November 30, 2010

Learning Cantonese - part II.

I first started listening to Cantonese advanced podcasts, because I thought that since I wanted to listen to the sound of the language and get used to its flow first, any spoken Cantonese would do. It turned out that the knowledge of Mandarin and Classical Chinese would be way too helpful in order to just learn Cantonese as a completely new language and so I switched to newbie and elementary lessons, where I could get into some structure as well. 

I did not try to find out how many tones there were in Cantonese or what their description was. It was really relaxing to say the least. No stress from trying to reproduce the tonal curve I saw in the book, no stress from trying to “mimic a picture”, no stress from trying to reproduce the correct sound pitch and so on. I also didn't have to subconsciously solve problems like: Is the tone high enough? Doesn't it sound strange when I say it like this? How many tones are below this tone I just said? Is this tone different enough from that other tone starting at the same pitch? So many questions every student has to face just trying to produce a simple “Hello” in Cantonese, when he or she learns the tones through descriptions. Now what I mean by feeling no stress is that of course no one is expecting me to get the pronunciation right the first time and naturally I will do mistakes, but the point I'm trying to make is that this way I have much less stress when it comes to the number of things I have to worry about while trying to say one or two simple words. The main difference is that I am concentrating only on the sound. 

Cantonese and Mandarin syllables are very specific and their sound is sometimes surprisingly outstanding so remembering it and later reproducing it absolutely correctly without having to write the sound down should be easier than forcing oneself to reproduce something previously seen in writing. If one only listens to native material (preferably recorded by several native speakers) and is not interfered by the wrong pronunciation of his fellow students, one should also be less likely to make mistakes while trying to reproduce the sound, since native pronunciation of the sound is all one hears.

In support of my theory, my studies were going well and I even learned a couple of phrases “accidentally” since all I wanted to do was listen to the sounds and not study anything, until out of curiosity I listened to a lesson explaining the tones of Cantonese. After this lesson my entire Cantonese relaxation collapsed. It was all so simple up to that point and after it, it became as stressful as my Mandarin studies. How many tones are there? Wait, which tone was this one again? High/low enough? What about the tones in the second the third and the fourth word? What about tonal combinations? Do the tones change in Cantonese just as they do in Mandarin? How many tones are below the tone I just heard? Am I pronouncing them well enough? Was the curve of the tone ok? Rising? falling......... terrible. All this just to say “mm hou yi si” in Cantonese.

As a result of all of this what I’m working on right now is trying to forget about that lesson by not listening to absolutely any Cantonese for the moment and trying to get back to my previous mindset. Luckily my knowledge of Cantonese is close to zero so this shouldn't be very difficult. I don’t have any specific plans, because as I found out with Mandarin, all plans will fail and problems need to be solved as they come. I’m also in no hurry and after studying Mandarin I realized that languages so foreign to us require a lot of time. Not because there is so much to learn, but because there is so much that needs to “sink in” and cannot be fooled by speed learning. No one expects us to pronounce the tones correctly in a few hours or days and some don’t know how to do so even after 20 years of living in Taiwan so why the stress? We can spend a couple of weeks if not months only listening to the language slowly “epiphanizing” the sounds. Mastering these sounds is a very difficult thing to do and by showing us the tonal graphs we trick ourselves into thinking it is easy.

My plans right now are, that I first have to wait to be able to listen to Cantonese again and I will listen to it until I will feel that I have a solid command of the pronunciation and am using the correct part of the brain to do so. I believe (and I actually read about this somewhere too) that one’s pronunciation is influenced by the part of the brain the information is stored into. I was talking about the word 比利時 in my “Learning Chinese” blog entry and to think about it, when I pronounce this word and pronounce 沒有 for instance (a word that I must have used about a million times now and it still is slightly tiring for me to do so, proof that for Mandarin spaced repetition does not work that well) it really does feel like a different part of my brain is used in these two cases.

After this “sound absorbing” stage I will do something different. I will try to chat a lot with my friends from Hong Kong and try to see what ways I could use to improve my retention rate of vocabulary and sentence structures. I will also try to use as much of my Mandarin and Classical Chinese knowledge when the time will be right. When it comes down to it, effectiveness should be most important and  I will only be able to tell, whether this approach is effective or not only after I’ve learned how to speak Cantonese to an advanced level and until then I think a lot of time has to pass. 


  1. Interesting. Keep it up and please tell us about the progress.

  2. Boat,

    thank you very much for the comment.

    I did effectively forget all of my Cantonese as I didn't work with the language since I wrote this article:) I deffinitely think I can restart with no tonal interference, since I know almost nothing about the language again.

    Unfortunatelly I don't have a lot of time for that now. I found my lost passion for Farsi and am working on it in most of my free time.

    Hopefully I will write an article about Farsi grammar and vocabulary relation to Slavic languages this or next week.


  3. "We can spend a couple of weeks if not months only listening to the language slowly “epiphanizing” the sounds."

    " 'epiphanizing' the sounds" means ... spending a couple of weeks getting used to them before the moment of a sudden insight comes? Could you just give me a little hint? I'd appreciate it for your help.

    1. Hello. I guess what I meant was, that you listen to the sounds of Cantonese and remember them bit by bit until you know them completely.

    2. I got it. Thank you so much.
      I've recommended your blog to some of my English-speaking friends who are struggling with learning Mandarin and insist that zhong4-yao4 ("important") and zhong1-yao4 ("Chinese medicine") are the same word. One of them has told me that had I read his articles then, I would speak Chinese as fluently as he does now. And I told him that forget "important Chinese medicine", just let them "sink in" bit by bit just like Vladimir says.

  4. If you listen so much, how do you learn grammar? Do you just keep listening until you notice patterns or do you actually read grammar explanations? Like could you ever have understood German verb order without reading a grammar explanations?

    1. Hello. I do read grammar explanations as an aid, but I don't learn languages through grammar explanations. I resort to grammar explanations when I can't understand something by feel or by deductive reasoning or once I've been exposed to the language long enough to start giving it more structure and detail.