This 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.]
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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