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Why Cantonese isn’t as hard as you think: following the journey of two learners

Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

Let's share another “Why a supposedly hard language isn't as impossible as you thought” type post! This time from Cantonese native speaker Brian, who has guest posted here before and who organizes the Add1 challenge (now the Fluent in 3 Months Challenge). One of the challengers, Jan, took on Cantonese for his project and you can see the result where himself and Brian chat in Cantonese after the three months here:

Now let's hear Brian's take on all this!

Most people struggle to learn Cantonese.

This is one of the biggest reasons why it is way more common to find foreigners who can speak fluent Mandarin rather than fluent Cantonese.

When I came across foreigners like Carlos Douh from Canada and Jan Van Der Aa from Holland, who were both successful in learning Cantonese, I got very curious to find out how they did it.

You will see what I discovered in this post and hopefully you will be able to apply their lessons learned into your own Cantonese learning journey.

Why Learn Cantonese?

Why learn Cantonese if Cantonese is only spoken in Hong Kong which equates to about 8 million people?

That’s what most people think, but Cantonese is actually spoken by approximately 70-100 million people in the southern provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi, Macau and different countries around world.

If you travel around the Southern part of China, Hong Kong and Macau, Cantonese will definitely come in handy.

We can’t talk about why you should learn Cantonese without discussing classic Hong Kong movies.

You can’t truly appreciate Hong Kong classic movies like “The Police Story” (Jackie Chan), “Way of the Dragon” (Bruce Lee), the “Once Upon a Time in China” series (Jet li), “Internal Affairs” (the original movie which was re-made into a Hollywood movie called “The Departed” featuring Leonardo DiCaprio) just to name a few, unless you learn Cantonese.

Yes, you can read the subtitles but a ton of meaning gets lost in translation and who likes reading those tiny subtitles anyway?

Differences Between Cantonese and Mandarin

While there are some similarities between Cantonese and Mandarin, there is a huge difference in words, pronunciation and grammar, particularly in the placement of verbs.

Depending on who you ask, some may say they are distinct enough to be separated into two different languages, instead of just dialects. Just because you can speak and understand Cantonese does not mean you can speak and understand Mandarin and vice versa.

Mandarin is spoken exactly the same way as it is written, while Cantonese is not spoken in the same way at all.

There are plenty of words in Cantonese that are different in Mandarin. Here is a video with example words and a bit of Cantonese history.

What Makes Cantonese Difficult?

Although some languages are easier to learn depending on which languages you already know fluently, there is one factor that always makes a language more difficult than it actually is. That is: other discouraging learners.

If someone wants to learn Cantonese or any “difficult” language, he/she may ask for opinions from other language learners who have already made an attempt. “Is Cantonese hard to learn?”

This question will give you a misleading answer 99 out of 100 times because it highly depends on the person’s experience in learning Cantonese and the languages they can already speak. Since there aren’t many foreigners who have successfully learned Cantonese this person will likely get a reply similar to “it is very difficult.”

This is like asking a student who dropped out of medical school “is removing someone's appendix hard?”

If a friend asks someone who was interested in learning Cantonese the same question and if he/she hasn’t even attempted learning Cantonese, he/she will most likely say “I heard it is very difficult” without even trying!

Do you see how the vicious cycle of the “X language is difficult” myth spreads like a virus?

Instead of looking at whether or not a language is difficult, focus on why you want to learn the language, how you will use the language, and what learning this language means to you. Are you willing to do what it takes to learn it?

Once you are clear on the why and what learning this language means to you, then you can start learning. If you consistently work on it, the only way you can fail is if you quit.

With all that said, let’s learn from people who have had success learning Cantonese. It will give you a leg up if you choose to take Cantonese on!

Meeting Carlos Douh in Hong Kong

About a year ago, I saw my friends from Hong Kong sharing this viral video on Facebook with 1 million+ views.

His Cantonese is as good as it gets for someone who is self taught.

I was impressed, so I had to meet him in person and ask him how he learned to speak Cantonese.

At the time when I contacted Carlos, he had just moved to Hong Kong for good and I was about to fly there. It was perfect synchronicity. We set up an interview on how he learned to speak Cantonese like a champ.

To summarize interview above:

1.  Make the choice of focusing on speaking only

Interesting enough, this is the same approach as Benny.

Carlos said it is tempting to want to learn to read and write Chinese but he would rather be really great at speaking only, than to be average in speaking, reading and writing. If you are only average in speaking, reading and writing, there is no “wow” factor at all. If you are great at speaking Cantonese only, you are able to not only wow the locals every time you open your mouth, you can also communicate with the natives more effectively.

2. Learn the romanization of Cantonese first, do not learn by ear

Carlos uses the Yale romanization system which was developed for English speakers and takes into account the sound and the 6 tones in Cantonese.

He recommends using a romanization system so you are taking out the guess work and inconsistency of playing it by ear. Imagine learning English without the alphabet and only learning by ear.

