I’ve been meaning to write a review of Yip and Matthews Basic and Intermediate Grammars for a while now. There’s no point having just one book or the other (such is the spread of topics), so I’m going to review the two volumes as a single book.
Pros, Cons and Semi-Cons
- Tank loads of example sentences (possibly 4-5k total) which cover loads of useful vocabulary
- Concise explanations of grammar points
- Literal translations where necessary
- Explanation of Yale inconsistencies
- Especially in the Intermediate book, several typos
- No dialogues – can be hard to get started on actual real-life conversations using only these books as a reference.
- No audio
- Occasionally ambiguous exercise solutions
- No Chinese characters
- Yale Romanisation (personally I prefer Jyutping for a variety of reasons)
- A fair amount of repetition of topics in the Intermediate book, albeit on a more advanced level
- Especially in the Intermediate book, chapter length is sometimes extremely uneven
- All text, no images
- No vocabulary lists (you have to look up words whose meanings aren’t immediately apparent from the translations)
How I’ve Been Using Them
As I mentioned before, I’ve just been transcribing sentences and translations into Anki – my deck currently includes 2500 example sentences, and I anticipate I’ll have entered 4000 or so sentences from these books by the time I’m done. (Maybe it’s not for everyone, but personally I like to think of it like installing software modules on a computer.) I use the exercise sentences as well in Anki (as Cantonese-English pairs). I don’t use go through the exercises learning how to construct Cantonese sentences (like a maths problems) since I found it tended to lead to errors and confusion.
More on the Cons
The lack of audio isn’t really a problem if you do some work with audio + sentences (perhaps from CantoDict or perhaps from another source) – it’s not difficult to gain an intuition of what each collection of letters should sound like. As noted above, there aren’t any Chinese characters but this won’t stop you being able to speak Cantonese – it would be useful for students who could already speak but not read (or indeed read but not speak), but that’s not the target audience of the book – the authors assume you’re coming in cold, and that’s just fine.
No dialogues – annoying, because words are frequently dropped in Cantonese when they’re understood from previous lines of conversation (as in most languages). Understandable though since (again) the books merely task themselves with covering grammar points rather than full conversations.
No vocabulary lists – slightly annoying when you can’t figure out a word directly, but we AJATTeers aren’t really interested in lists of words – the odd extra literal translation here and there would remedy this.
Will They Help?
Fundamentally though, the question is “will these books help someone learn Cantonese to fluency” – despite the semi-cons and cons, yes they will. The two books cover almost all of the sentence patterns that occur in everyday Cantonese, and so anyone who learns all of those patterns is well-placed to figure out all of the vocabulary they need.
In conclusion: the sole reason a Cantonese learner needs these books is the huge volume of useful example sentences, to be learned as is. Don’t do the exercises, just harvest the answers as extra model sentences. The books do have their shortcomings, but they’re not deal-breakers (and can be overcome in any case).