Help me get my priorities straight re: learning Chinese
March 6, 2013 11:32 AM   Subscribe

Which do I learn first--spoken Mandarin, spoken Cantonese, or written, or even all together?

I'm in an odd situation where I know very basic Cantonese (more like phrases, can't even string a sentence together) from listening to my parents over the last few years. I know Mandarin's more useful, and I'm taking a nighttime class, but it's really--I dunno, I think I need something more rigorous to motivate me (I studied it for a term at school and therefore know my tones while everyone else is still struggling, being completely brand new). Now I'm wondering about my plan for studying. Pretty much my goals are:

- Fluent in spoken Mandarin and Cantonese
- Fluent in written (or at least reading, it's embarassing not being able to read menus)

Now the thing is, I'm tossing up the following:

- Should I do spoken then written, or learn both together?
- If I do spoken then written, should I master Mandarin first (more practical sense), or Cantonese (just because I know a lot more already, even though I can't really string a sentence together or hold a conversation), OR should I even do both together?

Dor che! Xue xue hao
posted by glache to Writing & Language (8 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I can't speak to studying cantonese specifically, or of studying both cantonese and mandarin at once (other than you sound AWESOME!), but I would suggest studying the one you will be most often able to practice in real life speaking with others, whether with your family or meetups with a conversation practice partner. And maybe look into whether you can transfer to a more intensive Mandarin course or at least buying the books for another level up - sounds like you're not getting much out of your class at the moment.
Good luck!
posted by ghostbikes at 11:57 AM on March 6, 2013

I grew up with Cantonese-speaking parents, but also grew up in the burbs where the pressure to assimilate meant that my reading and writing Chinese never took off the ground.

I took Mandarin in college for a few semesters where they taught reading, writing, and speaking simultaneously. It also worked wonders for my Cantonese, interestingly enough. Since the writing system is the same for both, learning the grammar structure to form most sentences led me to think about how I would say it in Cantonese. This was helpful enough for my Cantonese that my grandmother commented on my slight improvement.

Since you probably have little problem with getting the right tone - this was my situation as well - you have less to focus on, though it's no less daunting. Continuing coursework is easier in Mandarin since it's easier to teach and learn on four tones versus nine. I would do that for the sake of getting your reading and writing down aside from being more widely available, while learning to speak Mandarin as a bonus. Then carry over the grammar lessons into phone conversations withy your parents or even Canto movies and try to pick out familiar sentence structures.

I have no practical use for Mandarin now so my writing, reading, and speaking have been reduced to nil in the passing 6 years. But the grammatical lessons have still proven useful for my Cantonese now. Though due to a very limited vocabulary I'm still at a novice level.
posted by mlo at 12:24 PM on March 6, 2013

Should I do spoken then written, or learn both together?

Unless you mean absolutely 100% spoken with no notes etc, I suggest, recommend, implore you to learn written and spoken together. Perhaps others can add more reasons, but mine would be
1) Romanization has many different systems and different methods, and in the end, many inconsistencies
2) Though not 100% consistent across all characters, once you have a basic character set known you can make educated guesses about pronunciation of ones learned later
3) Knowing the relationship between characters can help show the relationship between words, therefore aiding in learning vocabulary
4) A lot of character knowledge is transferable between different dialects and even into Japanese.
5) Not learning to write from the beginning is setting yourself up for later illiteracy in reading/writing. It's hard to go back and learn all of the reading, which you could have done from the beginning! Even though I learned both together, my writing suffers because most of my "writing" is on the computer which boils down to ... recognizing characters rather than physically writing them.

Source: Studied Mandarin and Japanese. I have no ethnic Asian background.
posted by whatzit at 12:28 PM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

I speak both fluently and in my experience, mandarin is easier for people who are learning Chinese for the first time. Also, aside from Hong Kong, everyone in China will speak mandarin (although, with varying accents). It is the standard dialect. Also, mandarin has a PinYin system which makes it easier to pick up.
posted by cyml at 12:43 PM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think learning them serially is a better idea than trying to do them together. Mandarin and Cantonese are about as closely related as Portuguese and Italian. While there are a lot of mutually-reinforcing features of both languages, there are also the usual pitfalls that come along with trying to keep straight the similar-but-different bodies of knowledge simultaneously.

If you're going to acquire spoken vocabulary it only makes sense to economize and learn the characters at the same time.
posted by 1adam12 at 1:11 PM on March 6, 2013

I'm trying Mandarin now also. +1 to written/spoken at the same time. At first it seems like twice the work, but the motor action of writing, plus the visual, plus the sound all together actually reinforce the memory for me, and make it all much more memorable. I tried Japanese by the Heisig method, which seemed easy. Too easy, it turns out, it was functionally useless except for sign reading. Then when I tried to go back and "add on" the speaking part, it was just as hard as starting from scratch.

+10 for Best flashcard site ever, and it makes you write by hand (well, mouse or iPhone finger.) It also introduces each character/word in four different ways at different times: character-to-english, pinyin tone, character-to-written-pinyin, and english/pinyin, you draw the characters. The SRS nature of it settles down to figuring out what you're worst at and giving you extra practice. It's awesome.

I chose Mandarin over Cantonese to start, because it looked easier and is more widely understood worldwide, but I've also heard that Cantonese is actually much more common here in the US. So I'm kind of wondering if I should have done Cantonese first, since I'd have more opportunity to practice with more real people near me. But, that's the decision I made, and I'm sticking with it.
posted by ctmf at 5:17 PM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh, another nice thing skritter does that Anki and RTK don't do is throttle the new word introduction based on how well you're doing. If your retention rate is terrible, it slows way down on the new words until you catch up (but still keeps some, for interest.) If you're doing well, it keeps dumping on you until you don't.

Which might be a nudge toward Mandarin instead of Cantonese: skritter doesn't have Cantonese.
posted by ctmf at 6:19 PM on March 6, 2013

Response by poster: It's for my personal benefit, I'm sick of being a banana and being ignorant of my parents' culture (they can speak 6 dialects between them and I can't even speak one!). So what I would like to aim to is at least surviving an everyday conversation and being able to read restaurant menus, and obviously anything extra like reading newspapers and understanding TV shows would be nice to but we can cross that bridge later.

Everyone thanks for your help.
posted by glache at 10:25 PM on March 6, 2013

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