Final Thoughts on Learning Chinese

Firstly: this post is final because it is the conclusion to all of the posts on TMJ on the subject of learning Chinese. There is nothing else important to say.

Secondly, I apologize in advance, because this post is just a teensy bit negative for those who would like to both speak Cantonese and use it to read so-called ‘Standard Chinese’. Please read to the end before getting angry! 🙂

Thirdly, I also apologize for using the terms ‘Chinese’, ‘Cantonese’ and ‘Mandarin’ all together in this post. It is deliberate though, because I think for a lot of people, the initial goal is to learn ‘Chinese’ rather than any specific branch thereof. Therefore, I think they would probably be equally happy learning either Cantonese or Mandarin.

Fourthly, I assume throughout that we’re talking about learning Chinese to native-level fluency. If you’re content just learning a few words, or being able to say ‘hello’ to the in-laws and order in restaurants without pointing, then this post may not apply to you.

So, without further ado, here we go.

Exclusive Self-Study of Chinese is a Terrible Idea

In particular, I think the original premise that I had of exclusively ‘self-learning’ Chinese to fluency is a foolish one.

I think it is of the utmost importance that you have a native to regularly give you deliberate and focused practice, especially for speaking. If you have to pay someone to give you lessons, then do it – it will be very worthwhile in the long-run if you also do lots of self-study. You will save yourself a great deal of time and confusion.

Reading Written Chinese is best done with Mandarin

On the subject of speaking and writing, I would also suggest at this point that if your goal is to be able to both speak and read Chinese, you pick Mandarin and not Cantonese.

Learning to read Standard Chinese using Cantonese readings, whilst not impossible, is fraught with difficulty. Because the grammar and vocabulary are significantly different, it is difficult to keep the two systems separate; this is true even for local Hong Kongers, who often incorrectly use Cantonese grammar and vocabulary in formal writing.

Indeed, the point at which I finally managed to get a decent grasp of writing Chinese was also the point at which my Mandarin improved to the point of being able to hold conversations all day in it.

I am therefore fairly sure that other foreigners learning Cantonese would have a similar experience.

Hong Kong is not the best place to learn Chinese

Additionally, I would like to emphasize that Hong Kong is, in general, a lousy place to learn Chinese. My first few months were filled with ‘language power struggles’, which were annoying, demotivating, and detrimental to my progress. (Luckily I did eventually make some friends who were happy to not have to speak English, but it took a while to find them.)

I have not lived in other Chinese-speaking countries, and therefore am not entitled to comment, although I suspect that in places like Taiwan, where the standard of English seems, on average, lower than in Hong Kong, learning Chinese would be significantly easier.

Closing Comments

Of course, I expect that people will disagree with me 😉

However, the above are the conclusions that I reached after a relatively long period of time learning Chinese – and for a very long period of time, I was adamant that the only language I was going to master was Cantonese.

In fact, if you would really like to learn Cantonese, I would simply encourage you to modify your goals: accept being illiterate, because Cantonese is not really a written language.

There is nothing wrong with just learning to speak Cantonese – it really is great fun to speak and understand it, and I am glad that I can do so.

This is why having a native speaker that you can record is so important – it can free you entirely from the world of almost-useless Romanization systems and characters that can be spoken but not written. My gut feeling is that the trap which most Cantonese learners fall into is to try to turn this oral language into a written one, which it is not[1]. If you can get out of the habit of rooting your second language acquisition in written words, you will obtain unimaginable benefits, because every language will suddenly seem very easy.

Feel free to comment!

[1] Being able to hold Whatsapp conversations in Cantonese does not constitute a good reason to learn how to write an entire oral language. Also, if you would like to learn the lyrics to Cantopop songs, I would advise that getting a native to read them out and explain the meaning of more formal Chinese words would be a better alternative to spending ridiculous amounts of time learning how to read in order to understand their transcription. 

