Norwegian, Welsh, Russian, and Greek pale in comparison. Spanish and French seem like a doddle. It’s no secret that reading in Cantonese has a reputation for being challenging, but don’t let this stop you because much of this is a myth!
At least with an alphabet, you can begin to make sense of words, phrases and spotting patterns across texts!
However, not everything is this easy. Cantonese and Chinese languages on the whole are completely different. Resembling a collection of random shapes and lines, they at first, appear incomprehensible as you search for meaning and pronunciation.
It would be understandable if all of this put you off taking Cantonese lessons for beginners at all. But don’t let a few strange-looking scripts scupper your dreams, rather, why not take up the challenge to learn Cantonese alphabet characters and open new doors for yourself?
Remember that even though language learning is a challenge, it also comes with many rewards.
So, if you’re committed to taking Cantonese lessons for beginners, you’ll need to make peace with the fact that you will be facing the interesting world of Cantonese alphabet characters in your efforts to begin reading in Cantonese and to learn Cantonese phrases.
Are Cantonese Lessons for Beginners Worth the Effort?
We can admit that Cantonese and even Cantonese lessons for beginners can be challenging, especially for those who have never been exposed to the Chinese language.
Having accepted that, we also know that learning a foreign language is one of the best things you can do with your time and when it comes to learning Cantonese it is an even bigger achievement.
With over 60 million people speaking Cantonese – in both the Guangdong province comprising Hong Kong and Macau and Mainland China, there is a world of opportunity available to you when you can speak Cantonese.
So whether you want to take Cantonese lessons for beginners for travel, career or personal purposes, there is no doubt that you will also gain much more insight into the fascinating world of Hong Kong and Chinese culture.
Remember that as you improve your own abilities, learning a new language will also help you to change your perspective and the way you relate to people in the world too.
So to answer our original question, yes Cantonese is worth the effort even if those Cantonese alphabet characters make no sense at first, eventually, they will!
Learning the Script for Reading Cantonese
A common question from people who are about to take Cantonese lessons for beginners is: do we need to learn the Cantonese script?
The answer to that question is dependent on your reasons for wanting to learn Cantonese in the first place. For instance, if you want to go shopping and travelling in Hong Kong, you could learn Cantonese phrases without the script to have a laugh and possibly make a few friends. On the extreme opposite side of the spectrum, if you want to aim to be reading Cantonese literature or academic work, you will most certainly need to learn the script.
So if your aim is to learn Cantonese phrases so that you can be confident in your conversational abilities then you need not prioritise learning the script. Instead, you could focus on pronunciation and verbal fluency to help you speak.
Of course, speaking is where most of the language happens. There is no doubt that the majority of our language ability is in the spoken word and not our pens or pages of a book.
Having said that, if you plan to live in Hong Kong or Macau, it won’t take you long to see that text is absolutely everywhere. So while you should learn to speak before you learn to read and write, if you are aiming to immerse in Guangdong culture, reading in Cantonese is going to help you survive!
Mandarin and Chinese: Same Script?
Before you begin reading Cantonese, it is worth finding out a bit more about the script-based writing system or Cantonese alphabet characters.
Even though learning Mandarin and Cantonese scripts are a very similar process, we need to stress that it is not exactly the same at all. While there are many shared characters, pronunciation is different. This means that your reading in Cantonese will sound very different from your reading in Mandarin. Not only that, given that the grammar of your two languages differs so greatly, even when if you learn Cantonese phrases, remember they may be unintelligible to a Mandarin speaker!
Even though simplified Chinese text is mostly used by Mandarin speakers, this is also where Mandarin and Cantonese differ because Cantonese, on the other hand, only uses the traditional characters.
Explaining the difference is fairly self-explanatory. Traditional Cantonese alphabet characters are part of an original script that has been developed over centuries. The simplified script used in Mainland China, Singapore, and Malaysia is far easier to read.
But don’t give up here, remember that reading Cantonese is enormously satisfying and practical too, depending on where you are!
Reading in Cantonese is like a game where you search for patterns and derive their meaning. But reproducing those characters, in other words writing in Cantonese, is a far greater challenge requiring excellent Cantonese lessons for beginners, at the very least.
This, however, is not the end of your troubles when learning Cantonese!
Cantonese Written Versus Cantonese Spoken
When you are reading Cantonese, you’ll notice another difference. When Cantonese is written and when it is spoken it looks different, which means that spoken Cantonese is in itself a written form too!
The way to make sense of this is to try and imagine very formal English, the sort that you would find in textbooks, newspapers, and legal journals. Then imagine the kind of language that would be used to describe the same material when relayed to friends or when standing next to the coffee machine!
Even though English uses the same alphabet for both written and spoken language, when using the former your sentences are typically longer, more grammatically correct, and more official in tonality. For example, you would not start an email to an employer by saying hey dude, just as wouldn’t say goodbye to a friend using the words yours sincerely!
In Cantonese, a challenging difference is that a completely different set of characters are used for two registers of speech.
Spoken language in Cantonese might be the way you will be texting friends, however, you should really know the standard, written Chinese if you intend to try to get a job in Hong Kong or Macau.
Romanisation: Jyutping and Yale
When you take up Cantonese lessons for beginners, it’s worth noting that you will be learning mainly from the Romanised system. This is a system that transforms Cantonese sounds (or phonemes) into the recognisable alphabet of the western world!
This is an enormous help for anyone who is not a native and wants to navigate the complexities of the Chinese writing system.
Fortunately, there are many Romanised systems in Cantonese which have been developed by different people trying to work with characters in their native language. Some of the common ones that you may come across in your Cantonese lessons for beginners include Yale, Cantonese pinyin, and Jyutping.
In general, these are quite similar. In fact, the consonants between Yale and Jyutping, are almost identical. However, when it comes to tones and sounds there are some small differences.
During your Cantonese lessons for beginners, it will be Romanisation that will help you take your first important steps in Cantonese. Having said this, when reading long texts, the system can tend to become tiring. This is because of the lack of spaces between Cantonese words which makes it difficult to distinguish where one word begins and another ends.
Characters and Components
At a certain point in your Cantonese lessons for beginners, you will need to move on to the characters themselves. At first, this could be intimidating, especially when you are told that there are 50 000 of them.
Worrying about this is fruitless because the truth is that you will only need to learn a fraction of this amount. As with all languages, the vast majority of words are rarely even used. Even native Cantonese speakers only know the most common Cantonese alphabet characters.
It should be even more reassuring that each of these 50 000 characters is the product of only 214 all-important components called Radicals which are the phonetic and semantic building blocks for Cantonese. Once you recognise these, you will be able to identify them in every word.
As mentioned, it’s advisable to try and learn Cantonese phrases first, after that, reading in Cantonese is all about spotting patterns. The good news is that once you become familiar with the code – the radicals – these patterns will slowly, but surely, become clear.
So, is the idea of tackling those Cantonese alphabet characters sounding a little less daunting yet?
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