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How I learnt Cantonese

I’ve received a couple of requests after I did the video on how I learnt Mandarin to talk about how I learnt Cantonese, so I’ll talk about that in this post.

I’m interested in Chinese culture in general and a variety of dialects, not just Mandarin, but I wanted to concentrate on Mandarin first, because more people speak it than the other flavours of Chinese.

Resources for English speakers

At the beginning I used courses for English speakers, including Pimsleur Cantonese, which really doesn’t get you very far, and also FSI Cantonese, which is an old U.S. foreign institute course, which has a really great method and is quite thorough, but the recordings are not the best, and it’s quite out of date. Both of these courses are designed for English speakers who have no foundation in Chinese, but the drills are useful so I worked through them both.

I didn’t start learning Cantonese until about 2 years after I started Mandarin, and I didn’t really study it seriously until a few years later, so by the time I started Cantonese, I already had a strong foundation in Mandarin.

There isn’t a huge volume of Cantonese learning materials for English speakers, and if you already know some Mandarin then you can learn Cantonese far quicker by comparing and contrasting, so to pick up Cantonese much quicker I basically did three things.

1) I used Cantonese courses for Chinese people who speak Mandarin.

2) I taught myself the Cantonese pronunciation of all the common Chinese characters, so I could put them together to produce vocabulary I already knew.

3) I did a lot of listening in Cantonese, particularly to Hong Kong Cantonese.

First, let me talk about some of the books I used. You might have to get them from the Chinese Amazon when you are in China or ask a friend to buy them for you. All these books come with a CD with full recordings of everything in the book, which is crucial.

Beginner’s books to use if you already know Mandarin

My favourite book for learning Cantonese is 实用广州话教程. It’s got sections about just about everything you need for everyday life, conversation, travel and work. I was just amazed at how comprehensive this book is, for example in the chapter on health and going to the doctor, it tells you all the names of the parts of the body in Cantonese, and for the introductions section, it tells you all the names of the major cities and provinces in China in Cantonese, and everything is recorded on the CD, so this was like my Bible for Cantonese, and it was so cheap as well.

Every chapter has loads of vocabulary, expressions and dialogues and everything is written out in Cantonese characters and standard Chinese for really easy comparison. I covered up the Cantonese and practiced testing myself out loud, using the CD for comparison. The only disadvantage of the book is that the pronunciation guide is a bit strange, although the tone numbers are given and are very accurate.

That was my main book, but I also like to use other beginners’ books to fill in more gaps. for example, 新编使用粤语教程,which is a bit older, but it’s also really comprehensive and has some good dialogues.

I also worked through 粤语入门速成班 which is ok as well, and another book that I really like is 餐饮粤语一学就会. Most Chinese courses don’t give you nearly enough to order in a restaurant, and this book is specifically about restaurant Cantonese, so it’s really unique. It’s got all the things you will probably need to say in a restaurant and loads of names of dishes, foods and drinks, so it’s an amazing resource to have. There were a few other less good books I used as well, so I won’t talk about them now. As well as books, I also used video courses in Chinese, including 粤语三月通, one called 广州话训练教程 and one called 玩转粤语, again I’ll put all the links in the description to this video.

Learning the Cantonese pronunciations of Chinese characters

The second thing that I did was to learn the Cantonese pronunciations of the 3000 most common Chinese characters. I already knew all these characters in Mandarin, so only the Canto pronunciations were new. I basically made an Anki flashcard deck for my computer and phone and learnt them all over a few months. You can download my flashcard deck here, and get Anki here.

The danger of learning characters in Cantonese is that you sound more like the written language or you start to speak like in Mandarin, so you have to pay attention to the Cantonese expressions and words from the course books and try to move away from Mandarin-style expressions. The other thing about the books I’ve mentioned is they are mostly mainland China or Guangzhou style Cantonese, and the accent and expressions can be very slightly different from Hong Kong, which connects me with the third step I took.

Building up my Cantonese listening comprehension

The third thing I did was listening to a lot of Cantonese at native speed, particularly from Hong Kong, to balance things out. From getting familiar with the pronunciations of Chinese characters, the courses and connecting the dots in my mind I was already able to understand a fair amount of Cantonese, but I wasn’t that used to all the vocabulary and the rhythm of native speech.

At the beginning I watched a lot of Hong Kong TV clips from TVB and RTHK on Youtube with subtitles, which helped to act as a “safety net” so I could understand more. Slowly, as my listening improved, I listened to podcasts (download them through iTunes or the Podcasts app that comes with the iPhone) such as VOA Cantonese, BBC Cantonese, and the RTHK phone in show 自由风自由phone and I also listened to Hong Kong radio stations like RTHK 1 and 2 and 雷霆881.

My Cantonese is still work in progress and it’s still much weaker than my Mandarin. Although I have good listening ability and I still speak in a bit of a mainland/Mandarin style, but that will get better over time. I can get by pretty well now, I’ve used it in Guangdong province and Hong Kong, and I really love Cantonese and the feeling of variety in being able to speak and understand more than one Chinese dialect. I’ve already got so much from it, and I hope that you will too if you decide to learn Cantonese.

I hope you’ve found this post useful. If you have any questions, just leave me a comment and I’ll be happy to answer you!