It’s no secret that even Cantonese for beginners, especially when it comes to reading and writing the script, is a daunting task.

If you have grown up around Latin-based languages, the experience of trying to figure out Cantonese symbols and Cantonese characters can feel completely alien. Both the simplified and traditional characters can feel completely alien. Even with the best tutor and Cantonese lessons at your disposal they can be intimidating to navigate at first glance.

The good news for those looking to learn basic Cantonese is that this feeling will not last long. Cantonese, like other Chinese languages is most difficult at the beginning. This makes sense when you consider that Cantonese characters may be something that you have never clapped eyes on before in your life!

Once you are over the initial hurdle of learning Cantonese for beginners, everything starts to become a little easier. We promise.

To get you over the worst of trying to learn basic Cantonese, this article provides you with a few tips about how to read and write Cantonese characters.

Reading and writing Cantonese is actually more difficult than speaking Chinese. The reason for this is the unique Cantonese symbols and Cantonese characters that you will be required to learn. This however is possible and if you keep reading, you could be on the road to fluency in no time.

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Learn Basic Cantonese and Mandarin

First, it’s important to note, in case you don’t already know that there is a difference between Cantonese and Mandarin.

While both languages use the same standard Chinese alphabet, speakers from Mainland China will use simplified characters, whereas natives of Hong Kong and Macau will use traditional Cantonese characters.

Generally, these can look the same, however, traditional Cantonese characters have more than eight strokes which are when they become simplified Chinese.

And while the alphabet is very similar, take note that pronunciation and grammar is very different. This makes them mutually unintelligible.

If you are taking self-taught Cantonese lessons, make sure that you are proceeding with Cantonese symbols and characters and not Mandarin!

Speaking Before Writing

Cantonese for beginners means that you will learn how to speak before you learn how to write. To find out more about this logic make sure you check out our guide for learning to write Cantonese, as well as the one on how to read Cantonese.

So if you have only begun to learn basic Cantonese, you can put away your script for a while. In fact, for your first few months, Cantonese lessons put away all your concerns about that unusual writing system with its stroke order and Cantonese symbols.

Instead, focus on gaining confidence in conversational Cantonese. Practise your pronunciation and work on your speaking skills rather than your writing and reading.

Once you have some conversational fluency, it will be time to tackle the Cantonese writing system with more confidence than you could have imagined.

Familiarise Yourself with Cantonese Symbols and Characters

Chinese lantern and signs with Chinese characters
You'll be able to differentiate between the different forms of Chinese script once you learn Cantonese characters. - Source: Pexels

In your written Cantonese lessons, you will be required how to reproduce characters through your recognition of them. So a good step for anyone taking Cantonese for beginners is to practise recognising characters by focusing on their structure, size, and shape.

In addition, study their stroke order and imagine how you will reproduce them yourself.

Amazingly, at this point of your written Cantonese lessons, you will not be writing! Rather, you will be recognising characters and learning how to read them. This makes sense as you will need to know what you are writing, right?

Dissect the Character into Radicals Not Individual Strokes

One of the fascinating parts of your Cantonese for beginners course will be to learn about the radicals and strokes that make up Chinese characters. As you begin to learn how to identify them, you will learn that these are not just a collection of lines.

Chinese characters are organised units of meaning which means that the lines themselves only add a certain amount. It’s more important to recognise that within the character there are radicals which are the sub-structures that make up the full character.

When you learn basic Cantonese you will need to learn about the 214 radicals that you need to know. This could still seem a lot so it is common that learning 20 or 30 suffices for Cantonese for beginners.

Once you know these, it will be quite remarkable how you will just seem to see them everywhere.  Concentrate on these because they will help you to make sense of all the other characters and certainly make your Cantonese lessons flow a little more easily.

Good advice is to not allow the individual character strokes to weigh you down but to rather focus on the radicals themselves. This will dramatically speed up your learning and give coherence to the full range of characters.

Learn How to Write Cantonese, Not Draw It

It may sound silly but in Cantonese, even though the characters look so aesthetically pleasing, you are learning how to write not draw. Remember that you are learning a language and not reproducing a picture so try to create clear, regular, legible characters that are devoid of flair and flourish.

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Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

Once you have worked out the structure of the character and the radicals that complete it, you will need to memorise it.

This is much easier said than done, but take heart because even Chinese people struggle to remember all of their characters. The trick is repetition, as boring as that may sound, keep practising your writing.

Use Spaced Repetition Software

Repetition is one thing, but effective repetition that makes something stick to memory is another.

That’s where spaced repetition can help you. Whilst basic or brute repetition as it is also known requires that you endlessly repeat something, spaced repetition will help you to learn the word or character in a more interesting way.

Rather than simply copying the same character over and over again, spaced repetition means that the same character is repeated at irregular and extended intervals. Once you have memorised a character it will need less repeating, but just enough to keep it at the back of your mind.

Apps to help you achieve this include Quizlet and Anki – why not download one now?

Use Square Paper

Cantonese characters should be as symmetrical as possible and regular in size.

As you practise writing these out by hand, blank and lined paper is not the optimum choice.

Rather, consider doing as the native speakers do and only use square paper to practise your Cantonese writing. Not only will this ensure that you have your dimensions right, but you will also have axes by which to measure neatness and symmetry.

Speak Your Cantonese Characters While You Write

In language, the written depictions of words are not distinct entities from the verbal and phonetic forms. This sounds understandable – but when you are working hard to try and remember the shapes and strokes of Cantonese symbols and characters, it is easy to forget about the pronunciations that go with them!

Every time that you write a character, repeat the verbal form to yourself. In this way, you are keeping the written and spoken together.

boy and girl making dumplings for Chinese New Year
Learning Cantonese will give you insights into Chinese culture. - Source: Pexels

Learn the Character with the Romanisation

A way to assist with this is to write out the Romanised version of the word along with the character – every time.

Romanisation systems include Yale, Jyutping, and Cantonese pinyin. These are essential for learners of Cantonese, as they turn the sounds of the words into a script with which we are more familiar.

At some point you will need to ween yourself off the Romanisation, try and use it just as a beginner.

Use Apps and Computer Software

The internet and smartphone technology have revolutionised the way in which languages are learned. And while it is necessary to practise your handwriting so that you will remember the characters, there are also tools to help make it all a little easier.

Google Pinyin, for instance, is a plugin that allows you to write Cantonese characters online through the Office programme.

Meanwhile, Pleco is a Cantonese-English dictionary that can be downloaded to your phone. A Chinese dictionary can be hard work when you are not familiar with your characters, but this should make it a lot easier.

Practise Every Single Day

Finally, if you are committed to learning Cantonese and growing your knowledge of its characters, you will need to ensure that you find time every day to practise. There’s no debate, the more time you spend practising, the quicker you will improve.

Enjoy learning about Cantonese, it may be an ancient language but it is certainly capable of still opening new doors for you today. Good luck!

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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.