Who would do that? No one.

Why would anyone attempt to learn a language with 6 tones without a romanization system? It is pretty crazy if you think about that, no wonder Cantonese is “difficult”.

3. Learn the basic structure of Cantonese by speaking

Since you have an idea of how the tone and sound works, you can learn the basic sentence structures by practicing your speech with native speakers.

Cantonese is not a tense language, which means it does not distinguish past, present, and future in verb forms. There is no verb conjugation chart to study and there is no gender in the language unlike the Romance languages (woohoo). The structure is pretty straight forward and all it takes is practice.

4. Learn new vocabulary by writing it down

When you hear a new word that you don’t understand, try to write it down in romanization, then reproduce it to a Cantonese speaker.

The native speaker will understand you even if you are saying it correctly or not. In this way, you are training your listening and speaking skills at the same time.

5. Memorize new words

Once you double check the correct pronunciation and meaning of the words with a native speaker, you can memorize it.

Carlos memorizes new words by writing it down on a piece of paper as a list. You can try this technique as well.

Cover all the words except for the vocabulary at the top and move down the list by saying the words and the meaning out loud, one at a time, until the very last word on the list.

If you can't recall a word at any time, start from the very top and try again.

6. Rinse and repeat 3-5

That’s it!

Carlos’ Top 3 Language Learning Tips

1. Make sure you have the desire and passion and are ready to do what it takes to learn your target language

There is always a “tough grind” at the beginning, then everything will become easier. Without desire and passion for your target language, you are likely to give up before you get over the “tough grind” stage.

Make sure you are ready to do absolutely whatever it takes to learn your target language.

2. Carlos’ motto is “Hear it. Speak it. Memorize it.”  (as explained earlier in steps 3-5)

3. Make it fun  

Learning a language could be boring and it is your job to make it fun for yourself.

Learn jokes, learn slang, learn by watching movies or reading books and practice with native speakers. Have fun with it!

Meeting Jan Van dee Aa from Holland

I met Jan May 2013 at the first ever Polyglot Conference in Budapest.

We asked each other the usual, boring icebreaker questions but the moment when Mandarin started coming out of Jan’s mouth, everything changed.

Imagine you are in a foreign country where nobody speaks your language and all of a sudden, you meet someone who can.

The connection is instant.

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head.  If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” -Nelson Mandela

This was the first time that I actually experienced Nelson Mandela’s famous quote, instead of just understanding it intellectually.

The quote is actually true and we became good friends right away.

At the time, he already wanted to learn Cantonese. We did a little practice but his Cantonese was not at a point where we could have a conversation.

Fast forward to October 2013. I asked if he wanted to learn a language together in the Add1Challenge, where 100+ language learners set our own goals to aim for in 90 days. We could support and motivate each other during the journey.

Jan took on Cantonese.

In the past 90 days, Jan learned Cantonese consistently for the first time and yo can see our first conversation in Cantonese on day 91 of his Add1Challenge, at the start of this post.

Jan’s Cantonese is still far from perfect. If he learns a romanization system it will definitely help with his pronunciation, but it’s still a pretty damn good result after 90 days of consistent learning.

How did Jan learn Cantonese?

Jan learned Cantonese by putting himself in the Add1Challenge, and surrounding himself with 100+ language learners who are all aiming for their own language learning goal in 90 days.

It’s more fun learning a language in a collective group than to learn it all by yourself and it also gives you more motivation to keep on going.

Through consistent Cantonese lessons that Jan scheduled 3-5 times a week, he was able to practice with an informal teacher at italki.com.

He takes notes during his italki lessons and reviews his notes afterward.

Repeat for 90 days.

That’s it.

There is no magic formula here.

The only thing Jan and Carlos have in common is that they both focused on speaking only and they put themselves in a position to have tons of practice speaking Cantonese. Consistency is key.


Every language and every language learner is different. Almost every polyglot that I’ve interviewed has a different approach in learning a language.

The only common denominator that separates a language learner who gets amazing results compared to a typical language learner who never gets anywhere, in my opinion, are three things:

1. Successful language learners set a goal. They never quit learning and they learn consistently.

2. Because they never quit, they have lots of time to experiment and explore many different techniques for learning a language; they know what works best for them.

3. Successful language learners all started with adding one language.

New Year's is right around the corner, I hope the story of Carlos and Jan inspired you into taking massive action in learning the language you’ve always wanted to learn.

What language learning goals do you have for the New Year?

Let Benny and I know in the comments!

About Brian

Through a survey, Brian discovered that the most common struggle language learners have is “time and routine”. He created the Add1Challenge, where 100+ language learners set their own goals to aim for in 90 days while sharing struggles, victories and gathering together for support.  The results and stories has been nothing but amazing.  Join the next Add1Challenge now and finally learn the language you've always wanted to speak.

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Guest Writer at Fi3M

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