It’s my third year now in Hong Kong and what I can say for sure (at least for me), you don’t pick up Cantonese just like that – especially if you’re working in a more international setting with lots of expats around you all speaking English most of the time. It might be better for example in Guangzhou, but in Mainland China you run into a similar problem in that you are already able to speak Mandarin and you would automatically turn to that if your Cantonese fails you. The great thing with learning Mandarin in China was, that I was forced to speak and practice as English wasn’t an option in most cases. It was either use Mandarin or give up talking to that person. In Hong Kong, especially in the more central districts, local people are used to expats and foreigners living in Hong Kong that can only speak English, so even if you go to a local restaurant, chances are that they will switch to English when they realize that your Cantonese isn’t good enough yet.
So, what’s the best way to make progress? For me personally it’s using Pinhok’s Top 2000 Cantonese vocabulary book. I’m a very analytical person and need things like this or flashcards to really make progress. Other people prefer learning new languages by using the new language talking to people or through listening. I have thought about how to best learn Cantonese after successfully learning Mandarin quite a bit and talked to other people in the same situation. Here’s a list of things you can do to make progress using your existing knowledge from Mandarin (in no particular order):
If you have the time and money, language classes with a limited amount of students are probably the quickest way to learn any language. If you do already know Mandarin, it would be worth thinking about taking 1 on 1 classes where the teacher can really adapt to your learning speed and you can make quick progress. Chances are that if you do 1 on 1 classes, you’re reaching a certain point where you can communicate in a decent way rather quickly.
Especially for speaking, language classes can be key as the teacher can help you improve your pronunciation and intonation. As you probably know from Mandarin, the earlier those errors you make are fixed the better.
What I personally found is that speaking isn’t really the problem though as it’s often possible to use a Mandarin sentence, change Mandarin pronunciation to Cantonese pronunciation and throw it at whoever you’re talking to. You can be pretty sure that it sounds a bit funny and isn’t 100% proper Cantonese, but the person you’re talking to will most likely understand. What I found more difficult is understanding what comes back at me. Language classes can help with that as well, I think, but it might not be the most efficient way to improve your listening skills, especially if you’re on a budget or very busy.
Having successfully learned Mandarin, you’re probably familiar with this. It often takes the form of finding another person who wants to learn the language you speak fluently and then you teach your language for let’s say 1 hour and the other person teaches you Cantonese for 1 hour. It’s kind of a “1 on 1 language class” on a budget if you want. The advantage here is, of course, that it’s usually free, disadvantage is that you need to spend double the time compared to language classes.
If you are in an area where Cantonese is the or one of the local languages, chances are that there are meetups or other groups that offer language exchange. If you are in any city in Mainland China, ask your local friends if they know any place where Chinese Mandarin speakers go to learn Cantonese. Especially at universities there are often student groups where students from Guangdong or Hong Kong teach their fellow colleagues basic Cantonese.
If you are in any other place in the world, universities are a good place to look for language partners as well. If your local university has a decent size and allows international students, chances are that some of those students are Chinese – and some of them, again, should be native Cantonese speakers.
Another possibility is to look for Cantonese speakers online and use e.g. Skype to do the language exchange sessions. There might also be language schools offering a service like that (for a fee of course).
When I was in school I hated vocabulary books – but you can say about them what you want, they work. The given lack of proper learning material for Cantonese was a big motivation point for creating Pinhok Languages vocabulary books in the first place and today I’m using the Top 2000 words vocabulary book every day to make progress in learning Cantonese.
Especially if you know Mandarin already, vocabulary books are a great way of making quick progress as they allow you to see quickly what is the same in Cantonese and what is different. Furthermore, the Jyutping version of each vocabulary allows you to concentrate on the pronunciation of the word, something very important when you want to transfer your Mandarin skills to Cantonese.
In the vocabulary book there are 25 vocabularies per page. I try to learn roughly 1 new page per week. Every morning I go through the past four pages of the book up to the page that I have learned last. Once I know all words on page one I went through that day very well, I know that it’s time to learn 25 new words and skip that first page the next day.
