideration.

The main two factors in my opinion that affect this decision are your time frame, and your goals. What I mean by this is how high a level you are aiming for in the language, and when you want to try and achieve this by.


What is your timeline and goals?

If you are just learning over the space of a few months or even weeks in preparation for something specific like a holiday, then learning the script can slow you down considerably and draw your speaking progress to a halt.

Bypassing the stumbling block, and practicing a lot of listening and speaking right from the start is sure to give you the fastest possible route to basic conversational fluency.

If however you have more time, then the initial time investment to learn a new writing system can be well worth the effort.

Not learning the writing system of a new language can be incredibly frustrating. Putting in all that time into learning a new language and the end result being illiterate.

Never seeming to be able to break away from the intermediate level and being torn between learners materials which are too boring, and native material like TV and movies are just way too complicated.

In the long run, not knowing the writing system of the language you are learning is incredibly crippling, and it can leave you feeling frustrated, disheartened and like you are hitting a brick wall.

The upside is that if you do learn, even complicated and advanced material like TV and movies become much more accessible through subtitles, not to even mention the opportunities to broaden your vocabulary through reading.

You can engage in much more interesting and meaningful content, and really get the input you need to bring your language to the next level.


How complicated is the writing system?

A lot of people imagine learning a new alphabet to be a monumental task, one that would take years to master.

But in most cases it is a lot easier than you might think!

Where the script is particularly simple and eloquent, for example the Korean Hangul,  students have been known to learn how to write and remember the entire alphabet in a single day.

However some systems are much more complex, for example Chinese characters.

As they represent meaning and not sound words are typically made up of one or two characters, which means having to learn a few thousand to be able to achieve a comfortable level.

Therefore in such a short time frame of trying to speak as good as you can in half a year or even a year, learning Chinese characters will cut into your progress massively and slow you down a lot.

In contrast if you had a year to learn Korean, with a much simpler writing system in place, then learning the writing system at the start can be much more beneficial for you even over a relatively short time frame of one year.


Other major pitfalls in the language?

One of the most important keys to success in any task is not getting overwhelmed. This means being able to break the task down into smaller and more manageable tasks.

If you are learning an incredibly different language from English, for example Japanese. Then trying to tackle all of these new concepts at the same time can start to get very tricky vert fast.

Dealing with the Kana, varying levels of politeness, syntax very different from our own, new cultural concepts and etiquette, and then 2000 Chinese characters on top of all that!

This is a recipe to leave you feeling overwhelmed and frustrated, which can ultimately lead to you giving up.

If this is the case, then it can be better to break the task down into much more manageable steps.

Forget the Kanji to begin with!

Start off by learning just the Kana. Then practice reading along with short dialogues to get used to the sounds off the language while learning bits about the culture too.

Then once you have built up your conversation and speaking ability you can tackle Kanji further down the line to help you get passed the intermediate level.

While it's debatable whether or not you should learn Kanji right from the start, one thing is certain.

If you get overwhelmed and give up, then you won't learn.

Breaking it down and keeping it manageable, while helping you feel like you are making fast progress can give massive boosts to your motivation and be extremely beneficial in the long run.


What is the best way to learn a new script?


Usually learning how to write out all of the new symbols and attaching them to roman spelling of each one can be done over a relatively short space of time. But to be able to string them together while reading to form words is a lot more obscure for our brain to get used to and takes a bit longer.

For example, if I was learning Japanese Hiragana I could learn all the symbols, if I saw the prompt "Ko" I would write "こ".

But then to be able to read it in context, for example こんにちは as "konnichiwa" is a lot more difficult.

The key steps here are once you have the basics of writing down, you need to spend a lot of time reading to content that you have the audio for.

Either practice reading and when you don't know a word rely on some text-to-speech software, like on LingQ, or read the transcript while listening to the audio at the same time.

Taking very simple and short dialogues and reading and listening to the same thing over many times is a great natural way to get your brain to match-up all of the sounds of the language to the new script.




You need to factor in what your goals are and when you want to achieve them by.

If you want to reach a high level and are learning for the long term then it is definitely better to learn the writing system, and for alphabet based languages the earlier the better. The longer you put this off the less reading practice you are getting in the long run.

