How to learn Cantonese in 1 year!

Almost 1 year ago, I made the decision to learn Cantonese.

It was kind of a crazy decision to make. 🙂

I’d just left Asia, arrived in the Middle East, and was in the middle of finishing my master’s degree.

It was, without a doubt, one of the busiest periods in my life.

When I’ve learnt languages before, I’ve been in one of two situations:

  1. how to learn cantoneseliving in the country where the language is spoken
  2. living in another country, but able to make friends with groups of people who speak the language I’m learning

Neither of those were going to happen this time.

Doha is… Doha! English is the lingua franca, and no Cantonese language is spoken by anyone. At all. Anywhere.

I remember thinking at the time: “How am I going to do this?” I’m a real people-person, who has always relied on communities of people around me to base my language learning on.

This was a great opportunity for an experiment. Regular reader of the blog will know that I keep going on about the power of a short, simple routine, that you do consistently, over time, and how that leads to big results further down the line — if you can just stick to it!

This was my chance to test out this theory for myself.

It all began 1 year ago. You can see my 1-month progress video below.

Let’s see what happened!

Learn Cantonese in 15 minutes a day

Over the course of the last year, I rarely studied Cantonese for more than 15-30 minutes a day. It was usually more like 15 minutes.

(By study, I mean any activity where I was focused on learning the language. I would get extra exposure to Cantonese by listening to podcasts, music, or other audio whilst driving, but I don’t count that as study because you’re not fully engaged. I usually drive for a maximum of 20 minutes per day, so that’s the most listening I would do.)

When you limit yourself to 15 minutes a day, something interesting happens. You think to yourself: “Right, I’ve only got 15 minutes, I’d better make them count.”

It’s the same concept as the Pomodoro Technique.

With such a short amount of time available, you can’t afford to mess around, so you don’t. You just focus on studying very high-value things that make a big impact on your learning.

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Goal-setting

I don’t set long-term goals in language learning. I don’t find them to be effective, and so I chose to find another method that works for me.

I call them “Sprints”, which you can read about here. The basic concept is that, over the course of a few weeks, you focus on doing one thing deeply and effectively, rather than lots of little things superficially. (I recommend you check out the article though!)

The contents of my Sprints generally included the following, in no particular order:

At the very beginning, I spent more time with the Complete Cantonese textbook and CantoneseClass101, as I had to learn about the basics of the language.

As time went on, I transitioned to spending more time speaking. SRS flashcards, I used virtually non-stop throughout the year!

Those are pretty much the only things I did for the whole year.

Insights on the study process

Notice that there’s a complete mix of skills within the activities that I did:

  • Listening
  • Reading
  • Speaking
  • Writing

This ensured that I tackled the language from all possible angles. (Luca talked about the importance of the “4 Knights”, as he calls them, at the polyglot conference in Berlin recently – read about it here.)

Notice that I placed a lot of emphasis on SRS flashcards. As a beginner, vocabulary building is absolutely key, and I find SRS to be the most effective way for me to build my vocabulary.

I think beginners should spend 80% of their time on growing their vocabulary, because you simply can’t function without enough words. Flashcards are certainly not the only way to do it, but they work for me.

There’s quite a lot of strategy that goes into how I create my flashcards, which I don’t have space to discuss here. In short, I’m extremely selective about what makes it onto my flashcard decks, and will only tackle around 20% of words and phrases that I encounter in the textbooks.)

Notice also that I consciously decided not to learn Chinese writing at this stage. I’ll come to that in the future. I decided that speaking was my priority, and I had such limited time to study in the first place that learning the script as well would translate into far less overall progress.

I may end up regretting it in the future, but I’m pretty pleased with how far my speaking has come, so…so far so good.

For more on the debate over whether you should learn to read/write Chinese, see this interview (part 1).

How to stay motivated

It hasn’t been easy to be in an isolated environment like this and learn Cantonese – a completely different language.

