What’s the Best Way to Learn Cantonese: 8 Steps to Successful Mastery

When traveling in and around China, you will learn there are lots of dialects and languages (over 300 in including Wu, Min Nan, Hakka, and Jins, but as a westerner, you could break it down to 2 main languages, Mandarin and Cantonese. 

Hong Kong Victoria
Photo by Robert Bye on Unsplash

What if you choose to learn Cantonese over Mandarin?

Although the vast majority of Chinese people speak Mandarin, there are lots of people who speak Cantonese. This post will explain what is so great about Cantonese as a language, how it has evolved culturally, and the nuances of learning it. 

Learning online to get a good base level understanding and then speaking with native speakers consistently is by far the best way to learn Cantonese and continue to improve. 

Cantonese is a rich and fruitful language that has a stunningly rich heritage within the Asia Pacific region. 

It also has strong cultural links with Hong Kong cinema, home to Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Stephen Chow, and Jet Li. Some films have gone on to cult status and have had Hollywood acclaim and award wins in the world of theatre, television, and film (think “way of the dragon”).

Hong Kong cinema is very well known worldwide mainly for its dramas and is one of the best exports that Hong Kong has provided the world.

Bruce Lee statue-Hong Kong
iStock.

One of the best drama’s I have seen is, No Regrets (巾幗梟雄之義海豪情 gan1 gwok3 hiu1 hung4 zi1 ji6 hoi2 hou4 cing4).

It shows what it was like in WW2 as the Japanese were invading and the power struggle between the drug lords and police. Special thanks to Luke Truman (https://fluentin3months.com  & https://fulltimefluency.com) for recommending this. 

Is Cantonese a popular language?

I would say a resounding, yes! Between 60-100 million people speak Cantonese within the South China region. This includes Macau, Southern China, specifically Guangdong Province (Guangzhou), which used to be called Canton hence Cantonese, also parts of Malaysia and in pockets of the west, predominantly in Chinatown’s of large western cities.

Is Cantonese hard to learn

This is a perspective that a lot of people have and has been perpetuated by the media. It is definitely one of the more challenging languages to learn of languages available, but there are ways to make it easier. Cantonese is very tonal and doesn’t focus on emphasis as English does, making it tricky for non-native speakers. It would be best if you had a solid plan and a way to speak it consistently day in day out, or at least multiple times a week to get the practice, and you should be ok. 

How is Cantonese different from Mandarin?

Firstly, Mandarin is the most widely spoken language in China, but in Macau and Hong Kong, and China’s southern regions, Cantonese rules the roost. 

The main differences are in verbalizing the two languages as speaking Mandarin to a Cantonese person, or vice versa is mutually unintelligible. 

The Mandarin and Cantonese characters share the same traditional, ancient origins but have evolved to be quite different in modern times. 

  • There are two main types of characters, traditional and simplified. In the 1950s, the state council of the People’s Republic of China simplified a large number of characters in an effort to try and boost literacy rates.

One thing to note is that people who understand the traditional characters will comprehend the simplified variants. Still, people who only understand simplified characters will struggle with the traditional forms. 

Here is an example:

“Dragon” in simplified Mandarin looks like , whereas the more complex, traditional Cantonese character looks like . You see how more complex and detailed the 2nd character (traditional) is compared to the 1st one. This gives some exposure as to how a lack of understanding may occur between the two dialects. 

The other part of this is pronunciation and spelling of basic and advanced terms can be radically different, even something as simple as saying “Hello.”

Ok, so let’s get into our list of 8 steps to take to competently learn Cantonese and get your journey out of the starting blocks:

Aim for speaking mastery

How to learn to speak Cantonese
Photo by Zen Chung from Pexels

When starting your journey of learning the Cantonese language, there are lots of different levels to master. You may want to be good at reading or listening, or you could mainly want to be good at conversational Cantonese. 

Our recommendation to learn Cantonese is to speak the language well, be confident in your verbal grammar, and understanding punctuation in the spoken word. This will give you an excellent opportunity to focus on speaking with a native speaker, understanding nuances of the verbal language, and to learn from people about where your development needs are. 

