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.

More Cantonese Literature

It has been quite some time since my first post on Cantonese literature and since then I have made some interesting discoveries that I want to share with you.

If you are not at the level where you can read books yet then I highly recommend you check out my page of Cantonese resources.

以讀不回死全家!

以讀不回死全家 (ji5 duk6 bat1 wui6 sei2 cyun4 gaa1), which roughly translates to "all those who have already read and not replied will die", is a thriller suspense novel set following a class of high school kids.

Things are pretty normal in class when suddenly all the students get added to a group by the same name of the book. I won't reveal any more than that as I don't want to spoil the book.

But what I will say is this, the book is a very good read and got me hooked right from the first chapter. It has mature themes with lots of strong language and the entire book is written in Cantonese.

What's more, is that because this is a thriller book, then all of the chapters are kept very short in order to keep the suspense and the pacing high. This works out ideal for learners who want to break the book into easily manageable chunks.

 

《那夜凌晨,我坐上了旺角開往大埔的紅van》

那夜凌晨,我坐上了旺角開往大埔的紅van (naa5 je6 ling4 san4, ngo5 co5 soeng5 liu5 wong6 gok3 hoi1 wong5 daai6 bou3 dik1 hung4 van)  or "Lost On a Red Minibus" in English is a book published on Hong Kong golden quite some time ago.

This is a little bit different to the other books on this list however, as the book is not entirely in Cantonese. Rather all of the narration is done in standard written Chinese, and the dialogues themselves are written in Cantonese with lots of colloquialisms and strong language. 

This book is absolutely massive, boasting over 400 pages long and completely free online. It's about a man who get's on an overnight minibus from Mong Kok heading to Tai Po. After the minibus comes out of a tunnel suddenly the passangers on the bus can not get into contact with the outside world and there seems to be no one on the street apart from the 17 people who were on the bus.

Definitely worth sinking your teeth into if you are looking to improve your comprehension of both Cantonese and standard written Chinese simultaneously.  

北韓包膠 (bak1 hon4 baau1 gaau1) - Not a ebook like the others, this book is a travel log in North Korea and pokes fun at just about everything. A funny read if you are at the level where you can manage large without the aid of an online dictionary. 

我的你的紅的TAXI (TAXI) (ngo5 dik1 nei5 dik1 hung4 dik1 TAXI) - "Unfamiliar drivers turn out to be the most valuable listeners. The narrow carriages have become the most open private space".

When working as a taxi driver a university student and the author of this book listened to a wide range of stories and compiled 55 of the most interesting ones into this book. 

Think of this book as a book of short stories, only taken from real Hong Kongers.

That's all for today. If you know of any more Cantonese literature around that I am yet to include in either of my posts then please leave me a comment or send me an email and I can include them in the next one!

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.

 

Conclusion

 

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!

Cantonese Literature – The many (free) books of Hong Kong Golden

One of the biggest misconceptions with Cantonese that I always hear is that Cantonese is a spoken only language and it is never written down. While standard Chinese is used for almost all serious documents and books, the fact that Cantonese is never written down is just outright wrong, and if you do some digging there is quite a lot out there.

If you are not at an advanced level yet, then I recommend you check out my resources page for Cantonese. If however, you are past the intermediate stage and looking for some interesting books to sink your teeth into, then keep reading.

 

Men Can't be Poor (男人唔可以窮) by 薛可正.

There are two volumes to this book, men can't be poor and men can't be poor 2. The first book was so successful it later got adapted into a movie. What's more is a free audio book is avaliable in podcast form from itunes. This book follows the story of 薛可正 (sit3 ho2 zing3), who is unemployed and desperate to join the London Gold company as a broker. The story revolves around the themes of affection, career, love and brotherhood, and reflects many peoples frustrations with life.

To Survive, I have to kill myself first (要生存先要殺死自己) by 孔明

An interesting change from the romance centered books on this list, to survive, I have to kill myself first, revolves around two university students participating in rowing club activities. One day they get caught in a big storm. After drifting for nearly six hours the two end up stranded on an uninhabited island. Further events unfold and after the protaganist witnesses the murder of his female friend, he is now being hunted down on the run for his life.

The Diary of the post Hong Kong Little Man (後香港小男人網上日記) by 栢原太賀

The Diary of the post Hong Kong Little Man revolves around a 30 year old Hong Kong male 阿賓 (aa3 ban1). 阿賓 was a member of the Hong Kong chamber of commerce and industry, he is timid, cowerdly and in a girlfriend forced maraige.

Later in the story he manages to escape the job of junior staff member but encounters setbacks in love when he is forced to choose between two women.