So how did I stay motivated to learn over the whole year?

Here are some thoughts.

  1. I’m trying to be the kind of person who, once he decides to do something, will actually do it.
  2. Accepting that 15 minutes a day is enough, and trying to do too much, helps enormously.
  3. Removing distractions and using Sprints to focus on one main activity for a number of weeks, simplifies the whole process. It makes it easier for you to get up off the sofa and just get started. It’s only 15 minutes.
  4. Speaking regularly with people is massive. Meeting people (albeit online) keeps you accountable and helps you to feel a sense of progress, because you can feel yourself becoming better able to express yourself.

More recently, setting a few simple, daily 5-minute goals has been really helpful for me.

At the moment, my daily goals are:

  1. 5 minutes of flashcard revision
  2. 5 minutes of reading & listening to a text (at the same time)

5 minutes, you say? That’s nothing!

Well… yes and no.

It’s not long, but two things happen when you work with goals in this way.

Firstly, you rarely do only 5 minutes. Once you get started, you’ll probably do more.

Secondly, don’t underestimate the cumulative effect of 5 minute sessions, day after day, week after week.

Please don’t underestimate them. Repetition is the mother of skill.

In terms of tracking this, I’ve been using lift.do. It’s a beautifully simple website, where you just define your goal and check in everyday. Seeing graphics like this one which display your progress can be very motivating. It also makes you think twice about skipping a day!

how to learn cantonese
(Want to follow me on Lift? Just click here)

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Scared of Skype!

On the topic of speaking, my main regret is that I didn’t spend more time speaking sooner. I’m not really sure why I avoided this.

I’d never done language exchanges on Skype before I started to learn Cantonese, because there was no need. Sure, I would often speak to friends on Skype (in various languages) but never a pre-arranged language exchange (I’d always go and meet people in person instead).

But with that option removed, and having Skype as my only option to get regular speaking practise with a variety of people, I was forced to use that.

I think that’s why I kind of avoided speaking at first. It wasn’t very natural for me, to meet people and talk to them in a new language over the internet. I also know that many of you have those feelings, too – you’ve written to me and told me so! 🙂

I’m also the kind of person who really likes interaction with people, and meeting them face-to-face, so that’s why I didn’t really like the sound of online meetings.

So I sympathise.

The first few times were a bit scary. I found myself inventing reasons why I shouldn’t do the call. I even found myself secretly hoping the other person would forget about it and not call.

It’s amazing the tricks that the mind plays on you!

But having gotten over it, I now realise that that was totally in my head. There’s very little material difference between talking on Skype and meeting face-to-face, for language learning purposes. In fact, it’s much easier on Skype because a) you save time, and b) there’s not so much pressure from having someone physically in front of you.

Anyway, thanks to the amazing service which is iTalki, I have totally changed my view on this, and now use the service for language exchanges, or more often get informal tutoring, many times a week.

This is how I organise my speaking sessions.

Since I started doing that, my Cantonese has improved leaps and bounds.

Speaking Cantonese

As I said in the video, Cantonese is a spoken language. It’s so rich and detailed, so full of inflections and idiosyncrasies, that actually speaking with people is absolutely critical to making any progress.

Obviously, you could say that about any language – “you have to speak regularly!” – (and I do say that, in fact), but it’s been the case even more so to learn Cantonese.

In fact, it’s only in the last couple of months since finishing my master’s that I’ve really dedicated significant time to speaking, and I’ve seen my progress skyrocket in the process.

So, if you’re learning a language at the moment, and you haven’t seen as much progress as you’d like… please – sign up to iTalki and start speaking more. You won’t regret it.

If you’re scared by speaking, read this article.

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The 4 big lessons learnt

So that’s it.

1 year. Wow. It goes really fast.

What are my main takeaways from the last year? Here goes.

