I think I'm learning Cantonese, I really think so.
July 11, 2012 1:25 PM   Subscribe

I'm moving to Hong Kong for at least two years, starting at the end of August. Help me pick a feasible strategy for learning some Cantonese.

I won't get that much exposure at work - I'll be teaching English all day, in an entirely English-speaking office. Presumably most of my students, especially my youngest ones, will speak Cantonese as a native language.

My goal isn't that ambitious, I think: I'd like to know how to converse, at least a bit, about some or all of these things after the first several months:
- exchanging greetings and pleasantries and being polite and respectful
- being able to talk about myself and ask about others a bit (how we're feeling, where we're from, what we do, what we're interested in)
- a bit about the past or future - what my plans are for the weekend, what I did last weekend, etc.
- practical things, like the weather, numbers/time/money, and some shopping/bargaining language

Writing isn't that important. I don't think I'll have time to take a class, unfortunately, but I could spend at least 2-3 hours a week working on things on my own or with a language tutor.

The success I've had with learning alphabetic languages like Polish and French have involved me 1) reading everything I can get my hands on to find patterns and learn from context, and 2) staged-repetition flash card programs like SuperMemo or Anki.

Neither of these things seem like they'd work for Cantonese, especially because I don't know how I'd create my own sets given my inability to read, type or write the characters correctly. (Is there an easy way to do this? I have found some flash card sets to download but that's less effective than making your own.)

Tones are also freaking me out completely - is this just something you develop an ear for when you arrive, or is it possible to hit the ground running a bit? Where can I find good audio samples to mimic?

So then: What's worked for you? How did you pick up Cantonese? (Or should I study Mandarin instead?) What resources have your found online/offline to help? I've got the Lonely Planet Cantonese phrasebook and it's a bit intimidating - anything else as simple/handy out there?

Finally, I understand that most/all people I deal with may speak at least some English. But I'd love to understand as much as I can while I'm there as a personal goal.

posted by mdonley to Writing & Language (13 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
My boyfriend tried some of the podcasts at Pop Up Cantonese, and liked them. If you're main goal is to learn speaking/listening skills, I would avoid writing/reading characters altogether--too much of a time investment for a pretty limited return. Especially when signs/menus in HK are often in both English and Chinese.

I have friends who studied Chinese as adults who do remarkably well with tones--it seems to have a little bit to do with how musical you are. But, as with anything else, even a "tone-deaf" person can improve with enough practice.

Good luck on your new adventure!
posted by tinymegalo at 1:44 PM on July 11, 2012

Written Cantonese and Mandarin are the same, so if you're studying the written language you can sort of study both at the same time. I use Anki ("intelligent flashcards") to study Mandarin vocabulary, and I'm sure they have some study decks with Cantonese pronunciation.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 1:45 PM on July 11, 2012

You're moving to Hong Kong, and immersing yourself in a Cantonese-speaking environment is one of the best ways to pick up the language!

I don't speak much Cantonese, but I grew up in a Cantonese-speaking town so I understand roughly 80% of what I hear. A few friends of mine who did not know Cantonese became conversationally fluent in the language by hanging out with Cantonese speakers, listening to a LOT of Canto-pop, and watching Cantonese TV series, movies, news. There is a lot of repetition, which probably help phrases and sounds to stick. Just keep your ears wide open and listen. Good luck!
posted by peripathetic at 1:54 PM on July 11, 2012

Written Cantonese and Mandarin are the same, so if you're studying the written language you can sort of study both at the same time. I use Anki ("intelligent flashcards") to study Mandarin vocabulary, and I'm sure they have some study decks with Cantonese pronunciation.

Unfortunately, it's not that easy. Most people studying Mandarin will be using the simplified Chinese character set that mainland China uses. In Hong Kong you typically find the traditional character set that they use in Taiwan.

So if you study Mandarin as spoken in Taiwan, you are using the same characters as they use in Cantonese. Studying mainland Mandarin gies you a different set. The two sets are similar, but it is not easy when starting out to know how they match up.

My wife is from Hong Kong, and I have been trying off and on to learn the language. I have not been really successful. I'm hoping for some pointers in this thread as well.

The best textbook I have found is Sidney Lau's. Unfortunately he has passed away and they are not in print any more. I bought mine at this web site, but it is not working for me now.

