How Hard is Cantonese to Learn?

Cantonese is a must learn language for anyone with an interest in Hong Kong, or southern China more broadly. It is the underdog Chinese language to the big brother Mandarin and is in many ways a more fascinating and challenging language to take on.

So, how hard is Cantonese to learn?

The main issues with Cantonese relative to other languages are the lack of loans words and cognates from English, the number and difficulty of the tones and the complexity of the written script be it either traditional or simplified Chinese.

  • Vocabulary – Cantonese has taken some loans words from English, in particular the Hong Kong dialect of Cantonese due to the close political ties with the UK. However, most of the vocabulary in Cantonese you will have to learn from scratch. Some words in Cantonese can have some logic to how they are pieced together take the word for refrigerator 雪櫃 which is snow + cupboard. This type of vocabulary can make words easier to remember. But on balance much of the vocabulary is going to be new and difficult to remember. 
  • Grammar – The word order is s-v-o and verbs don’t change for tense or subject, which is a relief. There are many regular rules for the use of the grammar which are easy to pick up and apply. The grammar is probably the easiest part of Cantonese. 
  • Speaking/Listening – Cantonese is a tonal language. Not only that, there are a total of 6 tones! Mandarin by comparison has 4. These Cantonese tones exist in two ranges of pitch which you have to be able to distinguish between. Also, there are a number of sounds that you won’t have encountered in English. You are truly in for a challenging time initially with both pronouncing and detecting these subtleties in the spoken language.  
  • Writing/Reading – Cantonese can be written in either Traditional or Simplified Chinese. These writing systems have base radicals which combine to form characters which in turn combine to make words. There are around 50000 characters in Chinese. You won’t learn all of them, but you need to know around 8000 to get by in the language. It isn’t difficult to learn them, rather it just takes a great deal of time. 

So that is your overview of Cantonese. Let’s jump in to the topic a little further.

How Hard Is Cantonese to Learn Really?

— Vocabulary

Cantonese vocabulary is formed from either single syllable words or multiple syllables grouped together to form a word. The combinations of syllables together can make some logical sense and make learning the new vocabulary easier and sometimes fun. For example 雪櫃 refrigerator which is made up of 雪 snow + 櫃 cupboard or another example of 雞公 rooster which is made up of 雞 chicken + 公 male. This can make forming mnemonics pretty easy, but a lot of the vocabulary isn’t so logically consistent.

Also, in some cases the vocabulary in Cantonese is formed by taking a loanword from English and mapping on already existing Cantonese sounds as approximations to the English sounds. Take the word 巴士 bus, pronounced baasi. As you can see they have taken sounds that closely align and plonked them together. There are lots of these in Cantonese.

  • Chocolate – 知古辣 zigulaat
  • Coffee – 架啡 gaafi
  • Wife – 威乎 waifu
  • Pie – 批 pai
  • Taxi – 的士 diksi 

Learning vocabulary in Cantonese is about dedicating the time and effort to the project. There are some shortcuts but learning the words requires you to learn the pronunciation and the characters. Keep this in mind as it effectively doubles the learning time when compared with vocabulary in a Latin alphabet language.

— Grammar

The keys problem areas of Cantonese grammar would be the use of aspect suffixes and the use of classifiers. However, the grammar is probably one of the easiest pieces of the Cantonese puzzle. Verbs are regular and don’t change for subject or tense. There are no cases and nouns are non gendered.

  • Word Order – The word order for Cantonese is subject-verb-object. However if there is no object in the sentence, the subject can follow the verb.
  • Pronouns – There are singular pronouns in Cantonese and to make the plural form you only need add 地 day. The pronoun for he/she/it is the same and is 佢 kéui.
  • Nouns – Nouns become plural by using a classifier in the form number + classifier + noun. There are many different classifiers to learn. Nouns themselves can be a single syllable or made up of single syllables grouped together.
  • Prepositions – The prepositions in Cantonese operate in a similar way to English. They appear before the noun. You should have no problem using them.
  • Adjectives – Adjectives come before the noun.
  • Verbs – The verbs don’t change for the tense or subject however you can add a suffix in order to denote the aspect. In other words there are suffixes for whether the action is completed, a state, habitual, or happening now. For the verb for be we use 係 hai, but this isn’t used with adjectives, only for sentences like my father is a fireman.
  • Direct and Indirect Objects — The indirect object always follows the direct object. So a good sentence would be, I gave the fish to him. Never, I gave to him the fish.
  • Questions – The easiest way to form a question is to take a statement with a verb and place the 唔 not word and repeat the same verb after. This would form a structure of verb + not + verb. This denotes a question. Also, there are many different words for who, what where, and why. These can also be used. Questions are not a difficult sentence structure to form.

