It’s not uncommon to hear people from the western world say that it is impossible to learn Cantonese writing and while we know that learning any new foreign language will have its challenges, the question is, is it true that the Cantonese writing system is too difficult to learn?

Of course not!

Admittedly, it does pose a few challenges, given that Cantonese alphabet characters look completely different from any Latin-based letters which don’t require you to learn an entirely different script. Greek and Bulgarian might require a different alphabet too, but at least there are alphabets available!

The Cantonese writing system works in an entirely different way. Ultimately, if you intend to learn Cantonese, you are doing to have to put in the time to learn Cantonese alphabet characters. The good news is that you don’t have to do this immediately.

In this article, we take a look at how to begin the journey to learn Cantonese writing.

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Cantonese Writing is Worth the Effort

There is no doubt that learning a language is one of life’s most rewarding activities. And when you decide to learn an exotic language like Cantonese which is so different from English it could be one of your greatest achievements.

Unfortunately, it’s guaranteed not to be easy, but certainly fascinating and worth every moment of struggle. One of the reasons why it could potentially cause heartache (unless you have the tips and tricks to know how to navigate it) is that you will be learning a completely different script that contains unique Cantonese alphabet characters and therefore, it’s very own Cantonese writing system.

Having said this, we know that good things generally don’t come easily. So let’s get started.

Whether your reasons for learning Cantonese are for love, career, travel, or friendship, you will find yourself in the company of 60 million other people with whom you could communicate. These speakers are mainly found in Hong Kong and Macau as well as the region of Guangdong in Southern Mainland China. It is also widely spoken as a Lingua Franca in South East Asia, most particularly, Vietnam and Malaysia.

Understanding conversational Cantonese will allow you to travel far more easily in these areas and give you access to interesting parts of Chinese culture too. Don’t forget that when you want to learn Cantonese, you will already have a foot in the door.

Learn Cantonese Writing After You Can Speak

The most important tip to mastering Cantonese writing is to practise your speaking skills before you progress to trying to figure out the rather elaborate Cantonese writing system.

The main reason why students give up on Cantonese is that they attempt to do things in the wrong order, or in a similar order to how you would ordinarily tackle other foreign languages.

Instead of cracking on straight away and diving into different aspects of the language, it is preferable to develop your conversational skills first. After that, you can make an effort to tackle your reading and Cantonese writing learning.

A good idea is to get to know the language by trying to speak a little and growing your vocabulary and confidence first. Once that has been achieved it will be time to introduce yourself to the Cantonese alphabet characters.

red lanterns hanging from ceiling
If you can write in Cantonese, you can read it too! - Source: Pexels

Before Learning the Cantonese Writing System

Fortunately, there are techniques that can help to develop your Cantonese writing skills.

Amongst these are ways to help you master writing Cantonese characters of which there are 50 000! It’s usually this overwhelming information that puts people off, but keep reading because the reality is a lot less dramatic than it sounds.

Let’s look at it this way - in English, there are 170,000 words and some sources will even say there are about one million. Having said this, it is also true that if you learn 300 of the most common words in English.

It is not dissimilar to Cantonese alphabet characters. Of the whopping 50 000, you only need to know about 1000 to make sure that your Cantonese writing makes sense.

Traditional Chinese vs Simplified Chinese  

A word of caution. Both Cantonese and Mandarin use Standard Chinese scripts. The difference is that Mandarin uses the simplified version of the Chinese characters while writing Cantonese characters means you will use traditional Chinese characters.

As the name suggests, the simplified characters used in Mandarin are far less complex than the Cantonese alphabet characters. However, do note that only the Chinese characters (or Cantonese alphabet characters) with eight strokes are simplified.

Read Before You Learn Cantonese Writing

The process when learning a language entails the symbiotic exercises of learning to read and write at the same time. Usually, you can’t write if you cannot read and you can’t speak if you cannot understand. In this regard as you learn Cantonese writing, you should try to read Chinese words, idioms, and in fact, anything you can lay your hands on. Practising your Chinese reading is also practising to write the language.

Your number one tip for writing Cantonese characters is to recognise them in the first place!

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The Radicals

Now you know that there are over 50 000 Cantonese alphabet characters, fortunately, you do not have to learn them by heart! In fact, not even Cantonese natives know them all!

Here is your first tip to making your Cantonese writing less overwhelming. Remember that the key to Cantonese writing is to know the radicals. These are the 214 constituent parts of all Chinese characters. So this is how to learn your Cantonese alphabet characters – try 214 which is a lot more manageable than 50 000.