However with a more complicated system like Chinese, as well as many other stumbling blocks to deal with, I would recommend putting off characters for the first few months while you solely focus on listening and speaking.

This way when you come to learn the characters you are attaching them to words you already know how to use and understand in context.

And from then on consume lots of native content, such as books and media with subtitles or a transcript to help you get past the intermediate plateau.

If your goal is to get conversational in as short a time as possible then it is best to bypass the new script entirely and rely on learning aids to get to a conversational level. The only downside here, is it becomes harder and harder to progress past the beginner and intermediate stages if you cannot read.

Have you learnt a language with a different writing system before? How did you deal with it, did you learn the script straight away, wait until later, or did you get by fine without it?

How to deal with tonal languages

Learners of tonal languages have a hard time when first starting out. Listening can be extremely difficult, and words that sound completely different to native speakers sound exactly the same to you.

I assure you, this is perfectly normal. Every learner has to go through this at some point.

But if you know how to go about it, you will be surprised how quickly you can get used to the tones in a new language.


What is a tone?


A tonal language is a language where the tone of what you say effects its meaning. Common in East Asia, a few examples of some tonal languages are all Chinese languages (Mandarin, Cantonese, Hakka etc), Vietnamese and Thai.

However, the concept of tones is not quite as alien as it might seem on first sight.

We have things like this in English as well. For example:

  1.  "That's not your computer"
  2. "That's not your computer?"
  3.  "That's NOT your computer"


In the example above, we have the same sentence spoken in three different ways. In example 1, there is not much inflection, this is simply a statement of fact.

In the second example, an upwards inflection can change a statement into a question.

And in the third example, stressing the word "not", changes the inflection of the whole sentence. Like you are warning the person, or telling them off.

See how in English when we change the intonation of words it can change the overall inflection of a sentence. The only difference with tonal languages, is that it changes the meaning of the word.

For the sake of this post, I will illustrate my examples using Cantonese.

Lets take the sound "si".

In Cantonese there are 6 tones. As you change the tone of the sound "si", the meaning changes with it. The six tones of Cantonese are illustrated by the diagram below:

Note in the transliteration, how the letters correspond to the sound, and the number to the tone.

As you can see from the example above, for the same sound "Si", there are different meanings depending on the tone used. For example with the 2nd tone (mid rising tone), it has the meaning of history, and with 3rd tone (middle flat tone) it has the meaning of try.

Tones coupled with the fact that they are typically present in languages very different from English can make listening very hard at first. But there is no need to worry, this is completely normal and part of the process that everyone has to go through when learning their first tonal language.

If you know the right way to go about learning tones, then you will be surprised with how far you can come in just a few short months.


What is the best way to learn tones?


Traditionally what I have seen people do, is try to remember the tone for every single word or character they come across in isolation. Then when it comes time to speak, they end up stuttering and taking way too long to form a sentence. This is because they have to carefully think about each syllable they say.

This sort of approach is completely unnatural, and you will never be able to get to a comfortable conversational level if you go about it in this way.

What I recommend instead, is having something like the picture above as a reference point to look to.

Then when you first start learning put a huge emphasis on listening. When you are listening to your dialogues, pay special attention to the tone markings in the script (or transliteration if you are learning Chinese, for example Pinyin). If you forget what a symbol means, then go back to the chart for reference.

Listen to the word, and read at the same time. Make sure to listen to how the tones fit together to form phrases and sentences. Tones are relevant to each other, and may change when coupled with other words as well. So thinking in chunks is a great way to get started, and understanding tones better.

In doing this for a few weeks, you will naturally get used to the sounds of the language and before long remember all of the tones and be able to start distinguishing them in your dialogues.

While there is no quick fix to master the tones, a lot of listening with special attention to the tone markings will help you a lot. Especially as a beginner.

If you are learning a Chinese language, like Mandarin or Cantonese, this is another reason why I recommend to hold off learning characters at the start. This is so you can focus your attention on the new sounds of the language, and train your ear to be able to pick the tones out in context.



How can I produce the tones accurately and comfortably in conversation?

Notice up to now for the most part, all I have spoken about is listening and being able to distinguish the tones from one another in context.

This is because listening and being able to hear the sounds has to come before production. If we try to produce before we can recognize the sounds, we are setting ourselves up for failure.