  1. Start speaking with people now. If you think you’re not ready, start anyway.
  2. Method doesn’t matter. Showing up everyday and doing something is what matters. Done is better than perfect.
  3. There’s no rush. 15 minutes a day is enough. Time will do the work for you.
  4. Form a few language learning habits and stick to them. Make sure they’re small. Track them somehow.

It’s not so complex, really.

Grammar?

Who cares.

You’ll figure it out as you go along.

The Eid holiday is coming up in Doha, to mark the end of Ramadan. I’m going to take a few days off to rest my brain, and then… August 1st marks the start of another big project…Egyptian Arabic!

Another language from scratch!

Except this time, I’m going to be documenting everything I do and posting it to the blog. I’ll show you the exact step-by-step processes I go through to learn the language from the beginning.

A lot of the more detailed stuff will sent to subscribers to my mailing list. So, if you’re interested in following along, be sure to enter your details below to stay up-to-date!

And if you’re reading this in the future, sign up anyway – you’ll get my E-Book on language learning technology for free! 🙂

Thanks for all your support this year.

It’s been fun 🙂

If you enjoyed this article, please share it on Facebook or Twitter. It really helps me out! Questions? I answer them all on my Facebook page.

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This article was written by Olly Richards.

Got a question? I'll answer it on the podcast! Just click here!

Also connect with Olly on Facebook, Twitter and Google+
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  • Lots of interesting lessons in here. Definitely motivates me to take up Cantonese some time in the future, it looks like a really fun language! Good job Olly, very inspiring.

    • Hi Sam. Well, all I can say is that if, one day, my Cantonese is anywhere near as good as your Korean, I’ll be happy! 🙂

  • Andy

    Great work Olly! Keep it up.

  • Chris Broholm

    Great work Olly, really inspiring! Your talk about Cantonese has motivated me to start learning the language in the next couple of years 🙂

    • That’s great, Chris. I hope you do. We can spread the word about this awesome language together!

  • After reading that you only did about 15-30 minutes a day, WOW! It really shows that it’s not just the amount of hours you put in, but how much time you spend with the language that really goes a long way in improving your skills. Great work!

    • Thanks Tara! Yes, I think that’s so important. Clearly, the number of hours you put in does make a difference, but if you’re not in any particular rush to learn the language, time is your best friend. Study a little, make it consistent, and your brain is capable of great things in response!

  • After Cantonese, do you plan to learn other Chinese dialect such as Hokkien?

    • Hi Teddy, thanks for your comment. I’d love to learn Mandarin at some point, but not yet. I want to really consolidate my Cantonese and get as good as possible. I’ve got a long way to go still!

      • how fluent do you want to be? You are good enough to survive in Hongkong haha. btw, what do you enjoy the most by being able to speak Cantonese? listening to Cantonese songs, watching Cantonese TV, or what?

        • Survive, yes. But I’d like to be able to do more than survive, I think. I still have difficulty understanding lots of things, which makes conversations on certain topics difficult.

          To be honest, I enjoy everything about Cantonese culture. I like the film, the food, the music, the people…talking with people especially I find really fun. I love the Cantonese sense of humour!

  • Mike M. Lin

    Super progress, Olly. I’ve also completed Complete Cantonese, which took me three tries and many months, and am using mainly CantoneseClass101.com now. Were those the only materials you used in your studies?

    • Hi Mike. Yes, pretty much. I got a bit tired of Complete Cantonese after 2/3 of the book. There was a lot of stuff in there that wasn’t really relevant to me (odd topics), and a lot of written language that isn’t commonly spoken, so I stopped finding so much value in it.

      Cantonese Class 101 was really useful and fun, but again, more useful for the early stages than anything else. There’s a book “Living Cantonese” that you can find in my resource page (in the menu bar) which I’ve started using recently, although it’s quite tough.

      Other than that – I get most of my input from speaking with people now.

      • Mike M. Lin

        Thanks for the recommendation. I’ve been meaning to order some books from Greenwood Press, so I’ll check out Living Cantonese. I like that it comes with matching audio, but who the heck still has a cassette player? I don’t.