In any case, eventually, when your listening gets good enough, you won’t need anyone to explain – you’ll just be able to understand most of a new song after a few listens. This should be your goal.


7 thoughts on “Final Thoughts on Learning Chinese

  1. I agree it is faster to learn written Chinese using Mandarin. There are so many resources for doing so. The fact is for such a language you need a tremendous amount of resources and it would be extremely expensive to study the written language the way Hong Kongers do. I have had these language power struggles before, too, particularly in Taiwan, although I have never lived in Hong Kong. It seems like for some reason when you stop having such a strong need to speak only in Cantonese suddenly people are willing to speak to you in the language.

    • Hey Conycatcher,

      Expensive in the sense of time that you need to expend, or expensive in the sense of hiring someone to teach you all that stuff, or both? 🙂

      I kind of know what you mean about the power struggles tending to disappear after a while. I think it must be because of the overall vibe that people get from you – it becomes natural to only speak to others in Chinese after a period of time.

      I’m a little surprised that you would have such struggles in Taiwan, though. I would be interested to know what part of Taiwan you were living in, who you were speaking with, and how proficient you were at the time.


      • I mean if you would use the methods Hong Kong people use you would have to be in class full time for many years. That takes both time and money.

        As for Taiwan I was in Kaohsiung, in southern Taiwan. I’m sure people in HK have better spoken English but that doesn’t mean that Taiwanese didn’t come with some of the same attitudes and biases toward people who look “foreign.” And don’t forget that there are many people who want to learn English, perhaps as much as we might want to learn their language. When I first got there I tested into the “advanced” classes at the local schools although advanced is a relative term when it comes to second language education.

        Actually I hear now people are a little bit less shocked to see white people speaking Mandarin in Taiwan although I don’t keep up with many people there. It always seemed a little better in that respect on the Mainland.
        It really was different to study back then. I learned Mandarin to a pretty advanced level mostly offline. Not by choice, it’s just there was so much less available online back then. Now it’s so much easier to learn if one can remain focused, although the standard people expect for getting relevant work is also somewhat higher.

  2. That’s really interesting! I wouldn’t have guessed that southern Taiwanese would be so confident with their English, especially X years ago.

    I am always amazed that you could learn Chinese to a decent level before the internet really became ubiquitous, and before computers were as powerful as they are today 🙂 Before I got online, I learn a comparatively tiny amount of Chinese, and I am sure that I would have continued to make no progress were it not for being able to watch Chinese TV online and easily record and edit sound files. (Discovering online that learning Chinese was, in fact, possible, was also a big help.)

    Having said that, offline study might perhaps force one to make more of an effort to memorize and to interact with natives more…

    • People would find a way if they really, really wanted to, particularly if they lived in big cities, but they were more isolated from each other.

  3. Ahh, Eldon, (or should I say 李哲翔?) I see this blog is coming to a close. I just wanted to say thanks for helping me out with Canto and updating your blog with your experiences. I feel like I could write an essay here about my experience with Cantonese, the ups and downs of it, the ‘language power struggles’, the times I felt like Superman or how one mispronunciation devastated me enough to feel like 屎我係一督屎.

    I guess what I want to write is I hope that you still use Cantonese in the future and don’t forget it, even if you might not feel the need to write it. I know Mandarin will always be there but I hope HK and the Cantonese people rewarded you with a positive enough experience that Canto will still be a part of your life. I hope that they didn’t treat you like 二五仔 for learning their language and good came of it.

    All the best – Matt

    • Hey Matt!

      I am certain that I will continue to speak Cantonese in the future. I still love the language, and will be staying in HK a long while yet. It just got very frustrating after a while to be able to read loads of stuff, yet be tripped by inadvertently using literary vocabulary when speaking, which is why I think speaking is enough, and why reading is best done with Mandarin.

      I hope your journey continues fruitfully. Try to keep the superman moments coming, and pick yourself up quickly after untimely mishaps. 🙂

      All the best!


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