This is why I recommend such a big emphasis on listening when you first start, especially with a tonal language.

However, if your goal is to speak, then you should start speaking early. Normally, I recommend about a month after first starting with the language.

So how can I make sure I get my tones accurate when speaking?

The best thing by far I recommend for this is to find a patient language partner or teacher to help you practice.

Also it's best to do this over the internet, this way your teacher can easily write down the pronunciation and tone of the word as well as saying it. This gives you an extra point of reference to help you recognize the correct pronunciation before you try and produce.

When you first start out practice having simple basic every day conversations.

Make sure to ask to be corrected when you get the tone wrong. When you first start out feedback is essential. It is much better to get this right at an earlier stage, then it is to try and defossilize bad habits later down the line.

As you start to build up your vocabulary and become more comfortable producing the correct tones in simple conversations you can slowly branch out into more interesting topics. Making sure to work with a attentive partner or teacher to help correct you as you go.




Tones can seem intimidating at first, but you will be surprised with a lot of listening how quickly you can start to pick them out and make sense of everything.

Make sure to look at phrases and sentences, and not to learn tones of single words or characters in isolation.

The first step is being able to understand and recognize the tones in context, and then move onto speaking.

Make sure when you start output, you work with a partner or teacher who can give you instant feedback and support.

Context is king. Being able to understand and deduce what is being said only becomes easier and easier the broader your vocabulary gets, so things will only become clearer with time.

It will seem hard at first, but it does get better over time. If you keep going you will be able to start understanding and picking out words in full speed conversation before you know it.

Have you learnt a tonal language before? What barriers or obstacles did you find most difficult about it? What do you think is the best way to deal with tones?

Comprehensible input from a language learners perspective

"If acquisition is it, the question then becomes how do we acquire?"

According to research on second language acquisition by Stephen Krashen, we acquire language in one and only one way.

Comprehensible input.

But what is comprehensible input?

Comprehensible input, is a fancy way of saying listening and reading to things we understand.

"We acquire language when we understand what people tell us, what is said, not how it's said, but what is said"

Simply put if we expose ourselves to a lot of language, listening and reading to enjoyable and engaging content that we can understand, then we will continue to learn and improve.


But I don't understand anything?


When I listen and read I don't understand anything. How can I acquire language through comprehensible input, if I can't find content that I understand?

Being able to figure out meaning from context, scientists recommend the ideal is somewhere between 90-98% comprehension. We should be able to figure out the rest and fill in the gaps by ourselves.

But how do we choose material at the right level?

LingQ counts our known and unknown words for what we read and listen to. So before you click on an article or lesson, we can see exactly how many unknown words there are.

The more we use the system, the more accurate the figures are. This means we can use it to pretty accurately pick content at the right level for us if we use it a lot.

Of course there is still a big problem.

When we first start out in a new language we are at 100% unknown words, so figuring out completely from context is almost impossible.

So what then? How can I make input comprehensible?


How to get comprehensible input


This might seem like good advice in theory. But in reality it's much harder. It's hard to find content at the right level and when we start off we don't understand anything.

Figuring out from context is only one way we can make input comprehensible.

From the learners point of view, anything we use to understand what is being said, is a form of comprehensible input.

A basic example is like Stephen Krashen demonstrated in the earlier video. If we can show visually what we are saying, as we are saying it. Then students can simply watch and listen, and attach the words to the meaning as we go.

Other ways in which teachers can help you is through the TPRS method (teaching proficiency through reading and storytelling) and story listening by Beniko Mason.

Both these methods similar to Stephen Krashen's demonstration. They offer a mix of visual and contextual clues to help you understand basic content, and help you to understand what is being said without translation.

Additionally what you can do if you are a bit further along, is engage in a conversation with a teacher or partner over skype. (my favorite place to find a teacher is italki).

While you are speaking, if you come across a word you don't know. You can either ask your teacher to rephrase it in a slightly simpler way, or you can ask them to write it down.

Once they write it down, you can quickly look up what the word is in an online dictionary, and then carry on talking.

All of these methods work, but they all have one thing in common. They rely someone to help you.


What does Comprehensible input mean for an independent language learner?

As I said before, compressible input simply means anything we understand.