Try starting with the most common 20 or 30 radicals. The good news is that once you start you will begin to see them everywhere!

But now for the really fun bit. Let’s turn our attention to the fantastic task of actually writing Cantonese characters yourself.

Writing Cantonese Characters

To the uninitiated, to whom Chinese script is just a selection of strokes and shapes, there is much admiration for the beauty of the characters. So much so, it’s not uncommon for these to be tattooed onto many a body that does not understand Chinese.

To learn Cantonese writing you will need to put any distracting aesthetic aside for the moment and concentrate on the functional aspects of the script.

Chinese Stroke Order

Another thing to learn about the Cantonese writing system is that there are rules for the strokes which are the lines that make up the Cantonese alphabet characters.

The reason why it is helpful to have these rules is that Chinese characters are elaborate and the native speaker would be aiming to reproduce these perfectly.

When you are able to optimise your stroke order, you will automatically improve your Cantonese handwriting which will ultimately save you time and make it easier for you to neatly reproduce characters. So take note of these rules.

Chinese characters
Learn to write in Cantonese yourself!

Top to Bottom, Left to Right

In general, every time you copy a Cantonese word or character, your pen should always be from top to bottom or from left to right.

When the number one happens to be a straight horizontal line then write it from left to right. However, if two are made up of two horizontal lines, start by writing the top one first going from left to right, followed by the second.

Horizontals Before Vertical

When you see vertical and horizontal lines that cross, remember to always start by writing the horizontal line.

Left Diagonal, then Right Diagonal 

Diagonal lines that are in the centre of the character should always be drawn on the left side first (right to left), then on the right side (left to right).

Centre Before Outside

In characters that are vertically symmetrical, you should always draw the centre first followed by the outside.

Enclosures Before Contents

To draw a character that holds something in a box, first, draw the enclosure and then fill it.

Minor Strokes, Dots & Character-Crossing Horizontals Last

This one should be easy to understand: anything that is minor, or if it strikes through the whole character should always be added last.

Shapes and Sizes of Cantonese Alphabet Characters

There are a few things to be careful about when you first learn Cantonese writing.

As we said, even though Cantonese alphabet characters look really beautiful that is not the aim. They are meant to be legible, regular, and equally sized.

A common mistake is for people to write the different character radicals too far apart. This can result in them looking like separate characters. To avoid this, make sure that your characters are equal in size.

Memorising Cantonese Characters

One way to remember your characters is to begin to write them out. The process may be slow at first, even requiring you to learn them by rote because repetition is one of the most powerful memory exercises available, but once you develop your fluency you are sure to gain momentum.

Take your writing of Cantonese characters seriously. Don’t just write them anywhere – consider writing them on square paper to ensure that every character is the same size.

Cantonese Character Formation

Another thing you can do is to sound out the characters as you write them. This will also help to etch the lines and shapes into your memory. In addition, you could write down the Romanised version too to help you master both.

At the risk of over-emphasising this point, remember that your Cantonese characters should be regular and symmetrical in size in relation to the space that they occupy. Do not be tempted to extend your lines up or down the way we do in English as this would result in skewed and unbalanced character formation.

Try and use square, blank paper because lined paper, designed for languages like French or English that uses the European alphabet will restrict you.

Resources for Practising your Cantonese Writing  

Technology has brought about many advancements not the least of which is the ability to supplement language learning through digital tools. Even mobile phones are capable of interchanging keyboards to help us learn different languages.

So while it is important to perfect your handwriting through practice when it comes to the Cantonese alphabet characters, there are some great online tools to help you too.

Apps and Plugins

Google Pinyin, for instance, is a plugin where the user is able to write Cantonese characters online through the Office suite. This is a great app for people who work in translation or for those studying towards a Cantonese or Chinese Mandarin qualification.

You could check out the Pleco app which is a Cantonese to English dictionary which allows you to download to your smartphone or tablet. Considering that a Chinese dictionary is really hard work when you are still learning your characters, this app makes it all much easier.

Skritter is another useful app for Chinese learners, it allows students to learn things like stroke order, tone and also actually practise writing their characters.

Video Tutorials

Video tutorials that you could find on YouTube are also a great way to learn Cantonese writing. The reason for this is that they act as digital visual aids. All you need to do is watch the video instructor and practise writing along with them, using your pen and paper.

One of the most effective channels to help you with your Cantonese writing has to be “Learn Cantonese with CantoneseClass101.com”

So if you have been terrified to learn Cantonese because of its reputation for being so difficult, as you can see there are methodical ways to go about it, that makes it entirely possible. Find a good tutor to help you and get on the road with your Cantonese learning today.

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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.