Cantonese/How To Study Cantonese

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Motivation and Goals

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Ask yourself: Why do I want to study Cantonese and what is my eventual goal? Choosing the best method of study will depend a lot on these answers. It will also give you a better idea on how to measure your personal successes. Language learning needs a lot of self-encouragement!

Here are some common reasons for studying Cantonese:

  • Communicate with friends or family
  • Work in Hong Kong, Macau, southeast China, or in other Chinese speaking communities
  • Learn a language that is considerably different from English
  • Be able to better appreciate Cantonese culture and art, like Cantonese cuisine, Cantonese opera, Cantopop, etc.
  • Learn a language that has few foreign learners and is less-commonly taught
  • Study ancient (during Tang Dynasty) Chinese poem
  • ...

Note to Hong Kong tourists: If you are going to Hong Kong for a short vacation, you should realize that most people can speak some English and you do not have to know Cantonese to get by. This isn't to say there is no reason to study some Cantonese before going. Actually, if you want to have the opportunity to really enjoy the Cantonese cuisine, get off the beaten tourist tracks, or just learn more about the culture, then learning some Cantonese could be very beneficial. In such a case though, a book like Lonely Planet's Cantonese Phrasebook might be sufficient.

Means of study

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Informal study

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A lot of people like to self-study a language as a hobby or create language clubs. If your interest in Cantonese is more than just passing, you should definitely consider finding a Cantonese-speaking person to supplement your studies. Try searching Meetup or visiting your local Chinatown for more resources. If this truly isn't feasible, then plan on gathering a lot of sound recordings and work extra hard on your listening/speaking. A good Cantonese book for self-study is 'No sweat Cantonese' by Amy Leung. It is commercially available in Hong Kong and it comes with an audio CD for pronunciation.

Formal training

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If you are truly serious about becoming fluent in Cantonese then you need to study more than just this book. You would best off taking a formal course. Brigham Young University maintains a list of programs around the world that teach Cantonese. The ideal choice for many people would be the courses in Hong Kong, although it is a bit expensive.

Suggestions on using this book

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  • Study the pronunciation pre-lessons very well before you begin the regular lessons. A good foundation will make everything go smoother.
  • Each lesson will probably take at least two or three sessions to review well.
  • Studying the book too closely will get tedious after a while. Bring creative ways of learning into your routine by watching a Cantonese movie or listen to music. Afterwards, take a clip of the movie or song and try to listen for words you know or imitate the words/sentences you hear.
  • Work with a language partner on the exercises

Method for studying dialogues

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This method or one similar is often taught by foreign language teachers and many learners have found it to be successful. However, if you find it demanding or not suitable to your learning style you should adjust it accordingly. The main point is to use your listening skills and inductive reasoning ability as much as possible.

  1. At the beginning of each lesson, read the short English summary of the conversation. Do not look any farther in the book.
  2. Listen to the dialogue one or two times (sounds files are coming!) to get a feel for the conversation. Do not look at the book, just listen!
  3. Then listen to vocabulary list, again do not look at the book! Listen to each word and repeat it. Make a guess at the romanization and try even writing it down as you go through the list. In the first couple lessons, you might want to hold off on writing until you get a better feel for the romanization system. But as you progress, practice writing the complete Yale romanization with tones each time you listen to the vocabulary list. Tones obviously will be extremely difficult to get right in the beginning. Focus first on getting the correct segments and the tones will come gradually. Of course, you will have to listen more once! Don't worry about meanings, just focus on the sounds.
  4. After you feel you have put forth your best effort, double check your romanizations with the book and start associating the English meanings with the sounds. Pay careful attention to any of your romanization mistakes and listen to the file again until you feel you can recognize the correct sound.
  5. Now listen to the conversation, but still do not look at the book (not the Cantonese transcription nor the English translation)! You know all the vocabulary in the conversation now and you should be able to pick up a few words (maybe even most of them). When you have gotten past the first couple lessons, aim to listen to the dialogue recordings enough times so that you can guess the general meanings of what each person said before you check the book.
  6. Look at the Cantonese transcription and listen again. Make a mental note of which words you picked up yourself in the previous listenings. Pay attention to the difficult spots that you couldn't understand. Refer to the transcription and listen again to see if you can pick out the words now. By now, you probably know the gist of the conversation even though you haven't looked at the English translation yet! You may be surprised to realize this skill of listening and reasonable guessing is critical for advancement in the language learning. Route memorization and "cheating" by looking at the English translations at first will constantly hold you back. Furthermore, it's important that you learn how to feel comfortable with this process now because as you reach intermediate and advanced levels you will depend on these skills even more.
  7. Finally, you can look at the English translation. You should just check that your understanding is factually accurate. Do not dwell on translation details. For example, Cantonese doesn't distinguish past or present tense so there is no point in trying to understand why a particular verb in the translation is past tense. Translations are to be taken as a rough guide. Detailed understanding of the grammar will come through the grammar notes and more exposure to the language. The real key to learning a language is recognizing the patterns within the language itself.

Reading Navigation

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