Notes on “How To Learn Cantonese” #2

This is the third in a series of posts on “How to Learn Cantonese“.  This post goes into more detail on learning Cantonese pronunciation and Standard Chinese. There’s a fair amount of jargon, but everything’s explained in the hyperlinked posts. In particular, if you don’t know what an SRS is, read this post.  My personal favourite is Anki, but there are others out there too.


If you’re not going to learn characters, then you’re going to have to how to read Jyutping or Yale romanisation, so as to effectively use your grammar.  To do this, I’d suggest taking sentences with audio from CantoDict and creating an Anki deck.  The only goal of this deck is to read Jyutping words accurately, with the correct tones.  The question side is the Jyutping, and the answer side is the audio.

It therefore doesn’t matter which sentences you use, although it’s best if they’re shorter.  The meaning (in either English or Cantonese) and the characters are completely irrelevant.  This will allow you to read the somewhat-unintuitive Jyutping easily, without having to have a native speaker on hand.

There are also websites out there that read out Jyutping, although this (in my humble opinion) is not as good as  listening to and reading out complete sentences.

N.B. Don’t worry too much if your pronunciation and/or tones aren’t perfect before moving past this stage; massive immersion should iron out any deficiencies after a while.  I actually ignored Cantonese’s tones altogether to start with (to work on vocab and pronunciation) and I can hear and say them just fine now.  Spend maybe a week or so of solid work on this part and then start to move on.

Characters #2 and Mandarin

At some point in your Cantonese career, you’re probably going to want to learn to read – for which Standard Chinese is, well, standard.  To the best of my knowledge, there are no courses on reading Standard Chinese, so a knowledge of Mandarin grammar is useful.  Learning Mandarin after Cantonese is comparatively easy, given the many cognates between the two languages, and (again, in my humble opinion), Mandarin is a worthwhile language to have.

At this point therefore, you might want to consider either learning Mandarin outright or flicking through a Mandarin grammar.  You should also go through Heisig’s “Learning the Hanzi”, which teaches you the writing and meaning of characters – the readings can be learned in context.  You can then practice reading and writing Standard Chinese using an Anki deck.


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

  1. I have to say, this is a bit startling. After getting so motivated by some of the more established “methods” out there, I now have to wonder a bit what the path should really look like. I don’t know…. it may not be worth it to ignore characters and then go back and learn them at a later point – it may be more trouble than it’s worth!

    • Hey Tyler,

      As far as I know, there hasn’t really been a method before specifically for learning Cantonese. After much experimentation, I don’t think that one can apply the same method as for Japanese or Mandarin to it.

      There are a couple of good reasons for learning characters first if you’re learning J/M. They let you read straight away; since most vocabulary and syntax is common to both speech and writing, you’re killing two birds with one stone. Secondly, they make the idea of mastery of the language much more real – many people are intimidated by Chinese characters because they think it’s impossible to learn them; getting them out of the way straight away is a huge confidence boost. Thirdly, learning characters gives you an idea of the meaning of new words; I think this is the weakest reason, because you only ever get a vague idea of the meaning. You still have to look the word up to fully understand it.

      For Cantonese, the vocabulary and syntax used in speech and writing differs considerably – trying to learn the two alongside each other is liable to cause confusion. IMHO, it’s much better to learn to speak and to read Cantonese separately to avoid getting confused – hence the suggestion of delaying tackling reading and writing.

      As for the second point, motivation, as you’re learning to speak Canto, always bear in mind that learning to read and write is far easier than most people would have you think – and that it will be something you’ll come to eventually and master. And don’t be too worried about the “implicit meanings” – it really isn’t all that useful.

      Good luck learning it! And don’t necessarily trust my advice! 😉


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s