— Speaking/Listening

Most beginners find trouble learning the tones. All tonal languages have a steep learning for beginners but keep at it and you will be able to distinguish the tones and produce them well.

  • Consonant sounds – There are 17 consonant sounds in Cantonese. The ones to watch out for are the ng- sound, which in English only occurs at the end of a sentence like in the word wing. While in Cantonese it can begin a syllable. Also, the -p, -t, and -k sounds at the end of words in English usually have short sharp burst of air, while in Cantonese you form the sound but without the same burst of air.
  • Vowel Sounds – In Cantonese there are 9 basic vowel sounds. These in turn can be combined to make another 9 diphthongs. So, that is 18 distinct vowel sounds. Almost all of these are similar to vowel sounds you would find in English.
  • Tones – This is the daunting part of Cantonese pronunciation. There are 6 basic tones. These tones involve a change in pitch which together with the base sound denote meaning. To anyone unfamiliar with tones, learning any tonal language will be difficult. The tones in Cantonese are as follows.
      1. High Flat – This tone is high and continues on the same level
      2. Mid Rising – This tone begins in the middle and moves up to finish on a high pitch
      3. Mid Flat – This tones is mid pitch and continues on the same level
      4. Low Falling – This tone begins in the mid-low pitch and falls further
      5. Low Rising – This tone begins with a mid-low pitch and rises a little
      6. Low Flat – This tone begins with a mid-low pitch and stays level

— Writing/Reading

Cantonese can be written in 1 of 2 different styles of related writing scripts. These styles are Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese. There is also an informal written vernacular Cantonese form which you’ll often see in Hong Kong. This vernacular style better maps how Cantonese is spoken onto traditional Chinese characters but it is only really used in informal contexts.

  • Traditional Characters – These are used in Hong Kong and Macau and are the written language of government, the media and all major institutions. Traditional characters are also used in Taiwan to write Mandarin.
  • Simplified Characters – These are used in Guangdong, a province of China. Simplified characters are also used to write Mandarin in much of the rest of China.

To understand how Chinese characters work you have to understand the building blocks that make up the writing system. There 3 major components to understand.

  • Radicals – These radicals are the basic building blocks of the writing system. There are 214 of these in total. Take as an example the radical 女 woman and 子 child.
  • Characters – These characters are made up of different radicals grouped together. There are around 50000 characters in Chinese but someone educated to high school level Chinese will only know and recognise around 8000. Take the example of the character 好 good. This is made up of the radicals 女 woman and 子 child.
  • Words – Words in Chinese can consist of single characters or multiple characters grouped together. Take the example of 你好 which is made up the characters 你 you and 好 good. However, both 你 you and 好 good exist as stand alone words.

These are the basic building blocks for writing in Cantonese. As you can imagine the process of learning this method is incredibly complex and can take many years. You should decide which of traditional and simplified you are going to use, and get started asap.

Why Learn Cantonese?

  1. While Mandarin is the more dominant language inside the People’s Republic of China, Cantonese is arguably the more international of the Chinese languages. When Chinese people were first moving abroad to Europe and the USA they tended to be from Guangdong or HK/Macau so they spoke Cantonese. Therefore a sizeable chunk of the Chinese diaspora in Chinese communities the worlds over speak Cantonese.
  2. If you have a particular interest in Guangdong, or more likely Hong Kong culture then Cantonese is the language to learn. Cantonese is the most valued in these areas, then English, then Mandarin. Learning Cantonese will give you a level of access to the culture and allow you to speak with the local people on more intimate topics which in turn will allow you to enjoy your time more.
  3. Given how powerful and economically influential the People’s Republic of China has become the Chinese language that everyone else is learning these days is Mandarin. So, why not be a little adventurous and different and try the alternative?
  4. If you are looking to take on tonal language, probably the easiest is Mandarin. But, why start out there? Why not jump into something more tricky and interesting? Being able to master 6 tones is one hell of a challenge. Cantonese certainly provides this level of challenge for the motivated polyglot.

Cantonese Facts

Who Speaks Cantonese?

Cantonese is an official language in both Hong Kong and Macau where the vast majority of people speak Cantonese as a first language. Cantonese is also the dominant language in the Guangdong province of China. This is despite attempts by the government to limit its use.

Cantonese is also the most common Chinese language within Chinese communities in Vietnam and Malaysia. It also has significant usage amongst Chinese communities in Singapore, Cambodia and Indonesia.

In western countries like the USA, the UK, Canada and Australia, Cantonese is the most common of the Chinese languages found. This is because of the history of people from the Guangdong region moving to these countries over many decades.

