There are probably not many things in the world as intimidating as the decision to learnt to speak Cantonese. From unusual Chinese characters to having to learn Cantonese pronunciation, there are few languages as complex and different to the ones spoken in the western world.

And perhaps it’s getting over the mindset that Cantonese is not more difficult, but rather that it is just more unusual than any other language you have tried to learn. So why not rise to the challenge by finding a Cantonese teacher who can help to guide you through an online or in-person Cantonese course?

So while it may seem daunting at first, there is no doubt that it will get significantly easier after the initial few hurdles.

The aim of this article is to help you with the early teething problems that come with how to identify with those foreign-looking letters and wrap your tongue around interesting-sounding words.

Whether you want to advance your career in Guangxi or Guangdong province or just take a holiday to Hong Kong and Macau, it is worth thinking about doing a Cantonese course. So let’s take a look at some tips to learn Cantonese in the easiest, most stress-free way possible.

Like all foreign languages, there are many ways to learn Cantonese, the trick is to work out which is the best method for you.

Even though it has its hurdles it is not an impossible task, it will however require total commitment and a strategic eye. Let’s explain what we mean by that!

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Speak Before Writing

Once you have decided to learn to speak Cantonese, your strategy should be to hold back on diving in the way you would approach learning other foreign languages. While this enthusiasm should be applauded it will also lead to overwhelm. This is because to learn Cantonese pronunciation, Chinese characters, phonology, intonation, and vocabulary is too much.

Instead, when you take a Cantonese course, you’ll notice that the writing system will take a back seat for a while. A good Cantonese teacher will focus on your fluency and conversational Chinese at first. Once you learn Cantonese pronunciation, the writing somehow feels a little less foreign.

Learn Cantonese Culture

This strategy has the added benefit of being able to dive into Cantonese culture without feeling prohibited by seemingly foreign written Chinese.

Some of the ways to go about this include talking to a native, watching films and TV in Cantonese, and listening to Cantonese music. Not only will this develop your speech and conversation and build your vocabulary but it will certainly help you to learn Cantonese pronunciation. You can expect your listening comprehension to improve too. Overall, you will begin the written language aspect of your Cantonese course from a stronger starting point.

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Practise reading Cantonese at every opportunity. - Source: Pexels

Get a Private Tutor

Of course, when you learn to speak Cantonese is it helpful and necessary to be guided by an experienced native speaker.

Whilst a native buddy may be able to help you here, a qualified, native-speaking Cantonese teacher who has the patience and skills to develop your language ability is a good choice

This is just one of the many strategies on how to learn Cantonese.

Tips for Learning Cantonese Vocabulary

As you learn Cantonese pronunciation, you will constantly encounter new Chinese words which bring us to the topic of learning vocabulary which is an essential part of learning any new language. Remember that no matter how perfect your grammar is; without the words, you will not be able to converse.

There is one tip to help make it all a little easier. Keep reading.

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Finding Common Cantonese Words

If you have heard that there are over 50 000 characters in Chinese, don’t let it overwhelm you. The truth is that it is an almost irrelevant figure.

Why?

The actual amount of words that Chinese people use is only a fraction of this and this is why you should have no problem talking to, and understanding the Cantonese folk you encounter.

So the basic tip is to simply find about 500 of the most well-used words, learn Cantonese pronunciation at the same time, and you’ll be halfway to fluency.

Immerse Yourself in Cantonese

Even if you have the best Cantonese course with the best Cantonese teacher, you should still try and immerse yourself in the language as much as possible. To do this you should keep on listening, reading, and consuming as much of the language as possible through topics that interest you via every medium possible.

Create Your Individual Cantonese Dictionary

Whether you do this on flashcards or in a notebook, it’s important that you write down everything you have learned. You’ll probably hear it from your Cantonese teacher too, but writing will help to cement the knowledge in your mind and flashcards are an excellent memorisation tool.

Keep repeating these exercises to learn and retain your Cantonese vocabulary until it sticks!

Learn to Read Cantonese

Speaking Cantonese is one challenge. However, at some point, you will need to return to the script.

But how would you start reading Cantonese especially when it comes to all those characters? Not only will it take willpower and memorisation skills, but two other useful tools too:

Romanisation

You’ll discover when learning Cantonese that most textbooks have Chinese characters and Romanised rendering too. Even if it doesn’t feel completely authentic, it is certainly a huge help while you make sense of pronunciation and the language itself.

Radicals

When reading Cantonese script, radicals will help you to decode the symbols. These are small units of meaning within the characters that make up the full character itself.

There are 214 radicals that contribute to the 50 000 characters. When you know these, you’ll recognise them in any Cantonese script.

Learn even 30 of them and you’ll be laughing.

chinese figurines in shop window
Learning Cantonese will help you discover Chinese culture. - Source: Unsplash

Learn to Write Cantonese

Recognising a Cantonese character is one thing, but writing them is quite another.

When you first encounter Cantonese characters, you will need to have a clear picture on precisely what it looks like before you attempt to write it. Without this, you won’t be going anywhere particularly helpful.

Stroke Order

In conversations regarding writing Cantonese, there is much talk about stroke order. This is a specific set of rules that regulate which lines should go before others when writing out Chinese characters.

These things such as left to right and top to bottom tend to get complicated, but once you know them and their construction, it all becomes more fluid. Eventually, your handwriting will be quicker and neater.   

Learn more about stroke order in our beginner’s guide to writing in Cantonese.

Size and Regularity

When you are fashioning your characters, there are some basic guidelines to keep in mind. Firstly, ensure that your characters are the same size, that they are legible, and look consistent. The reason for this is that in many cases students write Cantonese characters with radicals too far apart which makes them appear like separate characters.

Tips for Learning Cantonese Characters 

When it comes to studying a Cantonese character, there is a lot to think about in terms of shape, size, pronunciation, and memorising it.

Having said this, there are a number of ways to make sure that all this is easily remembered.

Radicals Rather than Strokes

The first is to identify and memorise Cantonese characters by reference to radicals rather than the separate strokes that make up the full character.

This is helpful for a few reasons. Firstly, the radical will come up again in many other characters. Secondly, you can associate the learning of pronunciation and meaning directly to the radical, but this is not possible to do with the stroke.

Finally, the radical represents a whole unit of meaning. For this reason, it’s far easier to remember.

Spaced Repetition

When you rote memorise your characters, forget about extreme repetition of again and again and again and again.

Instead, consider using a more sophisticated repetition methodology known as spaced repetition. In this process, it is the earliest things you learn that are to be repeated less often while you gain knowledge of new material at the same time.

If you are unfamiliar with this pedagogy style, there are many wonderful apps that could give you all the tips and tricks you need to adopt it into your learning programme.

Remember that as you tackle the enormous task of familiarising yourself with such a foreign language, there are many resources and guides to help you as well as specific practice guides for learning Cantonese characters.

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Niki

Niki is a content writer from Cape Town, South Africa, who is passionate about words, strategic communication and using words to help create and maintain brand personas. Niki has a PR and marketing background, but her happiest place is when she is bringing a story to life on a page.