So working as an independent language learner, it is our job to use the tools we have available to make things comprehensible.


Dialogues with vocabulary lists


When I first started learning Cantonese all I had was a teachyourself complete cantonese book to work through.

There is no English translation of the dialogues, just vocabulary lists.

What I did was completely ignore all of the explanations and grammar notes in the book and spent all of my time listening to and reading the dialogues.

First I listened many times over to see what I can understand. Once I have done that I listen and read the transliteration at the same time.  This helps me pick out all of the sounds in the dialogue, and helps me to distinguish any words I already know.

Then for the words I don't know I look at the vocabulary list. This time I read through the transliteration slowly, and every time I come across a word I don't know, I check the vocabulary list for the English meaning to make sense of what I am reading.

After I have read through it once or twice, I go back to listening and reading at the same time. When I forget the meaning of a word, I refer to the vocabulary list and keep reading.

Here I am using English definitions of single words to help me grasp the meaning of the entire sentence. Quickly look up the meaning of a single word or phrase then go back to listening and reading in context.

Any beginners course or book will help you do this. LingQ offers a dictionary you can use by clicking on any word or phrase and translating it to help you make sense of what you are reading. You save the phrase and keep reading. It is designed to keep you in the language, listening and reading with as little time as possible spent looking up words and looking for definitions.


English translations


English translations can also be helpful when trying to understand the meaning of a new text or dialogue.

By going through in your target language first, then reading the English and going back to your target language after. You can use the translation as a crutch to get a clear understanding of what the text is saying.

You can then compare the two texts to look and see what words match, and help you gain a good understanding of what you are reading or listening to in your target language.

To go a step further you can try out a technique called "reverse translation" used by people like Polyglot Luca Lampariello.

Here you translate an entire text from your target language into your mother tongue. This can be with aid of a dictionary or word list if you are just starting out.

Then after that you translate back from your mother tongue into your target language, and compare to find the gaps in your knowledge.

Here is a video by Olly Richards explaining how this works, and exactly why it is useful:



A lot of the time when we think of flashcards, we think about learning single pieces of information or words out of context.

So how can this help us get comprehensible input?

Flashcards are user generated, so we can pick and choose exactly what we learn from and exactly how we set them up.

In my post on SRS flashcards one of the methods I listed was sentence mining.

Basically what this means, is to create lots of flashcards with your target language on side 1, and an explanation in your mother tongue along with audio on side 2.

You look at the flashcard and try to read the front of the card. Then use the audio and translation to check your answer.

If you get it wrong, check the words you don't know by comparing and then try again next time the card comes up.

Here you can see how we are combining the theory of comprehensible input with spaced repetition to help put new information into our long term memory.


Reading with an online dictionary


Reading is an excellent way to boost your vocabulary and learn new words, even at the beginner stages.

The only problem is it can be hard to find stuff at our level.

When we start reading, we can be easily overwhelmed with new words and lose the entire meaning of the text.

However, when we are first starting out it can be hard to find texts simple enough where we know 90% of all of the words.

So we can use online tools and resources to help us understand the meaning and keep going.

I have already mentioned LingQ, and other resources include readlang and popup dictionaries.

With online popup dictionaries installed on your web browser, you only need to activate them and then hover your mouse above a word to get it's meaning.

This can be a great way to enjoy reading at an early stage. Come across a word you don't know? Simply hover your mouse above the word, get the meaning instantly and then keep reading.

With modern online tools, this lets us tackle a much greater volume of unknown words and expose ourselves to much more language and learn even faster.

At an early stage all of the most common vocabulary you will see again and again until it starts to stick.

And at the more advanced stages, you will see targeted vocabulary come up again and again depending on the genre.

For example, I am reading a horror story right now in Cantonese. The main character gets caught in a storm while out at sea, and gets washed up on a deserted island.

Even in the first chapter, the word  荒島 (fong1 dou2), meaning barren or uninhabited island, came up at least 5 times! I had to look it up the first two or three times but because it kept on coming up, I quickly remembered how to read this word and all by just enjoying the story!




In short, comprehensible input is anything that helps you understand the meaning behind what is being said.

We should focus on meaning. Focus on what is being said, and not how it is said.

