You’d be amazed by how many times tutors of Cantonese hear the words, ‘oh but it’s impossible to write in Cantonese!’ – or words to that effect.
It’s an incredibly common sentiment, that seems to distinguish learners of the Chinese languages – Mandarin and Cantonese, along with many more – from those of other languages. Learners from the western world at least.
And whilst it’s a common sentiment – and whilst learning a language per se is challenging – is it true?
Of course it isn’t! And, really, everyone knows this – even those who say it. (Probably those who say learn Chinese – or have struggled to commit themselves to it.)
Yet, at the same time, to learn Cantonese – and particularly to write Chinese characters – does pose a few more challenges than other languages. Maybe this deserves an ‘of course’ of its own.
Whilst those who utter that immortal sentence – ‘oh, it’s impossible!’ – might be pushing it a bit far, they are onto something. Italian or Polish might be difficult, but they don’t require you to learn a completely different script. And Bulgarian and Greek might require a different alphabet, but at least they have an alphabet.
Chinese is different, because the writing system works in a completely different way. But if you’re intending to bother learning Cantonese, you have to put the time in to learn the Chinese script. You don’t have to do it first, but, ultimately, it’s a must.
Practice your written Cantonese in Hong Kong.
Language learning is one of the most rewarding things you can do in life. And learning how to speak a language like Cantonese – a language that is so different to our own – will be one of your greatest achievements.
Whilst no-one said it is easy, it is certainly worth every moment of the struggle. Because learning a language like Cantonese – and becoming fluent in an entirely different script – will open up so many opportunities for you.
For work, love, or friendship, you’ll have another sixty million people in the world with whom you can communicate – across Hong Kong and Macau, southern mainland China (such as Guangdong province, where it originated), and the extent of southeast Asia where Cantonese is spoken as a lingua franca.
You’ll be able to travel more easily, you’ll understand so much more about Chinese culture, and you’ll have your foot in the door already for when you want to learn Mandarin Chinese.
So, yes, of course learning the Cantonese language – as well as the script – is worth the effort. And you’ll know this full well once you have got to a point at which you are fluent.
However, if you are starting off with Cantonese, there’s a couple of things you should realise before you start writing. The most important of these is that it is recommended that you start practising your speaking skills before you move on to learn to write Cantonese.
Part of the reason why people struggle so much with Cantonese is that the hardest part of Chinese language learning – for Westerners at least – is at the beginning. There is so much to learn and all of it is completely alien.
Check out our handy guide to learning Cantonese.
People tend to crack on straight away, diving deep into all aspects of the language. However, this isn’t exactly necessary – and may well be detrimental.
Instead, our suggestion is to develop your conversational fluency first – whilst leaving the reading and writing on the backburner for a moment. Get to know the language, learn to speak Cantonese a little, learn a bit of Chinese vocabulary, and build your confidence first.
Once you have done that you can go ahead and tackle the written elements of Cantonese.
If you can write in Cantonese, you can read it!
So, let’s have a look at some of the techniques you can use to develop your writing skills in Cantonese – and your knowledge of written Chinese.
As you’ll probably know, there are estimated to be some fifty thousand characters in the Cantonese script. In fact, it’s usually information like this that puts people off.
Yet, it shouldn’t. Because, as usually happens in these situations, the reality of the situation is much less dramatic than this. In English, we have over 170,000 words, according to some sources – and, according to others, more like a million. Yet, people say that, if you know the most common three hundred words, you can understand sixty-five percent of the language.
The same goes with Cantonese: out of those fifty thousand characters – you’re not going to need more than a thousand to be absolutely sorted initially.
A final word of caution. Cantonese and Mandarin both use Standard Chinese script. However, there’s a difference: whilst Mandarin uses ‘simplified’ Chinese characters, Cantonese uses the traditional Chinese characters.
Now, as the name suggests, the simplified Chinese characters used in Mandarin are, well, simplified – suggesting that the ones in Cantonese are more complex.
This is true, but only the traditional Chinese characters with more than eight strokes are simplified – meaning that the majority of the characters you’ll encounter early on will be identical.
In any language, the processes of reading and writing are symbiotic. You can’t write if you can’t read – just as you can’t speak if you can’t understand.
In this sense, in learning Cantonese writing, you should be reading Chinese words, Chinese idioms, and anything you can get your hands on. Practising to read Chinese is practising to write it. So, go check out our article on reading Cantonese before you continue here.
Recognition of characters is going to help with your own production of these characters.
Check out our guide to learning to read Cantonese!
Learn to write in Cantonese yourself!
As you’ll have read above, there are supposed to be over fifty thousand different Chinese characters. This is all well and good, but absolutely no one is expecting you to learn them all by heart. Not even Chinese people – not even Cantonese native speakers – know all of these themselves.
Because the key to Cantonese writing is the radicals, the 214 constituent parts of all Chinese characters. These are the key to learn Chinese characters – and 214 sounds a lot more manageable than fifty thousand.
Start with the most common twenty or thirty radicals – and you’ll start to see them everywhere.
But let’s now turn to the actual, practical production of your own Chinese characters.
The uninitiated, to whom Cantonese script is just a selection of shapes, are always struck by the beauty and aesthetic of the characters.
Whilst this is very nice, sure, you are going to have to get this out of your head fast when you are writing in Chinese. You wouldn’t stop and be struck by the beauty of a ‘Q’ or an ‘M’ now, would you? The same applies to Cantonese: the script is primarily functional – and you want your writing of it to be.
This is why there is such a thing as rules for the strokes – the lines that make up the characters – in Chinese. Because, yes, the characters can be quite elaborate, and the native speaker would hope to be writing efficiently.
Optimising your stroke order improves your Cantonese handwriting, saving you time and making it easier for you to produce the characters neatly. So, listen up to the rules.
Generally speaking, every time you are copying out a Chinese word or character, your pen should go from top to bottom and from left to right.
If the number ‘one’ is a straight horizontal line, write it from left to right. If ‘two’ comprises of two horizontal lines, write the top one first, left to right, and then the second.
When vertical and horizontal lines cross, always write the horizontal line first.
Diagonal lines from the centre of the character should be drawn on the left first (right to left), then on the right (left to right).
In characters that are symmetrical vertically, you should draw the centre first and then the outside.
If you are drawing a character with something in a box, draw the enclosure first then fill it.
This one should be self-explanatory: anything that is small – or that strikes through the whole character – is to be added last.
Watch out when you are writing your Cantonese characters.
As we said, they are not supposed to be beautiful, no. However, they are supposed to be legible, regular, and equally sized.
Often people write the different radicals that make up the character too far apart, so much so that they can appear to be separate characters. Avoid this, by making sure that your characters are all of even sizes.
Once you have started to write your characters out, you’ll have to start remembering them.
Of course, it is going to be slow at first, until you develop your fluency, but that’s absolutely okay; there is no rush.
At some point, however, you will have to start learning them by rote. Because repetition is one of the most powerful things for your memory.
However, don’t just write them anywhere. Write them on square paper, ensuring that every character is exactly the same size!
Read more about learning Cantonese!