Vocabulary books aren’t for everyone, that’s something I completely understand, but for learners like me who need something written down to be able to make progress I think they are the best tool available, especially for Cantonese with the lack of other good material on the market.
Flashcards were a huge help for me when I learned Mandarin. I haven’t used them for Cantonese yet but would assume that you can find at least a couple of decent flashcard decks on Anki. When comparing flashcards to vocabulary books, I think flashcards have an advantage in that they somehow force you to learn every day, otherwise you fall behind with your deck (in the case of Anki). On the other hand, this was exactly the thing that made me switch to a vocabulary book this time around as I wanted more freedom regarding pace and time of learning. This might slow down my overall progress a bit, but makes learning much more enjoyable.
A great way to learn any language is to simply consume any TV series, sport coverage, films or audio material like podcasts in that very language. I personally very much enjoy watching sports, so for me watching NBA basketball on LeSports HK has become part of my Cantonese learning routine. It’s a bit limited in that you mainly learn the vocabularies used in that sport or field, but it helps a lot with listening skills.
If you’re in Hong Kong, basically anything will do. TV and radio is mostly broadcasted in Cantonese, so whatever you choose should be in proper Cantonese. If you’re in Mainland China, Guangdong TV is a good choice. They have several channels from sports over news to culture and more.
On the internet you can also find plenty of material. Youtube outside and Youku/Tudou inside of Mainland China are generally good sources for videos. In terms of films, any films produced in Hong Kong usually have an original Cantonese version. Furthermore, there are plenty of podcasts broadcasted in Cantonese. Simply go to the podcast platform your choice and type in “Cantonese” or “Hong Kong” and you should be presented with a number of choices. If that doesn’t work, maybe try “香港” or other related words using characters, that might deliver even more results if the authors didn’t bother to upload an English description.
Especially if you are trying to learn Cantonese within Mainland China, songs and KTV should be a familiar measure to you. For many Mandarin-speaking Mainlanders, Cantonese songs are the main reason to even start learning Cantonese in the first place and you can be sure to find a broad variety of Cantonese songs at any KTV place in China.
Having said this, I personally don’t value songs as a way to learn Cantonese that much as they are usually written in very formal Cantonese. The upside is that you can learn Cantonese pronunciation of characters you do already know from Mandarin. The downside of this, however, is that you don’t learn many words that are actually used in daily conversation – so don’t try to only use Mandarin + new pronunciation learned in Cantonese songs, it won’t work or at least sound quite funny.
Having said this, Cantonese songs are a great addition to other measures presented above and knowing the most popular Cantonese songs is almost a must for anyone who really wants to dive into the local culture anyway. Good sources for songs are Youtube for people outside of the Mainland and QQ Music or Baidu Music for people in Mainland China.
Finally, a great way to make progress is to simply get out and use the language – regardless of your current level and skills. This is usually very painful in the beginning as you’ll hardly be able to communicate and things can get embarrassing very quickly, but it’s a good way to learn. Furthermore, most locals will appreciate your efforts, even if they might switch to English or Mandarin quickly if they see that Cantonese doesn’t lead anywhere.
I personally try to turn every lunch break into a little Cantonese practice lesson by going to a local restaurant. I don’t necessarily have to talk a lot, just going in there, using Cantonese to order and listen to what waitresses and other guests talk to each other has quite a positive effect on my language skills, especially if done regularly.
If you are in “the rest of the world”, this might get a bit more complicated, but if the city you’re living in has a reasonably big Chinese community, chances are that your China Town has quite a lot of Cantonese speaking places. Look out for Dim Sum places or restaurants offering things like roasted goose, chances are good that those are run by families coming from Hong Kong or Guangdong and that they do speak Cantonese. Once you’ve found a place like that, you can decide yourself if you only want to eat there occasionally or take full dive trying to get some sort of part time job.
Wrapping up this, longer than originally intended blog post, the main thing I have learned over the last 3 years is that acquiring Cantonese isn’t something that will happen automatically – even if you already know Mandarin. There’s still some “work” involved which, depending on your preferred learning style, can range from talking to people over taking classes, finding friends or going old school by studying vocabularies. If you’re in the same situation and have suggestions that might help other learners, please get in touch via the contact form and let me know!