A New Approach to Cantonese

I know I’ve wittered on ad nauseum about how wonderful and intuitive Chinese characters are – and actually, I still think it’s true.  They can give a reader hints as to the meaning of unfamiliar words in a logical, reasonably consistent way.  I’d still recommend any student of Mandarin to learn the writing of the characters before tackling the rest of the language, as per AJATT’s specification.

Cantonese, on the other hand, is only confused by transcriptions of the vernacular.  It would be fine if there was plenty of literature available written using Cantonese characters, but… there isn’t.  There are only smatterings here and there (although some Wikipedians have been making stirring efforts to improve the situation)  – and given the far greater proliference of Standard Chinese, it can occasionally be easy to mix up the two.

On the other side of the fence, it can certainly be useful to know the writing of certain characters so that it’s obvious when grammatical components recur; sometimes there are tone changes for a given character that make patterns hard or impossible to spot if a student has only Jyutping or Yale to rely on.  Without the characters, it sometimes feels like you’re just stringing together apparently disparate, orphaned sounds.

Of course, Cantonese is not helped by the inexplicable way in which songs are penned using Standard Chinese syntax – to adequately sing along to Hong Kong songs (e.g. in a karaoke lounge), one has to learn how to Standard Chinese syntax works – not to mention the special readings.  Worse still, TV shows and films usually have subtitles in Standard Chinese too, making it harder to confirm what was said using the subs, since the two don’t always correspond directly.

Anyway, all of the above factors make learning Cantonese in general objectively harder than other languages – and I’d been particularly struggling with learning each new word’s meaning, pronunciation and writing all at the same time (since Cantonese characters are extremely rare, there were an awful lot of characters that didn’t feature in Heisig).

The Change

So, recently, I’ve dropped Cantonese characters from my Anki cards – I’ve just been using Jyutping instead, thereby only having to concentrate on the pronunciation of words.  Really, I should have done this before – dividing and conquering was the whole point of using Heisig’s method for learning characters in the first place, and it still makes sense to segragate learning readings and writings for new ones.  (I still have all written Chinese cards using characters, though – I haven’t ditched them!)

This has increased my progress somewhat – since I’m no longer struggling to learn characters that are of dubious long term value, I can learn more words/constructions in any given period of time.  Naturally, I can go back and learn the characters later if I choose – and because I’m using Anki, I won’t forget those I’ve already invested time in learning.

Since I’m not bothering with characters right now, this has enabled me to take every example sentence from my grammar and input it into Anki in a couple of days – before, I was worrying about everything being written out in HK characters, and copying anything out took way too long.  I now have several thousand new examples in my deck – plenty to be getting on with.  This has had a secondary advantage – whenever I come across new words in films or radio shows, I now have a convenient resource of sentences they can be dropped into.  It’s quite difficult to transcribe an entire sentence from sound alone; it’s easy to listen to and look up the one word and deftly insert it into a premade example sentence or six.  This then reinforces grammar points as an added bonus.  (Incidentally, this is just an elaboration of a great idea for sentence hacking Eric of When English Attacks had – I can’t claim credit!)

I’m still learning some characters as I come across them, so finishing Heisig was by no means a waste of time – but only Standard Chinese characters.  I do want to be able to read Chinese books, and sing along to songs!  The only downside to ignoring the HK character set from now on is that occasionally I might miss patterns that would make remembering certain words easier – but I think, on balance, that it’s a price worth paying.


6 thoughts on “A New Approach to Cantonese

  1. Glad to hear that post was of some use!

    Sounds like an interesting struggle that you’re going through regarding these Cantonese characters. I’m surprised that no one has gone to the trouble of essentially Heisig-ing those characters for other language learners, but perhaps that’s a result of having fewer learners than, say, Japanese or Mandarin.

    And related to the bit about karaoke, you essentially find yourself “incidentally” picking up aspects of Standard Chinese as you learn Cantonese? I guess there’s a positive side to that as well ;).

    • It certainly was useful! I guess it might be useful to collect the thousand or so HK characters and arrange them logically, but they really are used so infrequently I don’t think it’d be worth it. Most of them just take the pronunciation of normal characters with the mouth radical 口 on the left – for example, 岩 ngaam4 (mountain) and 啱 ngaam1 (correct). The lack of attention could be due to the lack of Cantonese learners, but I think it’s more to do with the pointlessness of learning them.

      Standard Chinese is indeed something I’ve just been picking up, although I’ve started looking at Mandarin grammar formally – I don’t think you can really learn a language properly without at least flicking through a list of its rules! Cantonese has made Mandarin comparitively easy though to pick up – what’s difficult is getting the precise meaning from various similar phrases…

      • I’m really interested in why someone would learn Cantonese instead of Mandarin. Some people live in or around Hong Kong or have loved ones that speak Cantonese, but why study Cantonese before Mandarin?

        Anyway, it takes a long time to learn to read fluently in Mandarin; I can only imagine it’s harder in Cantonese, but I suppose people in Hong Kong text each other in Cantonese all the time?

        • Hey Kieran! Sorry for not having replied – obviously I’ve been doing a lousy maintainance job!

          If I could go back in time, I would definitely learn Mandarin first. Cantonese has been a total, unnecessary headache, although it seemed cooler at the time I chose it.

          HKers do text each other in either Cantonese or English. ‘Proper Chinese’ is very rarely used. Cantonese is not necessarily harder to read than Mandarin because some characters have fewer readings than Mandarin, like 吐, for example, although the fact you never hear people reading out text word-for-word does make life slightly harder.

          Thanks for the comment!

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