Speaking Cantonese After 6 Months

speak cantonese after 6 monthsThis is me (and my lovely assistant) speaking Cantonese after 6 months. As you can see, completely unprepared, and with the added complication of having to navigate the roads of Doha in my Jeep!

This video, for me, demonstrates what’s possible by studying a language from scratch for 15-30 minutes a day. There were some days at the beginning where I did more, maybe 1 hour, but after the 2nd month, I’ve not been doing more than 30 mins a day, and often much less. I’ve also never spent any time in Hong Kong, until last week when I visited for a week.

Cantonese is such an amazing language! Obviously I’m not really doing it justice here with my ramblings, but when’s it spoken properly it’s full of expression, rich vocabulary (especially food references!), and lots of fun. For an example of this, check out this amazing poster with 83 Cantonese proverbs illustrated in one picture.  I’m having more fun learning Cantonese than any other language since Brazilian Portuguese (and for very different reasons!).

However, easy it isn’t. According to the US Foreign Service Institute, it’s a Category 5 language (that’s the highest, by the way!) – “Languages which are exceptionally difficult for native English speakers”. As you can see, I’m still struggling with more complex sentences, and with my vocabulary which is fairly limited.

My learning strategy so far has involved a lot of input from listening (textbook audio and TV dramas), finding texts with audio (e.g. Complete Cantonese) and focusing primarily on building my vocabulary with the help of an SRS app.

I began speaking fairly soon after starting, and I focused heavily on getting the tones right. (Any native speakers out there will be able to tell me if my tones are actually any good or not!). However, I didn’t dive into having extended conversations with native speakers until the second or third month.

I also decided not to spend any time learning Chinese characters. This was a difficult, but conscious choice. I feel that if you’ve got limited time, and if you’re motivated by speaking primarily, that there are more advantages to ditching Chinese characters at the beginning. The risk of diving right into Chinese characters, is that it occupies so much of your time that it is at the expense of progress in your speaking. That may not be a problem for you, but for me, it’s the ability to speak which is the primary motivator for me, and I know that by progressing with my speaking, I’ll start to build up a head of steam which will start a snowball effect in terms of motivation.

I discussed this very topic in a video interview recently, which you can find here.

Were I to go to live in Hong Kong (or China), I would probably start to need to learn Chinese characters quickly, but I would probably tackle it as a substantial project in its own right. [Note: I do actually already have a reasonably good knowledge of Chinese characters from Japanese, but it’s nowhere near enough, so I feel the approach would still be valid for someone starting from zero; I basically haven’t been reading or writing at all.]

What’s next?

Well, there’s a long way to go, and what I really need to do now is to continue building my vocabulary. That’s priority number one. I plan to do that by a lot of listening and reading, and by having regular conversations with native speakers to keep improving my ability to put sentences together and express myself.

There are few good resources for Cantonese, but recently in Hong Kong I just found a really great book called “Living Cantonese for Intermediate Learners“, which is comprised of an entire RTHK radio drama series, with transcriptions, vocab lists and explanations of grammar patterns included. So I’ll be hitting that hard!

UPDATE: Due to the acute lack of resources for learning Cantonese, I’ve recently completed a passion project for learners around the world. Check it out here.

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  • Shawn

    Hi Olly,just FYI I can’t watch this video from my android tablet/phone but can from my PC. Not sure why. Thanks, Shawn

    • Hey Shawn, thanks for letting me know. I just tried it on my Samsung S4 and it worked fine. The video is embedded from YouTube. Maybe you need to free up some memory on your device? (That’s just a random suggestion actually – I don’t know much about these things (^^)

  • daveyjones@locker.com

    Mate, next time you might want to leave the chewing gum until after. All I can hear is slurping!

    • Yeah.. I think you’re right! I didn’t realise I was doing it until I checked the video later! Sorry about that…

  • Weight

    Great to see your progress.

    I have recently just been SRSing the “Interesting
    Cantonese” books by Susanna Ng. I bought all three books in the series at
    the Hong Kong airport. It is a huge collection of sentences with characters and
    yale romanization organized into topics. It comes with CDs where all the
    sentences are read. I checked with a friend and the content is authentic.
    I am not even through the first book and I have 1700 slides. Right
    now it is the only thing I like to do. I used to listen to dialogues but
    I started to tune them out. I will go back to that after a while.

    I just
    finished watching “Witness Insecurity”. I think that is my favorite
    TVB series that I have watched so far.

    • Hey, thanks for your comment. I’ve got one of those books by Susanna Ng too, and I got it for the same reason – I was told that the language is quality!

      However, I have to say that I find it hard to do much with it. It’s essentially a phrase book, with phrases mostly out of context (at least without a supporting dialogue), and that’s not really how I like to spend my time. I think if I were living in HK it would be much more useful.

      I haven’t heard of Witness Insecurity, but I’ll check it out!

  • macaogrrl

    Hey, Olly. Very inspiring to see your progress with Cantonese!

    After reading your review, I took a look at “Living Cantonese” from Greenwood Press…noticed the description says cassette tapes. Is it really cassettes??? This looks to be a fun program to add to the mix when I get fidgety/bored, but I’ve no way to play tapes…hoping you’ll tell me it’s really CDs or a download….or maybe you’ll send me your cassette player! 🙂

    • Hi, I bought it in a shop in Central (Hong Kong) and it came with CD and cassette. The cassettes went straight in the bin! Really – do they not sell it with CD in the online store?

      • macaogrrl

        I know, right? It’s very surprising! Well it’s good to know you managed without the audio tracks. 🙂 Thanks for replying so quickly!

        • No, I used the audio – you have to use the audio. But I had the CD. It was just the cassette tapes that went in the bin. 🙂

          • macaogrrl

            Ah, okay — didn’t realize there are CDs, too. Everything makes much more sense now! 🙂 Thanks for clarifying, Olly.