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BEST WAYS TO LEARN CANTONESE // 8 KILLER TIPS
Cantonese is a dialect of Chinese commonly spoken in Hong Kong, Guangdong province and various diasporas around the world, but what are the best ways to learn Cantonese?
As the first immigrants to the United States and Europe were from the south of China, you will find that many of the Chinese locals around the world are actually Cantonese speakers, having Mandarin as their second language.
It’s worth noting when listening to Cantonese and Mandarin there is little to no resemblance, they really are completely different.
As there aren’t as many resources around for learning Cantonese as there are for Mandarin, it is extra important to use the resources that you do have to their fullest.
Below is a compilation of some tips and tricks for how to better your Cantonese skills.
Best Ways to Learn Cantonese #1 – Listen to Music
Best Ways to Learn Cantonese #2 – Watch Movies
Best Ways to Learn Cantonese #3 – Attention to Tones
Best Ways to Learn Cantonese #4 – LTL Anki Decks
Tip #1 – Listen to Music
Hong Kong used to be a cultural powerhouse in the 90s, especially with its vicinity of Asia, where you still see a lot of its music appearing in the various KTV’s!
As such, many of the locals of various Asian countries also know quite a few songs in Cantonese.
Cantonese songs are a great start to learning Cantonese, as they not only help you get used to the Cantonese sounds and flow of the language, but also help you make friends in the area who will be excited hearing you sing out some of the songs from their youth.
Popular artists include the band Beyond and the singers Faye Wong and Wong Lee Hom, all heavily represented online.
Tip #2 – Watch Movies
In a similar vein to the first tip, due to the onslaught of the Hong Kong media, its film industry is also famous for plenty of high quality movies.
Actors such as Stephen Chow (who has also directed many movies), Summo Hung and everyone’s favourite, Jackie Chan played in and directed many classics which are still popular today.
Although a little bit dead now (hasn’t been updated since June 2020), LoveHKFilm.com is still a great resource for Hong Kong film reviews and information.
There’s no doubt watching films and listening to songs rank as some of the best ways to learn Cantonese.
Tip #3 – Pay Attention to Tones
The Cantonese language is famous for having more tones than other Chinese dialects or even other languages. Reportedly having as many as 9 tones, most speakers differentiate between 6 tones, in three categories that are separated by pitch and intonation.
As the tones are crucial to speaking the language well, it is important to stop and learn them slowly, specifically listening and trying to hear out each tone.
This is harder to do in fast speech, so you would need to go slowly at first, specifically to hear clearly until the time when you can differentiate them independently.
Tip #4 – LTL Anki Decks
Not to toot our own horn, but the Cantonese Anki Decks created by LTL are a great way to start going through sentences, practicing pattern recognition and learning new vocabulary.
The decks are separated by length, so you can start with the most basic and shortest sentences and advance further and further into higher levels of speech gradually.
We wrote an article about the Anki Decks in more detail here, where you can also download them for free.
Tip #5 – Get a Teacher
As speaking correctly with good pronunciation in Cantonese is harder than in other languages, at this point it is important for you to get a Cantonese teacher, who can help you correct your mistakes and force you to start speaking.
After having gone through the previous steps, you will find that it becomes easier, as you will have already had lots of exposure to Cantonese through the music, the movies and Anki.
However, as the only way to learn speaking is by speaking, a teacher is absolutely crucial here!
If you do not have a teacher in your vicinity, an online program such as the Flexi Classes platform is great for finding a Cantonese teacher that will help you long term. Probably the best way to learn Cantonese out of all the options here.
Tip #6 – Speak!
If you happen to live in a major city in Europe or in the USA or Canada, you likely have a Chinatown nearby or another area where there are Chinese locals.
You are in luck, as many of them have immigrated long time ago from Hong Kong and Guangdong province.
As such, they are native Cantonese speakers, and especially the older generation is often not only friendly, but also happens to be more comfortable speaking Cantonese than the local language.
Likewise, as Cantonese is less often heard around the world than Mandarin, Cantonese speakers are extremely excited to hear people learning their language and happy to help!
Get chatting to them and improve your skills.
Tip #7 – Exaggerate your Speaking
Social barriers are a common occurrence in language learning.
You do not dare to speak or try out new words and sentence patterns, as you are afraid of making mistakes.
One way of getting over this barrier is alcohol, which works like a social lubricant.
If you however are not a drinker or just happen to be driving later (we don’t want to get sued and do not hold any responsibility), the second best way is to exaggerate your speaking manner on purpose.
The aim is to pronounce every tone and word loud and clear and be expressive with your body.
This creates a humorous effect of “playing with the language”, which then helps you become more confident in the language.
Slowly, you will become more comfortable with the language and the words you use, and your expressiveness will no longer be needed (but you are free to be as expressive as you wish still)
Tip #8 – Listen to Podcasts
At a later stage of learning, podcasts become a great tool to hear native speakers of Cantonese speaks in native-level speed.
At first, you will not understand much, but the more you listen, the more words you will catch until the point those will slowly start building into sentences, and those into paragraphs, and by that time, you will have started understand native-level Cantonese.
If you want to give yourself even more of a challenge, go ahead and increase the speed of the playback.
By the time you can understand Cantonese spoken at 2x the original speed, you will have no problem understanding virtually any Cantonese speakers.
Podcasts such as SBS Cantonese News or Christian-themed ones as as Adventist World Radio get updates multiple times a day, so you will not run out of content there.
Those can be found on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Audible and many other Podcast platforms.
There you have it! The best ways for learning Cantonese, from the people who’ve been there and done it!
With Cantonese sounding as humorous as it is (see Russell Peters’ skit on the differences between Mandarin and Cantonese), it is an absolute joy to learn, and even more so a joy to speak it!
So get out there and go crazy with the language!
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Are there any Anki decks for Cantonese I can use?
Do Mandarin and Cantonese have the same tones?
Mandarin has 4 tones (with a neutral 5th) and Cantonese has 6 (but can rise up to 9).
The tones are different.
Is Cantonese used in Mainland China?
Towards the south there is a higher chance of hearing Cantonese.
Cantonese is spoken in Hong Kong, Macau, Guangdong Province, and Southern parts of China.
What language is spoken in Hong Kong?
Cantonese is the language of Hong Kong although some will understand Mandarin also.
In fact, English is more commonly heard in Hong Kong than Mandarin.