I wish you the best of luck.
posted by Quonab at 2:00 PM on July 11, 2012

It won't be easy. I tried to learn Cantonese during the two years I lived in Guangzhou (China) and found it extremely difficult, even though I was already functionally fluent in Mandarin.

Here are some issues that I ran into when I tried to learn:
1. Written Cantonese and Mandarin are not the same. Yes, they use many of the same characters and, yes, Cantonese speakers can read things written in standard written Chinese, but as the Wikipedia page on Written Cantonese notes, "when spoken word for word as Cantonese, [standard written Chinese] sounds unnatural because its expressions are ungrammatical and unidiomatic in Cantonese." There are materials written in Cantonese, but they're less plentiful. You certainly won't get much mileage out of reading most things in Chinese characters.

2. The pedagogy isn't very well developed. Unlike Mandarin and most European languages, not many people want to learn Cantonese. (At least not systematically.) Most people who need to use it know it already. As such, there aren't very many good learning materials, and there aren't very many people trained in teaching it. (I've found that most native Cantonese speakers aren't very good at explaining, isolating, or identifying tones, for instance.) In addition, there are several competing systems of Cantonese transliteration, so the "spelling" of words you see in your textbook might not match the spelling of words in another textbook, or in transliterated names on street signs, etc. If you're interested in being even moderately precise about your pronunciation, you'll need to master at least one of these systems, but it's going to be tricky to find a teacher who's familiar with it, too.

3. Tones: tones are not the worst thing in the world. What will be difficult will be finding a teacher who's able to identify and correct the tone errors you make, since the logic of tones is certainly not something that comes naturally to native speakers. (There are also complicated tone change ("sandhi" is the search term if you want to learn more) rules in Cantonese that I haven't ever seen completely spelled out.)

I think your best bet will be to try to find a program in your native country that teaches Cantonese (if you're in the US, you can find that information by searching for "cantonese" here) and learn as much as you can about its pedagogical approach. They may use their own textbooks -- see if you can get yourself a copy. Ask someone there what approaches they recommend.

Again, all of this comes from my experience trying to learn Cantonese in mainland China, not Hong Kong. But Guangzhou is the beating red heart of Cantonese in China, and I was surprised how few resources there were for me to learn it.
posted by jweed at 2:08 PM on July 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've been to Hong Kong a few times, only for a couple of days at a shot, but I took a printout of Mei Hua, and worked on learning enough written that I could actually get things I really wanted to eat while I was watching the Dim Sum carts stream by.

I carried my notes for these around, and studied by copying the characters. The great bit about this was that even though almost everyone I interacted with in (and on the flights to and from) Hong Kong spoke English, when they saw me trying to learn they'd jump in and give me little lessons, ranging from "Oh, you don't need to learn that one, what you're really looking for is these", to full-on pronunciation lessons, carefully correcting me on sounds I couldn't hear myself.

So I found working on that in public was a great way to interest random strangers in educating me, and I got some great conversations out of it. Along with pushing my Dim Sum average away from chicken feet and various sorts of intestine and more towards steamed buns.
posted by straw at 2:29 PM on July 11, 2012

I haven't studied Cantonese and I'm only a beginner in Mandarin, but this is how I've been able to kludge around the lack of a phonetic alphabet:

-Installed Learning With Texts on my computer. It's less complicated than it initially appears. It's a spaced repetition program like Anki but geared towards presenting items in the context of sentences and paragraphs.

-Used a beginners' textbook and beginner's podcasts to get as much material as possible for which there was both audio, a hanzi transcript, and a pinyin transcript.

-Started to add dialogues to LWT. Note -- I focused just on the dialogues, not on any pre-show banter or grammar explanations. I listened to each dialogue several times as I added them, and then started putting in dictionary definitions for unknown words. So, for each word, I had to remember both the pinyin transcription and the English definition. (I had to listen to each dialogue enough times so that by reading the pinyin, I could bring back a good sound memory of how it actually sounded, complete with tones. If I couldn't do that, I listened to the dialogue a bunch more times.)

I don't know if PopUp Cantonese offers separate sound files for the vocabulary, but one thing you could do is use Audacity or a similar MP3 editing program to segment your podcasts into single vocabulary words and make Anki flashcards out of that. It might be really time-consuming. (I use Audacity to isolate the dialogue from the rest of the banter and explanations, but the cost of that is that I don't have audio files for single vocabulary words -- only for the whole dialogue. But most of the beginner dialogues on Chinesepod are less than 20 seconds, so it's not a big deal.)

