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:
- living in the country where the language is spoken
- 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.
I’ve since gone on to create my own Cantonese learning material, called Cantonese Conversations.
But the journey you’re going to read about in this post began some years ago…
Let’s wind the clock back and start with my 1-month progress video…
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.
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:
- Reading or reviewing a chapter of my Complete Cantonese textbook
- Studying or reviewing a lesson from CantoneseClass101.com
- Speaking with a language partner on iTalki
- Transferring key vocabulary from the above into my flashcard app
- Studying my flashcards
- Writing little speeches to learn from memory
- Watching TV or Cantonese movies in my downtime
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 Cantonese study process
Notice that there’s a complete mix of skills within the activities that I did:
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.
- I’m trying to be the kind of person who, once he decides to do something, will actually do it.
- Accepting that 15 minutes a day is enough, and trying to do too much, helps enormously.
- 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.
- 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:
- 5 minutes of flashcard revision
- 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!
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.
Since I started doing that, my Cantonese has improved leaps and bounds.
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.
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.
- Start speaking with people now. If you think you’re not ready, start anyway.
- Method doesn’t matter. Showing up everyday and doing something is what matters. Done is better than perfect.
- There’s no rush. 15 minutes a day is enough. Time will do the work for you.
- Form a few language learning habits and stick to them. Make sure they’re small. Track them somehow.
It’s not so complex, really.
You’ll figure it out as you go along.
- Click here to see all my Cantonese update videos from the last year!
- Click here to see the resources I used to learn Cantonese
- Click here to check out Cantonese Conversations, my exciting new learning material
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 🙂
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This article was written by Olly Richards.
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