My Fiancee (我老母話我有未婚妻) by 八輩子的約定

My Fiancee is a true story based of off the authur's (八輩子/baat3 biu3 zi2) first love that started four years ago when  Lu Lu's (露露/lou6 lou6) mother passed away.

Most of the stories are actually real events, however to avoid completely exposing the real people, some parts have had to be changed. 

A journey was spoiled by a Kong Gal (個旅程, 俾個港女搞到玩得唔係咁開心) by 張飛人

A journey was spoiled by a Kong gal, is not a story of travel, but a story of love, faith and conflict and follows he story of host 張飛 (zeung1 fei1),  in order to get married to his Christian girlfriend
If you know of any other books in spoken Cantonese please let me know in the comments below, and remember to check out more books and resources on my Cantonese page!

Learn 1500 Chinese Characters in 3 months?

Is it possible to learn 1500 Chinese characters in 3 months? The simple answer is yes. However, the sheer thought alone of having to learn thousands of characters is enough to scare most learners away from even attempting Chinese in the first place.

Images come up of writing out a bunch of unconnected drawings and squiggles hundreds of times to no avail, constantly forgetting and struggling in an uphill battle.How is it possible to learn in 3 months what takes native speakers up to 5 years to master?

So for me to come along and say it's possible to learn 1500 Characters in 3 months may seem like a mad claim, but to understand better, first we need to ask ourselves a few questions.

 

Firstly, do you even need to learn Chinese characters at all?

 

This may seem like a redundant question, especially considering you are already reading a post about how to learn characters, I can assume you have made up your mind already. But defining your goals and knowing why you are doing them is an important step to take when taking on a challenge as big as this.

So, do you need to learn them? This very much depends on your current goals and objectives. I know a few people that have learnt spoken Chinese to a very high level without even touching characters, and to some this is enough. This is possible through romanizations of the language (such as Pinyin for Mandarin), listening to dialogues while reading the Pinyin and then practicing them in conversation. This is a shortcut to being able to speak fast and certainly one I used when I first started to learn Chinese.

But is it possible to achieve native like fluency? Again, the answer is yes but you have to think about the practicality. Achieving true fluency requires an incredible amount of exposure and without characters on your side you are depriving yourself of all written forms of the language having to solely rely on audio input when accessing native level content.

If on the other hand, you learn the characters. Then you can watch videos with Chinese subtitles, text your friends, read books, visit forums and much more. Essentially you can transform your whole life and shift it into your target language offering significantly more exposure than you could ever get with audio input alone. This enhanced input and immersion is the key to becoming fluent in as short a time as possible past the intermediate stage, through a large volume of compelling interesting input.

On top of this, you get to access the real language, and be able to dive into thousands of years of history building up the complex writing system today.

 

What is a Chinese Character?

 

So you agree that learning Characters is the right way to go and you are ready to dive in and get started. Hurry up and get to the point, how do we learn them so fast already!!

Well in order to understand this first we need to talk a little bit about what is a Chinese character. It's obvious right? Each character carries its own unique meaning and pronunciation. They all come together to make words and the entirity of the written language. But how does that tell us how to learn them?

Well in order to say that, we need to go in a bit further. You see Chinese characters, despite what you may believe, aren't a bunch of unconnected squiggles, they are all connected. You see they are made up of smaller building blocks, called radicals. There are about 200 over all.

These simple components each have their own meaning, and come together with other components or radicals to form what we call characters. So because all characters are based on smaller ones as well as various components. This means the more you know the easier it gets. At a certain point you are just combining radicals you already know in different ways to form a new character. This is kind of like how we arrange letters to form words.

Let me give you an example, take the common character 好, which means good.

This is made up of two components, 女 which means woman. and 子 which means child.

From these smaller building blocks we can put them together to make a story and associations in our brain. This relates new information to what we already know forming the basis of all mnemonics.

So in this example we have, the component for "woman" and "child" coming together to make "good". From this we can invent stories. Such as, we can imagine a happy family, a man with his woman and child. He will always be good to them, he will put them first because they are his family.

This helps build up a mental image in your head associating the smaller components to the character we are trying to learn, using imaginative memory instead of rote learning. This in effect, is the cornerstone of how to learn quickly and is what we will build on in the next section.

 

The Heisig Method

Starting with the smaller components and radicals, using imaginative memory and building up your knowledge of characters in a logical structured order to go through the most common characters encountered in every day life. This is the basis of the Heisig method and it is split into two parts. Book 1 covers 1500 characters which should be enough to read roughly 90% of written Chinese, and the second book covers an additional 1500. With all 3000 characters together this should be enough to read approximately 99.5% of written Chinese (see Page 8 paragraph 2 for reference) giving you a strong foundation to read anything!.

