Language Learning: Vocabulary Associations

When starting a new language, we can identify certain things that we should prioritise learning.

Probably the most important thing is concrete nouns and simple action verbs – things that we can practice every day just by walking around.

Many language learners might start off with simple vocabulary lists of things to learn.  For Cantonese, we might randomly start off with the nouns 枱 (toi2, table), 橙 (caang2, orange) and 鋼琴 (gong3kam4, piano).

But does this tell us how to use them in an actual sentence?  Not even slightly.  We’re not told from our vocabulary list which verbs go with which nouns.  How do you say “eat an orange” or “pick an orange” or “peel an orange” or “there’s an orange on the table”?

Note that we have the reverse problem by learning isolated verbs.  We don’t know what kind of things they might refer to.

An additional problem is that many languages use counters (like Chinese languages and Japanese) or genders (most European languages).  This means that by simply leaning the basic words 枱, 橙 and 鋼琴, we’re missing out on at least two pieces of vital information required to make use of them.

What’s considerably better then, than simply learning isolated words, is to damn well find out what other words are typically associated with them.

Now, this isn’t always easy to find out by searching the Internet or language learning books (which don’t typically include this kind of information) so the best strategy is to write down everything you might want to say in English and find a native to help you say it in L2.

Here’s one I made earlier:

Verb-Counter-Noun Groups


一張枱 jat1 zoeng1 toi2 one table
張枱上便 zoeng1 toi2 soeng6bin6 on the table
張枱下便 zoeng1 toi2 haa6bin6 under the table
坐喺張枱上便 co5 hai2 toi2 soeng6bin6 sit on the table
擺枱 baai2 toi2 set the table*
企喺張枱上便 kei5 hai2 [zoeng1] toi2 soeng6bin6 stand on the table
反[轉張]枱 faan2 [zyun2 zoeng1] toi2 overturn the table
打落張枱度 daa2 lok6 zoeng1 toi2 dou6 hit (down on) the table
打爛張枱 daa2 laan6 zoeng1 toi2 break the table
刮張枱 gwaat3 zoeng1 toi2 scratch the table
匿埋喺張枱下便 lei1maai2 hai2 [zoeng1] toi2 haa6bin6 hide under the table
匿埋喺張枱底 lei1maai2 hai2 [zoeng1] toi2 dai2 hide under the table

* Rare.


一個橙 jat1 go3 caang2 one orange
食個橙 sik6 go3 caang2 eat an orange
對人掉個橙 deoi3 jan6 deu6 go3 caang2 throw an orange [at somebody]
洗個橙 sai2 go3 caang2 wash an orange
剝個橙/剝橙皮 mok1 go3 caang2/mok1 caang2 pei4 peel an orange
搣個橙/搣橙皮 mit1 go3 caang2/mit1 caang2 pei4 peel an orange
切個橙 cit3 go3 caang2 cut an orange
掉咗個橙 deu6-zo2 go3 caang2 throw away an orange
搾橙汁 zaa3 caang2 zap1 squeeze juice from an orange/make orange juice
食橙汁 jam2 caang2 zap1 drink orange juice


一架鋼琴 jat1 gaa3 gong3kam4 one piano
架鋼琴上便 gaa3 gong3kam4 soeng6bin6 on the piano
架鋼琴後便 gaa3 gong3kam4 hau6bin6 behind the piano
架鋼琴側近 gaa3 gong3kam4 zak1gan1 next to the piano
彈[鋼]琴 taan4 [gong3] kam4 play the piano
同個琴調音 tung4 go3 kam4 tiu4yam1 tune a piano
打爛鋼琴 daa2laan6 gong3kam4 break the piano

Note that in a lot of cases, the counter is optional with a slight difference in meaning. (It usually differentiates between talking about a specific object or a general one.)

You should now be able to put complete sentences together using some of these word-groups. For example, 啲細路仔匿埋喺張枱下便 or 有條友企喺張枱上便.

Also, with reference to the Cantodict project (or for that matter, any other collaborative dictionaries): I strongly feel that this is the kind of thing to prioritise as far as dictionary examples are concerned. What’s needed is an abundance of simple, practical examples that demonstrate which nouns are used with which verbs.


3 thoughts on “Language Learning: Vocabulary Associations

  1. Pingback: Which is the best kind of SRS card to use? « Thousand Mile Journey

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