Welsh and Norwegian, say, seem to pale in comparison. It makes Spanish and French seem like a complete doddle. Even languages like Russian and Greek, with their completely different alphabets, seem much more manageable.
At least they have alphabets. With this, you can almost start to make sense of the words, the phrases, spotting patterns between symbols across different texts. Oh, if everything were this easy!
Cantonese – and Chinese languages in general – are a completely different ball game. At first, they seem like they are a collection of completely random lines and shapes. They appear totally incomprehensible, as you search for a rule to the meaning, to the pronunciation.
This very fact seems to put most people off attempting to learn Chinese at all. Or, if they do, they limit themselves to learning how to speak, rather than having to delve into the great challenge of learning Chinese characters.
And this, in a sense, is understandable. Yet, it is such a shame. With language learning comes challenge – and with challenge comes an awful lot of rewards.
If you’re committed to learning Cantonese, you’ll need to make peace with learning the traditional Chinese characters. And, you’ll find, it’s not as difficult as you might have thought.
Learn to read Cantonese!
Let’s say that, yes, learning Cantonese as a new language is hard. Let’s say that it is particularly hard for those who do not already know Mandarin Chinese or another Chinese language. Let’s admit both of these things.
Even if we do accept them, however, learning a language will be the best thing you will ever do. And learning a language like Cantonese will be an even bigger achievement.
With over sixty million people speaking Cantonese – in both mainland China and in the southern Guangdong province, Hong Kong and Macau – you will be opening up a world of opportunities by learning Cantonese. That’s a world of friends, romances, career paths, and travel possibilities too.
You’ll have a much greater insight into Hong Kong and Chinese culture – and you’ll be developing your own abilities. Learning a second language does not merely permit you to speak a new language: it changes the way you think, relate to people, and act in the world too.
So, yes, learning Cantonese sure is worth the effort – the little extra effort of having to manage the task of reading and writing Chinese script. Let’s make an effort.
Find out how to learn Cantonese!
One of the most common questions that tutors of Cantonese receive from students might be more of a cry of desperation rather than an actual, legitimate question: do we really have to learn the Chinese script? Even if that’s true, the question itself deserves an honest answer.
And that answer depends, really, on what you want to learn Cantonese for. If you want to go to Hong Kong to make friends and have a laugh, you’ll get a different answer to if you want to study Cantonese academically, or if you want to read Cantonese literature.
Honestly, if you are aiming for just a conversational ability in Cantonese with native speakers, then no: learning the script is absolutely not a priority. Rather, you should be practising your Chinese pronunciation and your verbal fluency, you should be focusing on the process of how to learn to speak.
Because speaking is where language primarily happens. Where we use the majority of our language is through our mouths, rather than through the nib of a pen or through the pages of a book.
However, if you are moving to Hong Kong or Macau, you’ll notice that text is everywhere. Just as in the streets of the west (where we probably take it for granted), the walls of the streets are plastered in words – or rather, at this point, symbols that you don’t understand.
The short answer, really then, is learn to speak before you learn to read and write. And that’s regardless of what you are learning the language for.
Find out how to write Cantonese!
Find new vocabulary from your reading.
Before you learn to read Cantonese, however, it is worth knowing a bit about the writing system that they use. Because ‘Chinese script’ or a ‘Chinese character’ is not a monolithic thing.
Learning Mandarin script and learning that of Cantonese is a very similar process. However, we need to stress that these are simply not the same at all. They use a lot of the same characters, but the pronunciation is different – so different that the languages are mutually unintelligible. And given that the grammar of the two languages also differs, it is not even likely that a Mandarin speaker would be able to follow a Cantonese text.
Whilst simplified Chinese text is primarily used by those who speak Mandarin, this is where Mandarin and Cantonese differ. Cantonese, on the other hand, uses the traditional characters.
What these are is something fairly self-explanatory. The traditional script – used in Cantonese and Taiwan – is the original script that has developed over centuries, millennia even. The simplified Chinese of mainland China, Singapore and Malaysia, however, has – surprise, surprise, been simplified. Yes, this means that it is easier to read.
As you are facing Cantonese, you’ve got a bigger challenge. Yet, this challenge is much greater when you are writing than when you are simply reading. Reading is merely a game of searching for patterns and deriving meaning from them (see below!). But producing those characters is a lot harder than just recognising them.
The trouble is that Cantonese has another difficulty.
When reading Cantonese, you’ll notice a further difference. This is the difference between what is generally called ‘written’ Cantonese and ‘spoken’ Cantonese. The trouble is that ‘spoken’ Cantonese, in this context, is a written form in itself.
Imagine very formal English, the sort of thing that you would find in broadsheet newspapers, academic textbooks, and government copy. But then imagine the sort of language that most English speakers would text to their mates or the sort of language that is spoken down the pub.
In English, we use the same alphabet for both forms. In the former, the sentences might be longer, more grammatically correct, and with more official language. You wouldn’t start an email to an employer with ‘hey dude’, just as you wouldn’t say goodbye to a friend with ‘yours sincerely’.
In Cantonese, the difference is that completely different characters are used for the two registers of speech, with completely different words. Whilst written Cantonese is the standard Chinese that is common to mainland China and all other countries speaking Chinese, spoken Cantonese is limited to those who speak Cantonese.
Spoken language in Cantonese is the way you will be texting your friends. But you should really know standard, written Chinese if you are intending to get a job in Hong Kong, say.
Find out how to learn Cantonese vocabulary!
Build your Cantonese dictionary
When you start learning Cantonese, it is worth noting, you will be primarily be learning with a Romanized system, that being a system that transforms the Cantonese phonemes (or sounds) into the alphabet that we use in the western world.
This is to help anyone who is not a native speaker to navigate the complexities of the Chinese written system.
There are plenty of Romanization systems in Cantonese – developed by different people trying to work with the characters in their native language. The most common that you will probably come across are Cantonese pinyin, Yale romanisation, and Jyutping, the system developed by the Linguistic Society of Hong Kong.
These are generally quite similar. Between Yale and Jyutping, nearly all the consonants are identical. However, there are differences in the tones and in some particular sounds. As we said, however, the differences are small.
Romanisation will be what will help you take your first steps in Cantonese. However, when you are reading long texts, the system soon becomes exhausting. As there are no spaces between words in Cantonese, the system doesn’t always appear clear in distinguishing where one word finishes and another begins.
At a certain point, then, you will have to move on to the characters themselves. And as, according to some estimates, there are over fifty thousand different characters, this can be a little intimidating.
Don’t worry, however. Because, as with all languages, the vast majority of them are very rarely used; only a couple of thousand of these are in everyday use. And, a lot of Cantonese speakers also forget how to write certain characters themselves. So, let that be a load off your mind.
What should be really reassuring, however, is that each of these fifty thousand characters is actually the product of only 214 smaller components. These are called either components or radicals.
These are the semantic and phonetic building blocks of Cantonese. And once you can recognise these, you will be able to spot them in every different word.
As we said, reading is all about spotting patterns. And once you are familiar with the code – the radicals – the patterns will slowly but surely become clear.
So, now read our full guide to learning Cantonese!