This is all done learning the characters one by one and associating them with a key meaning and is also done separate to the pronunciation, as that can come later. This book combined with one other thing will let you learn how to read and write characters at an alarming rate.

The second thing you will need is an SRS, spaced repetition system (my favorite is Anki).  SRS is a flashcard system designed on memory research following the forgetting curve. What this means, is that every time you are about to forget something the SRS reminds you and you review it at increasing lengths of time until eventually it sticks into your long term memory.

For example you learn a word on day 1, you will forget it after 10 mins. Then every time you relearn it, the time in which you will forget increases to an hour, then a few hours, days, weeks and so on.

The combination of imaginative memory combined with SRS technology is an incredibly more efficient way to learn because you are using your mind to conjure up strong links and then using the SRS system to make sure you are reviewing stuff you need to learn, in a time efficient manner.

Another point is that Anki has features inside the app that allow tracking of deck progress and to what degree you have memorized them. This makes it really easy and useful to see just how many characters you have learned so you can adjust your method to meet your goals.

 

The Game Plan

 

It is worth mentioning that there are actually two types of character system used for Chinese, the traditional characters (used mainly in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau) and the simplified characters (used primarily for mainland china). (They also have a version for Japanese Kanji as well)

There is a set of books for each and the ones I will be tackling are the traditional characters. So with that out of the way time to go into detail about what exactly I will be doing over the next 3 months and how I plan to use the tools listed above.

So because I have a goal and a time frame, I can plan accordingly and calculate exactly how many characters I need to learn each day. In the morning before work I will learn 10 characters and when I get back from work I will learn another 10 following the method used in the book. I will do this for two days and then on the third I will learn 10 in the morning and leave the spot after work to make sure I keep reviewing old content (this will also give me some leeway should anything come up or go wrong). Therefore across a three day period I will be reviewing a total of 50 characters. Across 3 months (or 90 days) this will add up to the total of 1,500 characters.

Once I have gone through the characters in the book I will enter the data into my flashcards (Anki). I will put the core meaning, followed by the jyutping (I am learning Cantonese, if you are learning Mandarin then you will be using Pinyin) on side 1, and the character itself, and the frame number on side 2. Then I will carry around a small book with me and a pen and any time I have a spare few minutes I will take out the book, and using the prompt on side 1 try to reproduce the characters from my memory.

Apart from that, once I have acquired enough I will start trying to use them by reading and texting with friends.

And that's it. Simple right? If I keep this up consistently across the 90 days I am sure I can reach my target of hitting 1500 characters in 90 days.

Conclusion

 

If you follow the steps in this guide you will pick up learning how to read and write Chinese at an alarming rate. That being said, there are a few drawbacks to this method. The first is that you are learning characters out of context. While this is a definite shortcut to being able to read and write, you will still need to do additional work to fill in the links and connect everything together. However, this can only be done through mass exposure and time with the language. This is just a first step to facilitate that.

I know some people don't like the Heisig method for that very reason so let me know what you think in the comments. Have you tried learning characters before? Do you like the Heisig method, or do you think there is a better way?

Two weeks without English?!?! Chinese immersion project in Hong Kong

This summer I will be going to Hong Kong for two weeks and giving up my own Native language (English).

Hey, my name is Luke Truman and for the past 9 months I have been learning Cantonese. I have been avoiding characters completely to focus all of my attention towards speaking. However, I am reaching a point where it is becoming increasingly obvious that to progress to any sort of level even close to fluency, I will need to learn Chinese characters. Otherwise I am locking myself away from countless resources and interesting content.

So. What does it have to do with this project?

As I said I will be going to Hong Kong for two weeks and giving up English in an attempt to only speak Cantonese for the entire two weeks I am there. Right now I am conversational, but nothing spectacular. The basic idea is to rocket my spoken ability in one last big effort before I set off in the coming months to learn Chinese characters through the Heisig method.

 

But enough about that. Why should you even care?

 

If you have ever learned a language before you will know its hard. There will be many ups and downs and you are going to make mistakes. A lot. So that being said, I will film the whole thing using my trusty Iphone and upload the whole thing to Youtube. You can see my ups, my downs, what went well and what went not so well. I hope in this transparency you can learn from the mistakes that I make, and you will know what to expect should you try anything like this in the future.

It will give you a good insight in not only how to create a good immersion environment but also how it will feel along the way. Will I want to switch to English? Will I get tired and give up or Burnout? Will I even survive, given the fact that I can't read ANY Chinese? How or will I overcome this? Who knows, but you get the luxury of following me along every step of the way and laughing at my expense.

 

So what are my Goals, Expectations and doubts?

