The Sound of Progress

Isn’t it strange, that for predominantly oral languages such as Cantonese, all learning materials that we can buy come in a written format?

Yeah, sure, some of the textbooks have CDs that we can listen to, and we’ve always got access to Cantonese TV and radio shows – but there’s a clucking huge void in the middle.

How do we make the jump?

  • By rote learning masses of words using sloppy romanisation systems?
  • By playing songs which use vocabulary and sentence patterns which are never spoken?
  • By watching films and TV shows filled with people speaking the most local of local Cantonese at lightning speed?
  • By being taught the odd word by native speakers who have a huge motive to not let you actually learn any Cantonese?*
  • By using an SRS to imperfectly internalise the fragments of the language that you occasionally manage to grasp?


  • We make the jump by getting native speakers to give us one-on-one lessons.**
  • We make the jump by getting them to first teach us the things they’d teach kids – simple action words, basic nouns and lots of juicy repetition of basic sentence patterns – and moving on from there.
  • We make the jump by using grammars, textbooks and dictionaries as a way of systematising oral study – in other words, by using them to let your tutor talk about a specific topic for a lesson, rather than teaching you a whole bunch of completely unrelated vocabulary and sentence patterns.
  • We make the jump by recording our lessons with them and reviewing them over and over afterwards.
  • We make the jump by using an SRS to internalise the most useful parts of the masses of comprehensible input that we’re fed.

So there’s my two cents.  Learn an oral language by getting tons of oral practice.  Further thoughts, anyone?

* It stops them practising their English.

** Paid-for, if necessary.  Money switching hands means a weekly routine is more likely to develop; friends helping each other for free rarely lasts beyond a week or two.  It also means they’re less likely to wander off into pointless English explanations if they know doing so would lose them a stream of income.


6 thoughts on “The Sound of Progress

  1. This post comes at a funny time for me since I’ve been trying to get back into Cantonese in the last few days…I first studied Cantonese full time at CUHK for 3 months back in February and as well on the road to fluency, thanks to the excellent teaching quality over there. Unfortunately I had to temporarily return to Europe since then and will still be stuck here for a couple months due to an ongoing illness. So now I’ve been trying to figure out how I can make use of my time here to further my progress anyway.

    It’s like you say though, especially for Cantonese there seems to be a huge gap between the beginning/lower intermediate stages and the “near fluency” stage where your knowledge sort of builds momentum by itself just by listening to songs, watching series etc. I managed to become fluent in Spanish by reading books and watching series within just 2 years, I wish that was possible with Chinese!

    The worst thing is that there’s absolutely no native speakers around I can enlist for lessons, and doing it over the internet is tricky because of the time difference. I’ve toyed with the idea of a topic-based, “production” focused deck to at least partially replace real oral practice, with the big disadvantage obviously being that nobody can check your L2 grammar or tell you if it’s actually said that way by native speakers. I think you’ve mentioned that in one of your posts before. Other than that I’ve been building a comprehension-focused audio deck with plenty of sentences and phrases from spliced up book dialogues, Cantodict, etc., and another one focusing on sentence patterns from my old books, which are heavily emphasized at CUHK (and well, in this post too). So maybe that will tide me over for a while.

    I’m currently standing at about 400 words of active vocabulary, which I think is a really awkward point if you’re not immersed in the language environment. I also haven’t spent any time on reading/writing characters, and I’m still unsure if that would slow me down, or actually help to enforce word/meaning relationships because relating meanings to abstract Jyutping syllables is starting to feel so random after a few hundred words.

    Anyway I enjoy reading your posts and they’re great for getting me motivated again, though I’m assuming you’re posting much less these days because you must be quite fluent by now 😛

  2. Back in Europe? That sucks! Hope you get back to HK ASAP! Might I ask though, what part of Europe are you in in which there are no Cantonese speakers willing to give lessons?!

    You’ve hit the nail on the head there – production based SRS practice is just not that great unless you’re an advanced speaker – in which case, why bother?

    Were I in your shoes, and there really isn’t anyone around to help you with your Cantonese, I’d just focus on input for now, and be damned with output. You can always copy things out or do grammar clozes for a semi-happy medium.

    Reading/writing is, in my professional opinion (!), best done after attaining decent oral fluency – which means being able to talk to people on all subjects a child would. It’s probably best left until after you come back to Hong Kong.

    RE the abstract jyutping syllables – this is where recording a leesson with a native comes in so handy! The vast majority of spoken words I’ve learnt are from speaking to other people at work, or perhaps through watching TV. (All of the written ones come from… reading…)

    However, a solution may be for you to focus on concrete nouns for now – you can do a quick google search and find what the words you want to learn look like, and then make your own worksheets. Then, when you come back to Hong Kong, you can start to metaphorically fill in the blanks – find out what verbs and adjectives etc. tend to fit in with what you’ve already learnt.

    P.S. I am indeed posting less – because of trying to avoid English as far as possible in the interests of even higher level fluency. But that doesn’t mean that you have to be so extreme 🙂 keep on trying! You’ll get there in the end!

  3. Hey, I’m in Germany – I think it would be possible to find someone in a bigger city but I’m stuck in a small town for the time being, so there’s that.

    Thanks for the tips, in any case! I’ve been busy in the past few days getting as much input material as possible for Anki, splicing up dialogues and phrases from all kinds of sources (my old class materials, and stuff from Cantonese Class 101) for comprehension cards. I think that should keep me busy at least for a while. Also planning to buy the Basic/Intermediate Cantonese grammar books you’ve mentioned so often in this blog.

    One thing I really liked about my classes in HK was the sheer discipline and the emphasis on enforcing grammar patterns through repetition, then making people freely utilize them in presentation/conversation classes. I’m a person who really needs a kick in the butt to get to work, so this was perfect for me. Alone, it’s a bit difficult to imitate that kind of environment, especially the production part, like you said, but I hope the rising ‘due cards’ numbers in Anki will at least make me feel bad enough to keep on trucking. 😀

    • You’re very welcome 🙂 however, on the subject of the grammar books: I’m not sure I like them so much now since (in retrospect I realise) that they have no audio and often don’t give enough examples where needed. They’re still qutie useful as a reference though!

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