In total there are believed to be around 68 million speakers of Cantonese worldwide.

How Old is the Cantonese Language?

Cantonese emerged as the dominant dialect of Yue Chinese which is spoken in the southern part of China. This dominance began during the Southern Song dynasty (960 – 1279). From then the language spread across much of southern China.

Canton, now Guangzhou, was the major city of Guangdong province and it developed as a commercial hub in the 18th century and was one of the earliest areas to open up to trade with colonial powers. As such, Cantonese was the language most used for communication by foreigners when interacting with the Chinese.

Is Cantonese a Dying Language?

In mainland China excluding Hong Kong and Macau, Cantonese is being crowded out by Mandarin. Mandarin is being promoted as the language of government and education. Fewer and fewer people are speaking it in Guangdong province and given the large influx of Mandarin speaking migrant labour it seems few people are trying to promote the language. That being said, there are still television shows and newspapers in Cantonese. In truth, lesser dialects are even more at risk of being completely lost in southern China. Given the numbers, it would be a long time before Cantonese is fully lost from mainland China.

In Hong Kong and Macau, Cantonese is the official language. It is used in government, the media, education and by almost all the local people. In recent years, many people have rallied to the defence of the language and it looks to be in a more sustained stable position. That being said, those locals who want to do business and spend a lot of time in mainland China will find that they are increasingly expected to learn and use Mandarin.

In the Chinese communities abroad, Cantonese was for a long time the dominant language spoken. Traditionally those who left China to live abroad came from the southern regions of China and so they spoke Cantonese. However, as the rest of mainland China has become richer, other people from other regions of China speaking Mandarin have begun studying or moving permanently abroad. This has changed the Chinese languages being spoken abroad. In urban centres in Canada, Australia and the USA you can increasingly hear Mandarin being spoken.

Is Cantonese Chinese Simplified or Traditional?

Cantonese is the term used for the dialect of Yue Chinese spoken in HK/Macau, Guangdong and many Chinese communities around the world. The spoken language can be represented in a number of written forms. Simplified Chinese in Guangdong, Traditional Chinese in Hong Kong and Macau. There is also a vernacular written Cantonese which can be found in Hong Kong which more closely aligns with the spoken Cantonese. Simplified and Traditional Chinese also used to represent Mandarin in China and Taiwan respectively.

So to answer the question. Cantonese can be written in both simplified and traditional written Chinese.

Do Cantonese Speakers Understand Mandarin?

If the Cantonese speaker has had no exposure to Mandarin then the two languages are mutually unintelligible. The sounds are different, the vocabulary is different and the grammar is different.

The writing on the other hand is either the same like with simplified (Guangdong) vs simplified (rest of China) or traditional (HK/Macau) vs traditional (Taiwan) or slightly different like with traditional (HK/Macau) vs simplified (rest of China) or simplified (Guangdong) vs traditional (Taiwan). In this type of situation people can write down their meaning. This has been going on for centuries between Chinese dialects.

However, it is also important to note that most Cantonese speakers have had a lot of exposure to Mandarin. This allows them to be able to speak Mandarin and understand its usage. If you lived in Guangdong, you probably learnt Cantonese from your family but at school and in the media you are going to be exposed to a lot of Mandarin.

So, to answer the question, Cantonese speakers can often understand Mandarin because of the exposure to the language but the languages themselves are technically unintelligible.

Is Cantonese Harder Than Mandarin?

As is often the case, the answer is conditional on a number of things being true. Lets assume you haven’t had exposure to either language and that we are not assessing the relative merits of the writing system as Cantonese and Mandarin speakers use both Traditional and Simplified characters in different locations. Lets also assume you are familiar with English.

In terms of vocabulary, there are more English loan words in Cantonese than in Mandarin mainly because Hong Kong was a colony of the UK for so long. This would make building vocabulary easier to pick up in Cantonese.

With grammar, both Mandarin and Cantonese are subject-verb-object. However, for things like direct objects vs indirect objects or word order for comparative sentences the grammar is different. These differences don’t cause differing complexity so on balance, the relative grammar difficulty is similar.

For pronunciation the major difference is tones. Mandarin has 4 tones plus a neutral tone within a narrow range of pitch, Cantonese on the other hand has 6 tones within two ranges of pitch. This makes Cantonese more difficult for English speakers. In terms of actual range of distinct sounds, both languages have sounds which would be new to English speakers but the difficulty is equally spread between the two languages.

Bringing together all these ideas, on balance i’d have to say Cantonese is more difficult than Mandarin mainly because of the increased difficulty of learning and using 6 tones.

Sample of Cantonese

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