Notes on “How To Learn Cantonese” #1

How to learn Cantonese? Don’t learn characters right away, and do use a grammar – and here’s why…


Why not learn characters initially, as for Japanese or Mandarin?  After all, I’ve said before about how awesome they are for understanding the meanings of words.  The short answer is that they’re not common enough to warrant learning – at least not for a long while.

Whilst characters are useful as a memory aid for new words (since meaning is embedded in the characters), this benefit is offset by the fact that Cantonese characters are so rarely written.  You’re far, far more likely to hear Cantonese spoken than you are to see it written, and so learning the writings of the HK character set is not a good use of time.

I know this is quite a U-turn on my previous stance of “characters-characters-characters” – but we all live and learn, right?  Maybe when Cantonese characters become more commonly used for writing, learning them right away will be more worthwhile.


Grammar’s boring, right?  Wrong.  Reciting verb-tables ad-nauseum is boring and prone to error.  Looking at logically progressing sentence pairs is easy, and therefore not so boring.  The grammar deck should go up to a high-intermediate level, so that you rarely come across unfamiliar constructions when listening to native Cantonese.

Why bother going through a grammar and making an SRS deck out of it?  If you can understand how a sentence is put together, even if you don’t know each word, you’ve essentially comprehended what’s being said.  It’s easy to learn a new piece of vocabulary because you know what function it has.  This is because you’ll have seen sentences of that type hundreds of times.  Once you’ve established the word, you can easily drop it into one of your example sentences in your Anki deck.  Grammar is like a scaffold from which you can build up a knowledge of the language.

I highly recommend Yip and Matthews, by the way – both the Basic and Intermediate Grammars.  They have plenty of good example sentences and explanations, and they also include literal translations for new sentence types.  The only downside is that sometimes the exercises have ambiguous answers.  Otherwise, good!


2 thoughts on “Notes on “How To Learn Cantonese” #1

  1. Pingback: Notes on “How To Learn Cantonese” #2 « thousand mile journey

  2. Pingback: Yet More on Anki – Ultimate Cards « Thousand Mile Journey

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