 

My Goal is simple. From the moment I arrive in Hong Kong (stepping through Airport Security) to the moment I leave, I will speak ZERO English.

Now I am no master when it comes to Cantonese, hell i'd still say i'm a beginner. So how do I actually expect this to go? To put it simply, I think its going to be hard. Very hard. And I know for certain there are times I will want to give up, switch to English and just forget this whole language thing once and for all. This is actually one of the reasons I am writing about this and putting it on Youtube in hope that it will put some weight behind my mad claims in hope I will actually follow through with it.

Speaking about forgetting I have been speaking English for a long time, all my life. So what are the chances someone wakes me up on a bus and I just forget this whole project and reply the first thing that pops into my head? English? Quite likely, and this has actually happened before. I was attempting something similar on a lazy Saturday with my girlfriend.  We were sat down, only supposed to be speaking Cantonese, watching tv, and suddenly a thought pops into my head and oops, I spoke English. Now, I am putting this down to the fact we were watching the walking dead at the time, an american tv drama, so I will be doing my best to avoid English media and tv for the duration of my trip to try and stay clear of this problem.

Other doubts I have, not being language related, is I have no idea how to Vlog and/or edit videos. I imagine it will be weird just speaking to the camera, especially with everyone else's shifty eyes looking at the one gwalou trying to speak Chinese to his phone. But hey, nothing Ventured nothing gained.

 

RULES AND HOW TO CREATE AN IMMERSION ENVIRONMENT

So before I get into defining my game plan first I will define some ground rules.

1.) This Project is based on Spoken and audio Immersion, nothing to do with reading and writing. I will still be using English to text and/or message people if needed (Although I will be keeping this to the bare minimum as showed below)

2.) In the event of an emergency, I will be using English (provided my Cantonese hasn't already become super awesome and leagues ahead of my English ability after the second day)

3.) speaking to family

Now I have set out the rules already you can see how the immersion environment is starting to slip. So what can we do to give ourselves the best possible chance of succeeding?

First of all I will be deleting all forms of social media off my Phone with the exception of WeChat (my only means of contact with some of my couchsurfing hosts so if I delete this then I will be sleeping on the street). This should eliminate the majority of my written contact with English leaving just road signs and menus left.

So if I am getting rid of social media for two weeks how will I contact people? and how will I keep my family up to date. Ok, so first off I will be getting a Hong Kong SIM. This will allow me to phone up all of my friends and people I want to meet with and completely bypass having to use any written language at all. Failing that WeChat enables the user to send voice messaging, so I hope that this will somewhat replace texting for the duration of my trip. Finally, what if I have to get on facebook or other social media to message my family or to arrange meetups of some sort? In case you don't know my girlfriend is actually from Hong Kong, its one of the main reasons I got interested in Cantonese in the first place (apart from Bruce Lee and Stephen Chow of course). So what the battle plan is, is to basically to tell her what I want to say and who to say it too. Tell her in Cantonese, and then for her, either through her facebook or my own, message on my behalf. Is this a little silly? Perhaps, but it all goes towards my single goal of reducing my contact with English as much as feasibly possible.

So what else will I be doing? As I mentioned briefly before I will be using couchsurfing to stay with Locals. Five nights in Causeway Bay, followed by two nights in Macau and then 6 nights at the end staying with my girlfriend and her family in Yuen Long. So right from the start I will be in contact with zero expats and doing my best to mingle with the locals.

Aside from this, I have found a few meetups to attend through meetup.com. Some related to practicing languages and some that I have a genuine interest in (such as the hungry hungry herbivores going around to sample the best Vegan food Hong Kong has to offer). Also I have arranged several meetings with friends during my stay as well as a few strangers off couchsurfing. On top of that I have been in contact with a few friends learning Cantonese living in Hong Kong to practice with. so if you think one pale white guy recording himself speaking Chinese in Hong Kong is weird, what about 2? or 3? Also not to mention countless restaurants, bars, shops street stalls to discover.

To sum up. I will be banishing English as far from my life as possible. Right to that spot underneath the sofa that no one ever cleans but just pretends doesn't exist. I will be going around meeting people, going to cool places and just HAVING FUN in the language.

So if this sounds like something you are interested in then please subscribe to my Youtube channel and this blog to follow me along the way.

Note: I won't be uploading this series until I return in order to make the most out of this trip I can't be spending 2-3 hours editing a video every night. You can expect my first video to be up shortly after my return (26th-30th August) and every proceeding one in quick succession. I plan to upload one a day once I get back so you can follow me along one day at a time even if its a bit late.

If you have any questions or even better yet advice, on language learning, Cantonese or vlogging. Please leave me a comment. and if you haven't already check out my other Post on the add1challenge. Speak to you guys soon. Peace.