Learning Cantonese online
I’ve been learning Mandarin Chinese for a while and I wanted to start learning a “Chinese dialect”. So I started learning Cantonese two…
I’ve been learning Mandarin Chinese for a while and I wanted to start learning a “Chinese dialect”. So I started learning Cantonese two weeks ago.
First of all, contrary to what people (even in China) believe: Cantonese isn’t a dialect. It’s a separate language. There’s no mutual intelligibility between Cantonese and Mandarin. Those two languages are as separate as Spanish is from French: they belong to the same family (Romance languages) but words and grammar evolved differently over time. However, the case of Cantonese is special. Indeed, when Cantonese speakers write, especially in a formal context, they don’t write what they would pronounce in Cantonese. They write in standard written Chinese, which is based on vernacular Beijing Mandarin. However, more and more people, especially the young, write in Cantonese. Written Cantonese also uses Chinese characters, but in their traditional forms (like in Taiwan Mandarin). Some characters are only used in Cantonese, or really rarely used in Mandarin. For instance, “Is it theirs?” would be “係唔係佢哋嘅？” in Cantonese and “是不是他們的？” in Mandarin.
That being said, knowing Mandarin makes it a lot easier to learn Cantonese. Grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation are similar (like French and Spanish, again). For example (click on the links to listen to the pronunciation):
Not only is learning Mandarin first a good way to learn Cantonese, but it seems that it is the only way! There’s indeed no good learning method available for Cantonese, contrary to Mandarin. Just a few universities offer Cantonese classes. For instance at UC Berkeley, you can take Catalan, Zulu, Yiddish or “Chinese for Dialect Speakers” (which means “Mandarin for Cantonese speakers”…) but there’s no Cantonese teachers! The only course offered is taught by students. The University of British Columbia (UBC) in Canada recently announced plans to start courses in Cantonese for the first time amid fears over the decline of the language.
And yet, Cantonese is a language spoken by about 60 million people, more than Italian. It’s spoken in Hong Kong, Macao and in the Guangdong Province. Moreover, it’s the most spoken variety of Chinese among overseas Chinese communities (in Asia, in Europe and in the US). Which means that if you go to your local Chinese restaurant, they are more likely to speak Cantonese than Mandarin. But the language is under threat in Mainland China, since government would like people to speak Mandarin only. However, there’s a strong and living Cantonese culture, popular even among Mandarin-speaking people (Cantopop and HK movies). That’s why you should learn it!
So how to learn it?
The 15-hour course offered by Pimsleur is a good introduction to the language and Omniglot has a page with some useful Cantonese phrases.
After that, if you want to type Cantonese, you should learn Jyutping (粤拼). Jyutping is one of the main romanization standards of Cantonese (with Yale and Cantonese pinyin). I like it because it uses almost the same letters as the Mandarin Pinyin (汉语拼音). But English speakers tend to prefer the Yale romanization. Since there’s no official romanization standard, when you find a Cantonese learning method, pay attention to which romanization standard they use! Google offers two Cantonese Input tools: one for Android phones and one for Google Chrome.
Globally, Cantonese pronunciation is easier compared to Mandarin. There’s no zh, ch, sh that Westerners often mix up with z, c, s. That’s why Cantonese speakers merge those sounds when they speak Mandarin. There’s no j, q, x and r that can be tricky in Mandarin too. Regarding tones, Cantonese has 6 (it used to have 9). On the other hand, there are 4 tones and one neutral tone in Mandarin. And Mandarin also has tone changes that don’t exist in Cantonese. So overall, Cantonese and Mandarin are both as difficult when it comes to tones. If you already know Mandarin, there are major correspondences between Cantonese and Mandarin tones. For instance, 93% of the words that are pronounced as tone 1 in Cantonese are pronounced as tone 1 in Mandarin (e.g., 光 ‘light’, pronounced gwong1 in Cantonese and guang1 in Mandarin).
The best available dictionary is Pleco. Unfortunately it’s only an iPhone/Android app, not a website. It offers both Mandarin and Cantonese characters, definitions, pronunciations and audio.
Online resources are not as good. There’s this dictionary and this one. The only available online translator is Baidu (the Chinese Google). Baidu can translate to standard written Chinese (aka written Mandarin) or written Cantonese (just click “双语对照”). There’s also a crappy text-to-speech feature. On the other hand, Google is still working on Cantonese and the text-to-speech feature is already available. Copy and paste this link in your address bar and replace YOURCHARACTER by a short Chinese sentence: http://translate.google.com/translate_tts?tl=zh-yue&q=YOURCHARACTER . If you know Cantonese, you can help the Translate Community (please do it!).
If you already know Mandarin or if you understand a little bit Cantonese but can’t speak, those tools should be sufficient. You can also use some vocabulary lists and grammar rules.
Otherwise, you need to start from scratch. If you’re a French speaker, Assimil is usually a good method, but I haven’t bought it yet. Same for Teach Yourself for English speakers.
Good luck and good bye! 祝你好運！拜拜！(zuk1 nei5 hou2 wan6! baai1 baai3!)
Originally published at inekto.wordpress.com on September 2, 2015.