We all know that learning Chinese – learning to read and write its script – is a bit of a daunting task.
For those in the western world, the experience of approaching the writing system is an experience of being faced with something completely alien. The simplified Chinese characters – just as much as the traditional Chinese characters – give you no reference, no real way to navigate them at first glance. They just stand there in their total difference.
However, for those looking to start learning Chinese characters, this sense of otherness won’t last long. Cantonese – and other languages that use the Chinese writing system – is a language whose learning is hardest right at the beginning. With all this stuff to learn – and the great challenge that learning to write in Cantonese poses – that’s hardly a surprise.
But when you get through that first hurdle, everything becomes a little easier. We promise.
So, to get you over the hump of Cantonese language learning, we want to give you a few tips and tricks on how to learn to read and write the Chinese characters.
Reading and writing in Cantonese is much harder than Chinese speaking – owing to precisely the difficulty of learning Chinese characters. However, with these guidelines and recommendations, you’ll be becoming slowly more fluent in no time.
First, just a note on the difference between Mandarin and Cantonese, for those who don’t know.
Both languages use the same alphabet: standard Chinese. However, where those Mandarin speakers in mainland China use the simplified characters, Cantonese speakers – in Guangdong, Macau, and Hong Kong – use the traditional characters.
These are general the same until the traditional characters have more than about eight strokes, at which point, in simplified Chinese, they are simplified.
Whilst the alphabet is similar, watch out: the languages are generally pronounced differently and they have a different grammar. So, they are mutually unintelligible.
When you are learning Cantonese characters, make sure that it is Cantonese that you are proceeding with and not Mandarin.
Find new vocabulary from your reading.
For those seeking to learn a Chinese language, put away the script at first. In your first few months of learning Cantonese, put aside your concerns about writing systems, stroke order, and trying to read a Chinese text. Just forget about the written language completely.
We said that Cantonese is a language that is the hardest right at the very beginning. Given that this is the case, don’t make it too difficult for yourself at first: don’t overwhelm yourself with too many concerns.
Rather, focus on your conversational Cantonese. Think about how a particular sentence might be pronounced. Work on your communicative skills rather than your reading and writing skills.
Once you have nailed this, you can go back to basic Chinese script – knowing that you are already a step further towards fluency. You’ll have confidence, you’ll have a little sense of the language – and you’ll be much better prepared to learn how to write Cantonese.
Find out how to learn Cantonese.
The first step in learning how to produce – as in write – your own Cantonese characters is to develop your skills in recognising them. This means reading them well, focusing on their structure, and building your familiarity with their shape.
Look at what the stroke order may be – and examine how you will begin to write this yourself.
At this point, you don’t actually need to be writing anything. Because the first step in learning to write Chinese words is to learn to read them. You aren’t going to be able to write anything if you don’t know precisely what you are writing.
Learn to write in Cantonese yourself!
Whilst Chinese characters can look just like a collection of lines, they aren’t. You will begin to learn this as you become more familiar with them.
Chinese characters are structured units of meaning, to which the lines themselves only contribute so much. What’s more important to recognise within the character is the radicals, the sub-structural units that, together, make up the full character.
There are 214 radicals in Cantonese that you need to know. Whilst this may seem a lot, you should be focusing, as a beginner, on the most common twenty or thirty. Once you have these down, you’ll begin to see them everywhere. And it’s these that will help you navigate the semantics of all the other characters.
So, rather than getting bogged down with the individual strokes of a character, focusing on the radicals themselves. This will speed up your learning dramatically – and give the range of characters a bit more coherence.
Remember – and this might sound – silly, in Cantonese, you are learning to write not to draw. Whilst as a beginner everything – the shapes and structures of the characters – will look very beautiful, we’re not really very interested in the aesthetics.
This is a language, not a picture. And so, whilst you should be making an effort to make your characters legible, regular, and clear, don’t care too much for the flare and flourish. Good handwriting matters, but only insofar as it helps understanding.
Here are some strategies on how to learn Cantonese.
Once you have considered the structure of the character and the compounds – the radicals – that make it up, now you just need to memorize it.
This is easier said than done, and it is said that Chinese people struggle to memorize a lot of their characters too. However, repetition is the key – however boring that might sound.
However, repetition is one thing – and effective repetition for memorization is quite another.
That’s where spaced repetition comes in. Whilst repetition – let’s call it ‘basic’ repetition or brute repetition – requires that you merely repeat and repeat and repeat, spaced repetition will help you better to learn the Chinese word or character and will be a bit more interesting to do.
Rather than just copying the same character again and again, spaced repetition brings repetitions of the same character at irregular and increasingly extended intervals. As you learn a character, it will need to be repeated much less often – but just enough to keep it there in the back of your mind.
There are apps that do this – such as Anki and Quizlet – as well as computer software. Download one now.
Cantonese characters need to be regular in size and as symmetrical as possible. And when you are writing out these characters by hand, blank paper – or lined paper – is not the best thing with which to achieve this effect.
Rather, you should do as the native speakers do: use square paper to practice your writing. This will ensure that you have the right dimensions – and you will have axes on which to ensure symmetricity and neatness.
In language, the written representations of words are not separate entities from the verbal, phonetic form. This sounds obvious – but when you are slaving away trying to remember the shape and strokes of Chinese characters, it is easy to lose track of the pronunciations that go along with the written form.
So, every time that you write a character out, repeat to yourself the verbal form. This way, written and spoken go together every time.
A way to help with this is to write out the romanized version of the word with the character – every time.
Romanization systems include Jyutping, Yale, and Cantonese pinyin. These are indispensable for learners of Cantonese, as they render the sounds of the Chinese words into a script with which we are more familiar.
Whilst later you will have to ween yourself off the Romanization, use it as a beginner.
The internet and mobile technology have revolutionised the way languages can be learned. And whilst it is important to get your handwriting down – as this will ensure that you’ll remember the characters – there are tools online that can make your learning easier.
Google Pinyin, for example, is a plugin through which you can write in Cantonese characters online and through the Office suite.
Meanwhile, the Pleco app is a Cantonese to English dictionary that you can download to your phone. A Chinese dictionary is hard work when you don’t know your characters. But with this, it all becomes much easier.
Find out how to develop your Cantonese vocabulary.
The internet is a great place to learn Cantonese vocabulary
Finally, if you are serious about successfully developing your knowledge of Cantonese characters, you have to commit some time every day to your practice.
This, unfortunately, is not debatable: the more you practice, the better you get. End of.