I’ve written about my interest in Cantonese on this blog before, and how I went about learning Cantonese, but it’s not a topic I normally talk about on this site very much: after all, Mandarin is the most widely spoken Chinese dialect and this site is called Fluent in Mandarin!
However, Cantonese is what’s spoken in Hong Kong and Macao, so if you live there or you are interested in either of these two places, then Cantonese is what you will want to learn.
Contrary to what people say, Cantonese is not innately much more difficult to learn than Mandarin; the main problem is that there are not enough learning materials for Cantonese – especially at the intermediate level.
For beginners in Cantonese, you can start with Teach Yourself Cantonese, Pimsleur Cantonese or the excellent but fairly dated FSI Cantonese course (just Google it – it’s the course I used to get me started). There is also an excellent series of textbooks by Sidney Lau, which are less widely available if you are not in Hong Kong.
It’s once you get past the beginner stage that things get difficult. There are very few improvers’ courses in Cantonese available right now, with the exception of Glossika’s Cantonese course, which I like because it focuses on improving fluency through drills, but it is a less natural way of learning a language.
At the intermediate stage, you are essentially limited to listening to podcasts in Cantonese, which you may or may not understand, or making the jump directly to Hong Kong TV shows, which are often full of difficult slangy language – quite a jump from the beginner Cantonese textbooks.
The other thing that is difficult when you are learning Cantonese is that most of the time, Chinese is not written the same way that Cantonese is spoken; standard written Chinese is essentially Mandarin written down. When you watch Cantonese TV or movies, the subtitles are almost always in standard Chinese (Mandarin), which differs slightly from what is being spoken. That’s why Cantonese is often described as a ‘dialect’ of Chinese, it’s mostly a spoken form of the language that is only really written in very informal situations (like the Hong Kong tabloid press or online).
So, back to Cantonese Conversations. It has been produced by Olly, who is the creator of the website iwillteachyoualanguage.com. The course is exactly what its name implies: a series of 31 conversations by native speakers in Cantonese, for high beginner to intermediate learners.
Take a look inside Cantonese conversations
The conversations are not the unnatural ‘learner material’ that you get in some courses, they are spontaneous dialogues by native Cantonese speakers in video and audio form on a wide range of everyday topics, complete with traditional Chinese character transcripts in Cantonese (not converted into Mandarin), full translations into English, word lists of all the key vocabulary and a set of electronic flashcards that you can use with Anki (free software) on your computer to learn the words in the dialogues.
The course is not suitable for a complete beginner with zero knowledge of Cantonese. It would be most suitable for a beginner who has already learnt some basics of the language or a learner at the intermediate level looking to boost their fluency, vocabulary and understanding of how Cantonese works. It would also work for people who can read Chinese and speak some Mandarin who want to make the crossover into Cantonese.
The best thing about the course is how natural and authentic the dialogues are. I really is like watching people from Hong Kong chatting, but with all the support of the accompanying materials to help you – the language is very typical, with some slang and English mixed in, which is very normal in Hong Kong Cantonese. The transcripts are accurate and complete, and the translations and word lists are very good – all the work has effectively been done for you.
What this course offers that is particularly rare is a full pronunciation guide to everything in the audio written in Jyutping (the system often used to show Cantonese pronunciation) with the exact numbers of the tones of each character.
In the introduction to the course, Olly outlines the best ways to use the course. If you simply stick the audio on while you are going for a run, a lot of it will probably go over your head and you won’t learn much. It’s best to sit down and work through the material slowly and deliberately, listening to each dialogue many times, with the transcripts, then without the transcripts, until you understand everything and you can pick up all the words. If you do this, you’ll really get a lot out of the course, and there is plenty of material there to be going with.
No learning product is perfect or suitable for everybody, and there are of course some downsides and areas of Cantonese Conversations that could be improved.
Firstly, it’s not a comprehensive course designed to teach you Cantonese, it’s more like a resource for people who want to take control of their own learning. You are given a lot of material, but you are not guided through it, and there are no grammar explanations or expansions on the material in the dialogues.
Secondly, although 18 of the conversations are available in video as well as audio form and you get all the transcripts in both languages, there are no Chinese or English subtitles or captions on the videos at all to help you out, something which could have helped out people who want to learn mainly from the videos.
Also, there is a pronunciation guide in Jyutping (which I also prefer), but there is no pronunciation guide in Yale romanisation or in IPA (the International Phonetic Alphabet), which some more advanced learners may be familiar with.
In brief, Olly has produced an excellent resource for improvers in Cantonese. It’s a great toolkit for anybody who is prepared to put a bit of work themselves to make big improvements in the language and it fills in a very valuable gap in the Cantonese learning resources that are available right now.
Oh, and one final thing. I’ve only mentioned this to my email subscribers so far, but I’ve actually also produced a basic Cantonese conversation course – called Plug and Play Cantonese Chit Chat, complete with two ebooks with the most essential building blocks you need to start having conversations in Cantonese and full MP3 audio (almost an hour in total).
So just to make the course a little more useful to those who are just getting started with Cantonese, if you sign up for Cantonese Conversations and forward me an email that shows you’ve signed up, I’ll send you a free copy of my starters’ Plug and Play Cantonese course!
Want to take a look and find out more?
I hope you enjoy it!