Although the written language is different from the more tonal, spoken variant of Cantonese, don’t worry too much about reading and writing the language, remember, we’re going for mastering speech, so let’s make that a focus

Use the romanization method of learning

Romanization is the ability to take a language, including Cantonese, that doesn’t use a standard Latin, phonetic alphabet and convert them into something more comfortable to learn for western speakers in the form of a learning guide.

Cantonese characters are blocks of meaning, rather than phonetic sounds, and this is very alien to a western speaker, especially a monolingual person like a purely English speaker and would gain value from a pronunciation guide (a la, romanization)

Cantonese can sometimes feel very intimidating to a new learner, especially when you find out there are over 50,000 Cantonese characters to learn. 

The benefit comes in that romanization can help you skip having to learn the characters from the off and build your skill and confidence before tackling those tricky Cantonese characters. 

This is something to consider when you compare it to more latin-based languages like Spanish.

Related: How long does it take to learn Spanish: Whats’s a realistic timeline?

There are two types of romanization

  • Jyutping
  • Yale

 Jyutping uses numbers after the words to mark the specific tone.

Yale uses accents to mark the tones, with an “h” for the lower register sounds.

The main difference is that Yale can sometimes add an “H” sound, which means it is in the low register when speaking. Sometimes it will also add an accent above a word to show rising tones as well. 

Related: A complete comparison between Yale romanization of Cantonese and Jyutping

Both Jyutping and Yale methods are pretty simple to pick up, mainly as they have been designed from the ground up and for use by a native English speaker. 

Most modern, more up to date learning content uses the Jyutping, and that is what we are recommending in this post.

Develop a tonal resource

Another big part of Cantonese apart from characters are the tones involved. 

The common thought is that Cantonese has nine tones, but there are only 6 in how the modern language is spoken in reality. 

 

The images below give some perspective on how tones have an impact on the spoken language:

Cantonese Tonal Chart 1

These tonal graphs can be hugely helpful when you start to learn Cantonese, as getting these meanings and sounds correct is key to being able to converse with native speakers in deep conversation.

Cantonese Tonal Chart 2

Well, that sounds complicated, right…well, yes and no. 

It can be beneficial because romanization has added these tonal values into their methods, so we don’t have to worry too much about this. Be aware you will need to get your head around this concept to comprehend Cantonese truly. 

Download graphs, charts, and learning resources and try to make a word doc or use paper to develop a tonal guide for yourself to refer to. I promise it will help you when you try and learn a language with as many nuances as Cantonese.

Start with the basic Cantonese word structure

Now you have a greater understanding of how tones and sounds work with Cantonese, you are now ready to learn how the sentence structure of Cantonese works and try and string thee together. 

Let’s talk about some things you will be happy to hear. 

Cantonese does not have any tenses, e.g. (Past, {resent, and Future), so you don’t have to worry about tense verbs. 

Unlike the European romance languages of France, Spain, and Italy, Cantonese doesn’t have gender nouns to deal with either, so that makes things even more straightforward

Utilize flashcards if needed

Flashcards can be a phenomenal way to transfer the English and Cantonese equivalent words, look at them side by side, and practice when times allow. 

As we are on our phones nowadays, using a flashcard app such as Anki makes practicing your words and phrases a piece of cake. It uses retrieval learning theory as it makes you go back repeatedly, continuing to use your brain to learn similar concepts continually, which is deemed one of the best learning methods for this type of topic. 

Take a whole sentence with your word included. You will then be able to view the English and Cantonese side by side on the flashcard, which you can say over and again to embed it into your mind. 

Afterward, when convenient, make sure only to have the English visible, put your phone down, and try to memorize and repeat multiple times until it feels good.

Find yourself a good Cantonese online course

Innovative Languages Banne

Next up, you need to find yourself a good, robust, Cantonese language online course. There are a lot on the market, although with Cantonese not being as popular as most of the European languages, the choice is not quite as broad but here are some recommendations:

Cantonese Class 101

This is an excellent service that provides multiple options, including step by step audio courses, lists, slideshows, and flashcards. Or you can even get 1-1 coaching with a professional tutor who can give you feedback and tips for success

Pimsleur

Combining the ease & interactivity of language learning apps with the convenience and power of the portable Pimsleur Method™, developed by the linguistic scholar, Paul Pimsleur.

