After a couple of years learning Cantonese, I feel like I'm at an impasse.
I can't read.
You might think that's a bit odd, but not studying Chinese writing at the start was a conscious decision I made, based on the advice of Chinese experts I respect.
Here's the thing…
Learning to write in Chinese is such a huge task, that your time is better spent learning to speak. (Or so the theory goes.)
So I did that.
But now I'm ready for more.
I'm taking up the task of learning to read and write Chinese, and I'm documenting every step of the process with regular videos on my YouTube channel.
Is Literacy Important In A Foreign Language?
So why am I learning to read Chinese now?
Why not six months ago or six months from now?
It has got a lot to do with my environment here in London, which is amazing, but my opportunities to speak and practise Cantonese are few and far between.
This means that the angle of learning the language through immersion is not open to me. (Unlike, for example, if I lived in Hong Kong.)
Now, if I could read, then I'd have plenty of alternative options for studying.
But the fact that I can’t read and write – I am basically illiterate in the language – means I can't really study by myself either.
And this is a huge problem.
So, right now, I feel well and truly stuck at what you might call an intermediate plateau in Cantonese:
- I can speak pretty well, but it leave a lot to be desired
- I often struggle to understand native speakers
- I have a limited vocabulary
- And so on…
Now, when I think about other languages that I have learnt and think about how I have managed to break through that plateau and become properly fluent, it has always involved reading.
I have to be able to read stuff, whether it be emails from friends, news articles, books, magazines…
So my next big move in Cantonese seems clear…
The key to my progress in Cantonese, I believe, is to start to learn to read and write Chinese characters.
My Challenge: Learn to Read and Write Chinese
Well, Cantonese is far from straightforward, and there are a number of big issues not faced by learners of Mandarin:
- Cantonese is basically a spoken dialect of Chinese. Although it can be written, it usually isn't.
- Instead of writing Cantonese, you take the main message of what you want to say, and write that in standard Mandarin Chinese instead. (The same thing occurs in Arabic dialects.)
- Therefore, virtually any potential reading material you lay your hands on in Hong Kong is actually written in Mandarin – not Cantonese. (There are exceptions, such as tabloid magazines)
- To make matters worse, Cantonese doesn't use simplified Chinese characters (as used in mainland China). It uses traditional Chinese characters, which are more complex
So, what's the point of learning to read?
Because Cantonese speakers can all read and write standard Chinese.
Although there's a blurry line between the spoken and the written language, standard Chinese is nevertheless the linguistic core of native Cantonese speakers – it's what they learn at school, and read in books.
In short, I believe literacy in Chinese will be the key to spoken fluency in Cantonese, and there are probably connections between the two that I can't even imagine yet.
So I have got a big task ahead of me!
What you can expect from this new video series is my documenting exactly how I go about the task of learning to read and write traditional Chinese characters.
- Understanding how to go about it
- Different methodologies, approaches, and materials
- Trying it all out
Hopefully, documenting this process will help me stay accountable in my learning, but also be informative for you if you ever plan to learn Chinese yourself.
Right now I don't have any of the answers…
But I am going to go and figure it out and you'll be able to follow along every step of the way!
I won't publish every video here on the blog, so be sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel right now so you stay up to date with the videos as they're released!
I'm excited about this challenge! A little bit daunted… but excited nonetheless!
See you in the next video.
There are many different perspectives on learning to read and write Chinese, and I'd be happy to hear yours! Let me know in a comment below. Know anyone also learning Chinese right now? Please send them a link to this post!