Not sure if this is available for Cantonese, but see if you can find any easy beginning readers that include CDs or sound files.
posted by Jeanne at 2:59 PM on July 11, 2012

Native speaker her. I think it's a good idea to develop an ear for tones. For audio examples, the "tapes" (mp3) at the FSI might work. I don't know if the language teaching system there would work for you though.

Obviously, mandarin is much more useful globally and most people in Hong Kong (especially in service/retail) will know some mandarin, so you could go that route too.
posted by bread-eater at 3:28 PM on July 11, 2012

In Hong Kong, most people will speak English. If they refuse, it may be because they are embarrassed to speak to a westerner and say something incorrectly. All Chinese is the same written(all Chinese things written is in proper Chinese and there is no if, ands or buts about a different way to write it,) but spoken can be completely different in word structure and of course the way to pronounce the word.

Cantonese is quite difficult because most other languages are spoken with a different part of the tongue. Tones mean everything so if you can sing, you can speak Cantonese. I would suggest borrowing a CD set from the library so that you can hear the tones and learn some phrases. Pimsleur is a good company to try. From there, you can write them on an index card to practice.

What phrases would you like to know? I can write some things phonetically for you to try in the meanwhile.

I'll be in HK in August!
posted by Yellow at 4:41 PM on July 11, 2012

Watch as much TV as you can - leave it on in the background and just get used to the sounds.

There are a few bookstores in Hong Kong where you can buy textbooks for English-speaking Cantonese learners with accompanying CDs - where are you staying in Hong Kong? Offhand, I know Popular Bookstore (in Kowloon) should have some, and there's another bookstore in Shatin that has a couple, though the name escapes me at the moment. Whatever book you choose, stick with that author - like jweed says, there's no real standardisation for Cantonese like there is for Mandarin, so if you use different textbooks, the transliteration might be completely different.
posted by zennish at 4:53 PM on July 11, 2012

I'm going to have to second what jweed says. His experience learning Cantonese mirrors my own trying to learn Taiwanese living in Taiwan. In particular, native speakers who don't have any experience teaching Cantonese/Taiwanese are terrible at explaining the basic tonal rules (especially tonal sandhi, which is far less important in Mandarin.)

To put it bluntly, it would be a complete waste of time trying to do any sort of self-study for the first few months. I'd say it's nearly impossible to learn how to speak with intelligible tones without the aid of a native speaker. The only way you'll make any sort of progress is by taking a class or working with a tutor who has a lot of experience teaching Cantonese. Maybe after a few months getting something of a foundation with the pronunciation could you learn more with self-study.
posted by alidarbac at 9:23 PM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I can't give you that much advice about the Cantonese learning bit, but as a resident of Hong Kong who has many foreign friends I can address your question on learning Mandarin here.

It's more practical once you leave Hong Kong, definitely, but unless you make a very concerted effort to learn the language it probably won't be a very productive use of time. Most of my friends who have tried to pick up Mandarin casually through the use of classes or tutors have not made much progress. Practically you're not going to be able to use much Mandarin here, even the locals who know the language have mostly a working knowledge of it and are not going to engage in prolonged conversations with it. Even a lot of my native-Mandarin friends have found that it easier to use English as opposed to trying to engage with people in Mandarin here. That will vary slightly depending on where you live, however. There are some neighborhoods have very large Mandarin speaking populations and in those neighborhoods you might be able to get in more practice.
posted by C^3 at 2:36 AM on July 12, 2012

I got a lot out of the Pimsleur Cantonese course. It's available through the usual channels. I also listened to local radio for a couple hours a week; this helped solidify my understanding of tones and gave me confidence in picking out commonly used words and phrases.

That said, the best way to learn the language is to date locally, while eschewing strictly expat social circles. All my gweilo buddies with a better-than-average understanding of the language are, or were, in a relationship with a native speaker. Something about stilted pillow talk gives flesh to HK Canto's constantly shifting idiomatic expressions, it seems.

I would also recommend listening to lots of Cantopop, if you were my worst enemy.
posted by milquetoast at 10:13 AM on July 12, 2012

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