Italki

Italki connects learners with professional, native Cantonese speakers where you can pay a modest fee for 1-1 tuition via video conference to give an interactive method of learning Cantonese

Preply

Preply  is a great service which allows you to network and connect with language tutors from around the world. Just remember to filter by a cantonese region e.g. Hong Kong as not all of China speaks Cantonese. 

Glossika

This product is built around the “mass sentence method” theory to teach you Cantonese in a spaced repetition system

As already mentioned, written and spoken Cantonese can be wildly different, so when you are learning with your online courses or apps, focus on the dialogue sections and repeat. Sometimes using lists and can often mix up written and spoken elements of the language.

Any of the courses or platforms above will offer an excellent way of learning Cantonese using different learning theories to accomplish this. 

The most important thing, though, is consistency, keep engaging with your course, have a schedule, and try and stick to it as much as possible, sneak in practice time when you can, and in a few months, your competence should be rising at a stable rate. 

Look for a Cantonese speaking buddy

Cantonese speaking buddy
Photo by Jansel Ferma from Pexels

When you start this Cantonese journey, you probably will be a little worried about speaking in public to native speakers, but setting an early milestone is a perfect idea as it gives you a target to work towards. 

italki is a great paid service for this. If you would like potentially free versions, you are probably best placed talking in forums and user generated sites.  

You could set a target of 1 month, or if you are still intimidated, maybe try month 3. By this point, you should have the confidence to start slowly, but to start talking to people in a small way, to get feedback on advice on how you are doing in the real world. 

Related: Top 6 tips to Become Bilingual

Early on, looking for a Cantonese-speaking buddy or a (language exchange partner) is an excellent idea as it gives us an expert to speak to, learn from, and make mistakes safely.

It also allows you to gain invaluable experiences by seeing what it takes to speak another language, build your confidence, and what happens when you get something wrong and how to work through it, limiting the embarrassment. 

We would recommend at least twice a week to set up a collaborative speaking session with your buddy. This means you are speaking frequently enough to bolster your language skills over the long term and make learning Cantonese genuinely sustainable

Make small goals, speak with native-Cantonese speakers, and practice

Setting goals is key to your language learning journey, and it also keeps you honest with your schedule to keep you on track. It is also a really good way to track your progress and make sure that you can mix up your process and resources you use from time to time. 

Related: The Goldilocks Technique: How to Set Language Goals that Are Just Right

Setting more short-term goals is key to shaking up your workflow to ensure that boredom doesn’t creep in and you are staying engaged in the learning journey. 

Asian girl talking with colleague sitting at desk indoors

Final thoughts

So, attempting to learn Cantonese is a long but fun experience. 

The ability to go to such a diverse region as southern China and Hong Kong and confidently speak the local dialect, converse with locals on an in-depth level, and have fruitful conversations with new potential friends you just haven’t met yet. 

Here are 5 points that make learning Cantonese simpler to become masterful at speaking this fun, historical, and proud cultural language.

  1. Develop a dedicated timed-out learning schedule 
  2. Making sure measurable goals have been set
  3. DO NOT QUIT, under any circumstances
  4. Make sure you learn the nuances of characters and tones
  5. Make sure to set up times to speak to native speakers, test yourself, and accept advice

Learning to speak Cantonese can bring a lot of joy to your life. For example, being able to converse in the vast, skyscraper-filled streets of Hong Kong, making new friends, conversing with people who may have never spoken with an English speaker before, or even building relationships with new people from a different culture. 

I have started my Cantonese journey, and although I am finding it hard at times, I am enjoying how expressive the language is and beginning to pick up words in films and TV shows before I had no clue what was being said. 

Hopefully, once we have moved past Covid-19, we can travel more freely, and you can truly put all of the above steps into action.

Have a great time learning Cantonese, and please let us know what your experiences have been and how you are getting on. 

I look forward to seeing how your learning goes

再見 (Goodbye)

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