      • Jonathan Ma

        Hello Olly,

        I wish to congratulate you on your accomplishments with regards to Cantonese; what an inspiration! As per my personal email to you, the Innovative Language Cantonese 101 course is truly the Gold standard of self-study Cantonese courses; even after months of study and daily intense Podcast listening from Beg. to Upper Int., I am still learning new things from the course every day. Here in Hong Kong, there are precious few Cantonese language learning resources for native-English speakers(the best I have found here in HK is a reference book, ‘The Right Word in Cantonese’ by The Commercial Press). Lack of demand, I suppose.
        In addition, I have been told by a trusted academic individual here in HK that Cantonese language schools here in HK are targeted towards business people who want to learn a narrow range of Cantonese for their work purposes; hence, such courses may not be beneficial in the longer term. Money for me was no object- I would have invested everything I had to improve my Cantonese. My point is that I believe we got the best of worlds with regards to learning the Cantonese language through self-directed learning. Best wishes to all, and congrats to Olly and all of you for your linguistic endeavors and hard work!

        • Jonathan Ma

          Just as a follow up to my previous post a few months back- there ARE actually quite a few resources available, primary published by Greenwood Press. Hence, my apologies to all for my error in that respects- the Commercial Press chain store in HK has quite of a wealth of resources. Recently, I have purchased a few titles, including Wedding Bells, Feng Shui Master and Fun with Cantonese Verbs. It’s all about choosing what is best for your learning.
          About private language schools in HK- you’ll have to do your homework and find whether they are legit and whether they suit your needs(curriculum, phonetic system, etc.) Good luck, all.

  • Congratulations on your progress, Olly! It’s really encouraging to see that you’ve done it by chipping away slowly but steadily, something a lot of people can identify with and hope to emulate!

    • Thanks Ruth. A year goes by really quickly… it’s scary actually. So yes – slow and steady wins the race!

  • Love the idea of little and often. Just shows that it doesn’t have to be a long old slog to get the books out and sit in front of the computer to study effectively! Congratulations and good luck with Arabic! 🙂

    • Hi Lindsay. The funny thing is, it’s so easy to feel like you’re not doing enough, or that you’re cheating yourself somehow, if you’re not doing 1-2 hours per day. I think having this experience this year has made me much more relaxed about the learning process…having a bit of faith that it will happen if you just let it!

      • Definitely! I find language learning a lot like exercise – when you do it you feel great, when you don’t you feel like you’ve let yourself down. So achievable smaller goals, such as 15 minutes a day rather than an hour plus, work best, I think!

  • Roman Shinkarenko

    Thank you for the inspiring articles.

    Being a (you can describe it as handicapped) person, I’m not fond of routine. But seeing that doing something rather than nothing everyday makes miracles, I hope I will be less inclined to do nothing.
    P. S. Can you share your experience in lang-8? I think there are too few articles on the topic of “How to get the best from lang-8”.
    P. P. S. What can you say about the merits of listening to the same text many times or reading the same text many times? Is it really better than doing many texts one time?

    • Hi Roman, thanks for your comment! Lang-8 is great, although I haven’t been able to use it much recently because writing Cantonese is so hard. This article talks about how I usually use Lang-8: http://www.iwillteachyoualanguage.com/write-a-tech-savvy-speech/

      As for the point about texts, I think it’s vital to listen to the same text many times, but perhaps more importantly, come back to it often after you move on to other ones. The brain needs repetition over time, and I find that however intensively I might study something one week, the single best thing to make it sink in is to leave it and then come back to it a few days later. I think getting exposure to lots of texts is great too, but you have to gauge how much value you’re getting from them, as compared to working with a smaller number of texts in more detail.

  • Alfonso

    Wow, it’s incredible!!

