The Break-It-Down-Then-Build-It-Up Approach

Preamble: the technique outlined below doesn’t just apply to Cantonese, but all languages.  (Obviously you can only use the example sentences if you’re learning Cantonese though.)

So here’s a nice little sentence for all you learners out there to chew on:


Ngo5 gin3dou3 jat1 zek3 daai3zyu6 jat1 deng2 mou6 ge3 gwai2.

I can see a ghost wearing a hat.

Literally: I see-arrive one (counter) wearing one (counter) hat (possessive particle) ghost.

Breaking It Down

We could make a few SRS cards out of this.  If I didn’t know any of the words at all, I’d create the following ones:

  1. 一隻鬼/One ghost [noun with counter]
  2. 我見到一隻鬼/I can see one ghost [noun with useful verb]
  3. 一頂帽/One hat [noun with counter]
  4. 我見到一頂帽/I can see one hat [noun with useful verb]
  5. 戴着一頂帽/wearing a hat [noun with essential verb]
  6. 一隻戴着一頂帽嘅鬼/a ghost wearing a hat [sentence with subordinate clause]
  7. 我見到一隻戴着一頂帽嘅鬼/I can see a ghost wearing a hat [communicatively useful sentence]

While that might seem like a lot of cards for one sentence, it isn’t really – if you look at the annotations in square brackets, there’s a lot of separate words and grammar being learnt.

Building it Up

If you’re more advanced and confident and can already read the entire sentence in one go (like me – ow!), then you could try adding bits to the sentence or changing it in different ways.

  1. 我見到隻戴着頂帽嘅鬼 [removing optional 一字]
  2. 我見到一隻戴着一頂帽嘅白色鬼 [adding a colour word]
  3. 我見到一隻好恐怖嘅鬼 [replacing the verb with an adjective]
  4. 我見到一隻又好恐怖又好蠢嘅鬼 [using a two-adjective construction]
  5. 我見到一隻又好恐怖又好蠢嘅白色鬼 [adding a colour in there]
  6. 我以為我見到一隻又好恐怖又好蠢嘅白色鬼 [adding “I wrongly believed” in]
  7. 我琴日以為我見到一隻又好恐怖又好蠢嘅白色鬼 [adding in “yesterday”]
  8. 假如我見到一隻又好恐怖又好蠢嘅白色鬼嘅話,我就會亂走得超快。[hypothetical conditional]
  9. 因為我琴日見到一隻又好恐怖又好蠢嘅白色鬼,所以我殺死佢。[because…therefore…]
  10. 雖然我啱啱見到一隻又好恐怖又好蠢嘅白色鬼,但係我嗰陣唔驚。[although…however…]

…and so on.  Useful if you can ask a native speaker to check them, if you’re going to add to (rather than subtract from) sentences.  [Note: Although I’m fairly sure they’re correct, I haven’t yet asked a native to run a beady eye over the last ten, so use them at your own peril!)

How Not to go Overboard

Obviously it’s wise to try to strike a balance between getting a solid foundation in constructing sentences and spending time creating and reviewing digital flashcards.  I would nonetheless stick to the principle of “one flashcard, one new thing”, be it a character, word or sentence construction.

If you’re lazy and can’t be bothered with too much faffing around, I’d suggest at least doing the breaking down/building up exercise and putting your results on the back of a relevant flashcard.  That way, you can peruse your series of minimal pairs (pairs of sentences with just one difference) easily.

Anyone else used the break-it-down-then-build-it-up approach?


2 thoughts on “The Break-It-Down-Then-Build-It-Up Approach

  1. Corrected deng2 頂… there’s a 鬼 for every 一隻 as far as I can see, although it’s not necessarily close by, because there are lengthy adjective phrases in between. The sentences at the end have an extra clause too.

    Number 8:

    Or am I missing something?

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