This works especially good if we are engaged in fun and interesting content.

Our brain is incredibly good at picking up patterns, so if we expose ourselves to enough language the grammar will come naturally, we just have to give it time.

This is incredibly consistent with my own experience.

When I first started learning Cantonese I made a lot of mistakes. I made little to no progress listening to podcasts using English to explain short dialogues. I spend about 15 minutes listening to the explanation of a thirty second dialogue!

You could spend years learning like this and never get anywhere. That's exactly what happened to me in school.

When I made the shift to focus on the dialogues themselves, listen and read many times using the vocabulary list to help me understand, my progress started to soar.

Aim to understand the meaning behind what is being said, and not to micro analyse every tiny aspect of the language.

Now I realize this is down to a concept known as comprehensible input.

How do you inject comprehensible input into your learning? Leave a comment and let me know!

How to learn a language like Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee is probably the most iconic person ever to come out of Hong Kong. His lightning fast moves are legendary all across the world, and so is his philosophy.

Across his career, he always strove to be better and pushed himself.

He developed not only a way of fighting, but a philosophy and a way of living as well. He believed in the acquisition of knowledge.

Because of this there are countless quotes and inspiration to be taken from Bruce Lee. So today I want to take a look at a few of the things he said, and how they relate to us, the language learner.

Don't think. FEEL


“Don't think. FEEL. It's like a finger pointing at the moon. Do not concentrate on the finger, or you will miss all of the heavenly glory.”

This is one of his most famous quotes, and rightly so. In language learning it is all too easy to want to look up every single word we don't know. Try to micro analyse every detail and grammar rule until our heads explode.

This is how we learnt at school, and it's ingrained in us. If that's not how we learn, then how?

Language learning is as much about feel than it is science. If we simply expose ourselves to a lot of content, and focus on getting the general feel and meaning of what is being said, not micro analysing every small detail, we will find our progress soar.

To become fluent in a language we need to expose ourselves to a lot of content. And it we focus on every little detail, we will never put enough pieces together to see the whole picture.


A goal is not always meant to be reached


I have wrote before about setting goals that actually work, in order to keep you motivated and on the right track with your language learning.

But what about setting goals so over the top, so ambitious that there is no way we can possibly reach them.

"Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars.” - Norman Vincent Peale

This really comes down to what type of person you are.

Sometimes setting ourselves ridiculously high goals is incredibly motivating.

Thinking how rewarding and good it will be to reach them.

Then when we sprint off at 100 miles an hour towards that goal, in the end when we don't reach it, we still come a hell of a lot further than if we hadn't set one in the first place.

“A goal is not something always meant to be reached, simply as something to aim at”


Mistakes are always forgivable, if one has the courage to admit them


I think when we start out doing something new, we are always scared of making mistakes.

Even when we look at sports, all of the greats made a lot of mistakes. They made so many mistakes because they were pushing themselves, and learnt from every single one. This is what made them great.

Language learning is no different.

When we start learning we will make a lot of mistakes. Mistakes about how to study, mistakes about what materials we use, and mistakes using the language.

I have made more mistakes than I can count.

This is inevitable. What matters is that we push ourselves, and we learn from these mistakes.

If we push outside of our comfort zone, use and speak the language regularly, we will make a ton of mistakes, but we will make even more progress.

"Mistakes are always forgivable, if one has the courage to admit them"


Become like water

“You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.”

When we are learning something new, we need to be open minded. Especially when learning a language, everything can seem so alien, weird and outright wrong from the get go.

It can go against our natural idiosyncrasies and instincts.

Here Bruce teaches us that you need to be mentally agile, and accept new concepts when they come your way. He always said he was a master of no martial arts, and rather he studied all of them. He made his own way from what he learned.

Language learning is no different.

Every time we come across a new structure or difference in the language you are learning, we need to accept it for what it is and move on.

"You must be shapeless, formless, like water."


Absorb what is useful, discard what is not, add what is uniquely your own


I like this analogy for two reasons.

First off, the word absorb. We don't learn or study languages, we get used to them. It's what happened with our first language, and it will happen with our second and third if we give it time.

Go through lots of content, let it wash over your brain, listen and read to lots of content you can understand and you will keep progressing.