    I’m studying Hebrew from 2 years spending 4-5 hours every day reading books, watching films, listening to radio, music and audio books, SRS, … but I’m far away to be as fluent as you are!

    The only thing I don’t do is conversation… do you thing this can be the problem?

    • Hi Alfonso. I think you’ve identified the problem! If your aim is to speak, then I think you absolutely need to spend time speaking regularly.

  • Lydia Man

    Hi, olly! I’m so very impressed with your cantonese speaking after watching the first video. I speak the language myself and I have to say it’s not that common for people to learn canto (more and more are going for mandarin nowadays). I know that you are starting a new language right now, but still hope you are gonna keep practicing your cantonese 🙂

    • Hi Lydia, thank you! And don’t worry… having put in all this effort to learn Cantonese, there’s no way on Earth I’m going to let it slip!!

  • Toan Vo

    Good Job Olly, glad to see that you’ve been learning for a whole year. I’ve been having minimal progress from day 60-90 of my cantonese learning but your post here gives me a couple good tips. I will continue to have my skype sessions and focus on vocab for the next three months until I have a good foundation and then just go from there. Do you have a tutor you recommend on italki?

  • Jonathan Ma

    Hello folks,
    Just tonight, I have been looking at this site for Cantonese Apple Daily video news- http://hk.dv.nextmedia.com/actionnews/index/ Really useful as there is a Character-based general transcript of the reports.
    I first use Google translate(document translator) to translate the entire document after copying and posting onto Microsoft Word.
    Then I use http://www.mdbg.net/chindict/chindict.php or http://www.cantonese.sheik.co.uk/scripts/wordsearch.php to look up specific lexis. Hope that was useful.

  • TJ

    I am a Cantonese speaker, if any of you need someone to practice with, just let me know, we can speak on the phone.

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  • Matt

    Great job Olly, I am super impressed with what you have been able to do. Just wondering if you might have missed a word in this sentence here: ‘…and trying to do too much, helps enormously.’? Anyways, thanks for the article!

    • You’re right, I missed “not”. Well spotted 🙂

  • Brian

    Learning Cantonese in such a short time is impressive. I worked in Beijing for a few months and it was difficult to learn Mandarin. Going from English to an Asian language is difficult… It changes the way you think.

    In English, anytime you think about the future you must change your verb. For example, it snowed… it is snowing… it will snow. In Chinese you would hear… yesterday it snowed… today it snowed… tomorrow it snowed.

    English forces you to think about time differently. Changing the verb constantly distances you from the future. It makes the future feel different than the present. This makes it harder to save.

    http://kehmresearch.com/2016/03/09/how-language-impacts-your-saving-habits/

  • Rob Jones

    Thanks for the article! I followed some of the suggestions in this article and got a Cantonese tutor on Skype at http://www.mandarintutor.com/cantonese . I practice several times a week with my Cantonese tutor and my Cantonese has improved immensely! My Cantonese tutor prepares each lesson for me diligently and then I practice over Skype with my tutor. The hardest part is getting the tones correct but many of my Cantonese friends now say that my Cantonese has improved immensely and they say my tones is getting more and more accurate.

  • Loobie Loo

    Hey Ollie,
    I’d love to learn Cantonese, more so than Mandarin (although that fascinates me too!), mainly because of the huge Cantonese diasphora around the world and because I’d love to visit Hong Kong one day.
    I am currently using Complete Cantonese (which I picked up for a steal on eBay as it is the old cassette version) and Cantonese101 but I wondered how/did you specifically practise tones? There’s a lot of help with practising Mandarin tones but not Cantonese!
    The only way I have been doing it so far is talking to the Cantonese version of Siri on my phone and checking it recognises what I am asking.
    Thanks!
    Lucy

    • Hi Lucy, you need to get a tutor right away. It’s vital to have someone who can give you feedback on your tones, because if you delay, it’s going to be so much harder to fix it later. iTalki is great for that: http://iwillteachyoualanguage.com/italki