In conversations about learning Cantonese, you’ll have probably heard the commonly expressed sentiment and caution: ‘it’s really hard’. However, more often than not, the people who are telling you this don’t really know a thing – and have never even tried to learn the language themselves.
So, don’t let this put you off. This caution should never be used as a reason not to learn. Because you’ll be giving up before you’ve even started.
But, if we’re being honest, sure learning Cantonese is hard. But it needn’t be any harder than any other new language in which you want to develop your conversational fluency. Sure, the traditional characters are different. Sure, the tonal language is unfamiliar. And, sure, it will take a little while to get proficient with the pronunciation. But that’s all part of the challenge.
Here, we are going to look at the easiest way for you to become more fluent in the Cantonese language. We can assure you that it won’t be as hard as you think it is.
So, take a deep breath – and let’s dive in.
Cantonese is the language that is spoken around the city of Guangzhou, in the province of Guangdong. That’s where it originated (hence the name ‘Cantonese’, after Guangzhou’s old anglophone name, Canton) – and that’s where it continues to be spoken, alongside Hong Kong and Macau where it is an official language.
Alongside these regions, it is also spoken in Guangxi and is used as a lingua franca among much of southeast Asia – such as in Vietnam and Malaysia particularly. Right now, there are about sixty million native speakers of Cantonese – however, these are slowly declining as speakers are preferring to learn and use languages like Mandarin Chinese.
These numbers are equivalent to the number of native speakers of Italian. And, in a world in which many other languages in mainland China are going extinct, the people of Guangzhou seem to be determined to keep their language going.
You’ll be speaking Cantonese in no time!
One of the great reasons to learn Cantonese – beyond the fact that, like learning any foreign language, it is supremely good for you – is that the language is at the heart of all things Hong Kong.
Language and culture are always inextricably linked. And to enjoy the many joys of Hong Kong culture, it’s a shame not to have any language skills.
The Hong Kong pop music scene – or Cantopop – is huge. And, whilst it has been much more influential in the past, it still produces a lot of hits. If you have any familiarity with Leslie Cheung, Alan Tam, or Anita Mui, it would be good to understand what they are singing about, no?
The same goes for cinema. With the Hong Kong film industry being one of the largest in the world – with stars such as Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee – Cantonese was given massive cultural clout across the globe.
As we said, beyond the fact that a second language is just a really important thing to have in your life, learning Cantonese opens up a world of culture that would otherwise go underappreciated.
We said that to learn to speak Cantonese is no more difficult than learning a language in general. It’s not. Yet, language learning does have one major challenge: it’s not that learning the language is hard, but that committing the time to study is.
When we are working full time or at school, it’s not always the easiest thing in the world to sit yourself down in the evening to concentrate hard. But this, first of all, is precisely what you need to do.
Without a deliberate time set aside to commit to another language, you will never achieve what you hope to achieve. This, unfortunately, is an indisputable fact.
People who say, ‘ah yes, I want to learn Cantonese’, have not really achieved anything. The first sign of progress – and the sure-fire way to future fluency – is really to have that allotted time.
This can be daily, this can be twice weekly, depending on how quickly you are hoping to improve. However, with the number of different things that language acquisition requires – learning the Chinese characters to nailing the pronunciation, learning new words to engaging with the grammatical aspects of the language – the more often the better.
So, commit to regular time slots. Be realistic – just as long as you keep it regular.
Practice reading Cantonese!
The most commonly intimidating thing about learning the Chinese languages is the Chinese script. Usually, anything with a script that isn’t roman – from Cyrillic to Arabic – inspires frowns and mutterings of ‘oh dear’.
The Cantonese script is pretty much the same as in standard Mandarin, using both the simplified and traditional forms. (However, Mandarin and Cantonese remain two mutually unintelligible languages.)
And it’s true, learning to read and write Chinese characters is hard. So hard, in fact, that many Chinese people don’t do it either. But this is precisely the point: you don’t need to learn the characters to begin with.
Learn just the Romanised versions. It’s much easier – and better for your confidence – to practice the spoken forms first, and then return to the written text when you have a grasp of what you are doing.
Learn more about reading Cantonese!
The other notorious thing about Cantonese – and Chinese language learning in general – is the tones. In English, we can’t seem to understand the fact that a vowel could be said six different ways.
However, strangely enough, that’s exactly what we do in English too – it just doesn’t change the semantic content of the words.
There are six types of tone: dark flat, dark rising, dark departing, light flat, light rising, light departing. In the Romanized written form, you will see these respectively numbered from one to six.
The easy way to learn these is with a tone chart, which diagrams the respective sounds you need to make. Learn it by heart – and that’s another thing cracked.
With your phonetics covered, you now need to fill your life with Cantonese. Let’s call this language immersion – although you are still in the UK.
That means listening to Cantonese radio, watching Cantonese movies and TV, and reading as much Cantonese content as possible.
The latter will come later, as you slowly begin to integrate knowledge of the written language into your learning. Yet, the point here is that, to get to grips with a language, you need to live it and breathe it!
That means using language apps like Babbel, Duolingo, or Memrise on the bus to school or the commute. Alternatively, it means writing down new words and phrases onto flashcards so that you can practice them and memorise them at any time.
One of the key methods by which to learn another language – or indeed, to learn anything – is to set yourself goals and work towards them.
Goals work by directing your focus and your attention: with something to aim for, and a set date by which to achieve it, you’re much more likely to get moving.
So, think about it. Set a date by which you will have nailed the phonetic aspect of the language: the tones, the vowels and consonants. Set another date by which you will be able to learn Chinese characters – at least a few of them. And set another date by which you want to have your first dialogues to practice your spoken language.
Without some decent goals, you may well end up just practising what you know already – and not improving at all.
Learn about writing in Cantonese!
The world is full of language we take for granted – learn it!
When trying to speak in Cantonese, or when trying to listen to a particular radio station, or whatever, you need to make sure that the subject under discussion is actually interesting to you.
This is not so banal or obvious as it seems. So many language classes use material that is completely uninspiring for many students and so leaves them uninspired.
If you are interested in sport, why would you want to listen to a show about makeup? If you work as a lawyer, why are you trying to learn the language of an electrician?
Finding something to talk about that is interesting to you will make you want to continue learning. And you’ll pick up the language that you actually need rather than that which you feel you should know.
Learn more about developing your Cantonese vocabulary.
Finally, there is no better to way to learn a new language than to talk to someone who is fluent.
Whether this is a friend, a girlfriend, a complete stranger at a language exchange class, or a private tutor, a native speaker will bring your spoken Cantonese on leaps and bounds.
As long as they (and you!) are patient, and you do it regularly, this will be the best time to improve your productive language skills.