The second reason I like this is, is because he mentions discarding what isn't useful.

A lot of the time, when I hear people going through a language course, they want to meticulously go through every tiny little detail and learn absolutely everything.

But a massive chunk of what's in there just won't be useful or relevant to you in the slightest.

I was trying out duolingo the other day, and one of the first lessons takes you to the zoo. It forced me to learn words like Lion, and Penguin before I can even introduce myself. It just doesn't make any sense!

We need to take what's relevant, add our own bits, and customize it to make it relevant to us.

For example, if I learn how to say "I am a Doctor", from my beginners textbook.

I can take that structure, take out the word doctor, and add in what my actual job is.

"Absorb what is useful, discard what is not, add what is uniquely your own"


To hell with circumstances, I create opportunities


It can be all to easy to blame our lack of progress on the situation rather than ourselves.

"If I could just fly to where my target language is spoken, I would be fluent by now."

"If I had more money I could buy more lessons on italki."

"If I didn't live in such a desolate small town, I would have so many more opportunities to practice!"

Do any of these found familiar?

The fact of the matter is, we all encounter the same problems. Language learning is as much about creating opportunities, than it is having them.

If you are living in a big city there are tons of ways to meet native speakers. You can use couchsurfing, facebook, meetups and more.

I even emailed the Guangzhou bureau in my city to pair me up with a language partner so we can practice together.

Even if you don't live in a big city and don't have enough money to buy a teacher, there is always a work around.

Go on website like italki, or hellotalk and do language exchanges.

If you want to you can create all of the opportunities you need, it's just about getting out there and making them happen.

"To hell with circumstances, I create opportunities"


Knowing is not enough, we need to apply

I always emphasize the importance of listening and reading on my blog, and I still maintain this at the cornerstone of how we learn languages.

However, if we want to speak good, we need to speak a lot.

If your goal is to speak, then it's not use spending hours and hours building up your listening and reading comprehension but never actually saying a word!

You need to take what you've learned from your input activities and then apply it in conversation.

This is how we activate our vocabulary, and become more confident and comfortable speaking our target language.

Also, one thing that I am guilty of, as i'm sure a lot of you are, is spending hours of time reading through blogs and articles of how to learn a language, without actually getting out there and applying what you've read!

It's all well and good wanting to look into how to learn, and trying to streamline your method, but it's not going to learn itself!

All this reading won't help you unless you apply what you have learned!

"Knowing is not enough, we need to apply"


Learning is never cumulative, it is a movement of knowing which has no beginning and no end


This is probably one of my favourite quotes because it perfectly sums up one of the biggest misconceptions in language learning.

One of the things I get asked most is "Luke, are you fluent yet?"

It's not quite that simple.

We are constantly improving and growing in all of our languages, even our natives ones.

People like to assume language learning is a one time thing, complete it and your done, your fluent.

But it isn't like that. You can be perfectly fluent on some topics, talk about politics, history, linguistics and then still not know how to order a drink at a bar.

This is because in language learning we become comfortable with the things we expose ourselves to, and not with the things we don't.

If you never exposed yourself to that specific vocabulary, you won't of learned it before. We come from a much smaller base than from the years and years of exposure growing up in our native language.

Language learning is not a process to complete. Instead, we get up to a level where we can enjoy and engage in interesting content, and from there on it is a slow gradual process of continual improvement.

"Learning is never cumulative, it is a movement of knowing which has no beginning and no end"




Bruce Lee was a great man and probably the most iconic person ever to come out of Hong Kong.

He was a martial artist, but also a philosopher.

He prided himself on learning, and always striving for better. Never limiting himself to one method or way. And mixing everything to create his own path.

So much of what he talked about is incredibly applicable in our own lives, especially for us as language learners.

What do you think? Have you got any Bruce Lee quotes you think I missed?

Who has been an inspiration for you in your life?

Leave a comment and let me know!

Spoken Cantonese vs Written Chinese??

The written and spoken Cantonese divide can be a very confusing at first for new learners of Cantonese. Especially if you aren't aware of why it exists, or even aware it exists at all.

When I started learning Cantonese I had no idea what the difference between written Chinese and spoken Cantonese is.

All I knew is that when I started speaking with my tutor on italki, all I would hear is, "no, not that! That's the written form, you want to say it like this!"

