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.
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. 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!
 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.