Then I change to the new word, completely confused as to why I was wrong. Why would you write differently to how you speak? I mean surely the written and spoken language is the same right?

Not quite.

And when I eventually accepted that there was a divide between the Spoken and Written language, I still didn't understand why.

And the whole thing just bewildered me.

It wasn't until I understood the reasons behind why, that things finally started to become clear.

What is spoken Cantonese and written Chinese?

So as you might have guessed, the spoken language is how people actually speak from day to day. If you watch a movie, listen to the radio, or hear your friends speaking, this will be in Spoken Cantonese.

Written Chinese refers to the way things are written down. If you read a book, a newspaper, see subtitles on the TV, this will all be in written Chinese, which is different from the spoken form.

So why are they different?

Chinese isn't just one language, in fact in China today there are over 300 different dialects.

Although Mandarin is the national language, hundreds of dialects still exist and are used in daily life. And it isn't uncommon for people in the rural parts of China, or in the older generation especially, to not be able to speak Mandarin at all.

Because of the disparity with languages in China, a common writing system was made as a means of communication for people between dialects.

This is known as standard written Chinese, and is based on the national language, Mandarin.

So this means that when you read a book or newspaper in Cantonese, you are reading the standard written form with Cantonese pronunciation.

If you then speak with the written form, you are in essence speaking Mandarin but with the Cantonese pronunciation of the characters.

The end result is it sounding very odd to native speakers.


How do I avoid mixing up the two?


Now that you know about the difference between spoken Cantonese and written Chinese, you might be thinking to yourself, how to avoid mixing them up?

The main problem this causes is when you look things up in an online dictionary, most of the time the spoken and written form are both listed, and not clearly labelled which is which.

So if you look up and try to use a word, you could end up choosing the wrong one and using the written form instead.

So how do we avoid this?

Firstly, when we start off learning we want to take as much as we can from context. Work through books and courses full of dialogues and listen to them many times.

Try to avoid big vocabulary lists with no context. The vocab lists on Cantoneseclass101 always mix up the spoken and written forms, so even though the dialogues and resources in general are great for beginners, steer well clear of the vocabulary lists.

If you get your vocabulary from context as part of a conversation, you can't go wrong!

Of course, there will be various things you want to learn how to say that won't be in your textbook, so what then?

The best thing to do is find a speaking partner on italki, or get one of your friends to help you. When you have something you want to say, just look up the word and pick one.

If you get the wrong one it's not the end of the world, they will still understand what you mean, and then they can point you in the right direction after.

In fact, this is a very normal problem for beginner learners of Cantonese and nothing to worry about. Keep listening to dialogues in context and practice with people regularly, and you should have no problem at all building up your vocabulary and keeping the two distinct.


Can spoken Cantonese be written down as well?

So if Cantonese is usually written as standard Chinese, does that mean that what is actually said is never written down?

Of course it is! Actual spoken Cantonese is written down more than you think. Check out my Cantonese resources page here!

There are learners books, magazines, comic books, youtube channels with Cantonese subtitles, and even some books published on HK golden!

Not to mention if you text with native speakers, they will use Spoken Cantonese. And this is an incredibly useful way to pick up new phrases and colloquialisms that might be too fast to catch in the speed of full conversation.


Should I learn the written language at all?


This very much depends on what your goals are. If your goal is to be a fully functioning Cantonese native, then you need to learn the written form as well.

All "serious" literature is in standard written Chinese, as are newspapers, materials for school, signs and much more.

However, if your main goal is to speak, and speak well. Then there is no need.

By focusing on the spoken form you can read books and comics, as well as text with your friends, and take the new words and phrases and use them to improve your speaking.




This is a very confusing topic at first but as soon as you get your head around why this duality exists, then everything becomes much easier to understand.

If you are first starting out, I highly recommend ignoring the written language and solely focusing on the spoken one.

If you try to learn both too early, this will most likely result in mixing them up and becoming frustrated further down the line.

If on the other hand you start with the spoken language first, once you have a good enough grounding in the spoken form you can move over to written. This way you should have no trouble keeping the two apart.

Did this confuse you when you first started to learn Cantonese? What else would you like me to cover? Let me know in the comments!