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Master all the tones with this song, in addition, learn to count too!

I’ve read on many expat and Cantonese forum posts people who are new to Hong Kong are asking for Cantonese teachers and private tutors. Even those that are asking for language exchange partners.

At a novice level you do not need a tutor or teacher! Yes that’s right, you don’t need a tutor to teach you how to speak Cantonese. A tutor at the beginning stage is simply a waste of money. Over the last many years living in Hong Kong, I’ve met around 15 or so westerners who all came with the intention to learn Cantonese. They were all psyched up and ready to get good without any actual study. After 4 years they cannot speak more than a few broken sentences, and that is simply to buy their cha-siu fan.

You also cannot just find any random native speaker to teach you Cantonese! Anyone who claims they can tutor or exchange Cantonese is conning you of your time and money! What you need to do is learn proper language learning methods. If you have time, go to Google and search for “krashen”, “comprehensible input” and perhaps “steve kaufmann”.

There is no short cut to learning Cantonese, other than lots of boring repetitive listening, and learning lots of words. Cantonese DOES HAVE grammar, but not in the same way as French might have. I once had a discussion with an ex-colleague from Germany who basically argued that Cantonese has no grammar and you could randomly string words together in any order. He spent more time learning *about* Cantonese than actually learning it!

Many people are convinced they can only learn from a classroom, and only learn by speaking to a native. You can be more efficient if you buy a book that has lots of dialogues, jyutping/yale, and mp3 audio. You simply need to map words to definition (I prefer to learn each word by translating into English first) and then repeating the audio 100-200 times or until you can basically memorise what you heard. Make targets or milestones by learning 200 new words per week! I used to learn 500 words per week back in my intensive study days several years ago. Also be consistent and stop being lazy!

You must learn a romanisation method (yale or jyutping) and know the tones. Otherwise, you will sound clumsy and not be able to properly look up new words in the online cantonese dictionary. Remember, learning new words is critical to getting fluent!

But I must have a tutor because I was brainwashed to believe a teacher is a must?

The cost for a Cantonese tutor is HKD$100/hour (1-on-1 private lessons) and that is someone who knows the 6 tones. You don’t need to pay more than this price and more expensive doesn’t make it any better. If you absolutely insist you need a tutor, have your tutor create dialogues for you by writing out 1 minute stories that teach you new vocab (10-15 new words per dialogue), go over all the vocab by telling you the meaning in English (or whatever your mother tongue is) and record the MP3. When your 1-2 hour lessons are finished, spend 4-5 hours per day listening to these dialogues over and over until you are sick of them! Repeat this every day (even holidays)!

But I’m not like you, I don’t have 4-5 hours per day as I’ve got a life and I have 100 other excuses….

Don’t be a wimp and stop making excuses. I spent 1 hour on the train/bus in the morning listening to my audio, 1 hour during lunch, 1 hour on the bus/train back home after work, 2 hours before bed etc etc…. that’s already 5 hours per day! Add an extra few hours while shopping, buying groceries, eating, going to the toilet, walking, jogging, at the gym!

Now you can see you can easily get 7-8 hours per day. Successful people don’t make excuses for why they cannot, they find ways of achieving things by doing whatever it takes to get there!

I came across this video explaining what it takes to “master” a language. There is a rule of 10,000 hours in order to master anything. It would take 30 years of 1 hour per day to master a language, 10 years of 3 hours per day, 5 years of 6 hours per day and so on.

Then why is it that people can go overseas and speak very good in whatever language they are studying etc… The point is “good” but not “master”. There is another rule called “pareto principle” describing the 80-20 ratio of achieving something. This means it would take 20% of time to achieve 80% results, but 80% of time to achieve the remaining 20% of results leading to mastery.

So this brings me back to my Cantonese. I could say I speak it “well”, but far from near native. It also be maybe people are adjusting themselves when talking to me since I would need a mighty lot of years to get that last 20%. Anyway, this is a good video and makes me realise how much hard work you need.

The 10,000 hours principle explained:


… yes I know I have an accent and made some tone mistakes, but hey, I don’t actively learn it anymore nor practice much :)

EDIT: I deleted the link from facebook because someone said they couldn’t understand 1 word I said :-( What a blow to my confidence!

I know tons of foreigners that think that if they kept listening to Cantonese, they will eventually pick it up - no matter if its the radio and it all sounds like gibberish.

I have probably done around 80% input (listening) to about 20% output (speaking). This means, you don’t speak your way to fluency…. you listen your way to fluency. You can’t output what you haven’t inputted.

In my journey to learn Cantonese as fast as possible, I have learnt the most important principle in learning languages - You need to understand the input, which is one of Stephen Krashen’s principles of 2nd language acquisition.

  • Repetitive listening to content that doesn’t make sense will not mean you will eventually get it.
  • Listening to incomprehensible content very loud and clear will not mean you will understand it better
  • Listening to incomprehensible content super slow over and over will not make you understand it better

So how can you understand the input? Take a look at Stephen Krashen as he explains the most important factor in learning languages.

The fastest way to learn Cantonese is by

  • Learning as much vocab as possible. You can’t speak what you haven’t learnt, and you can’t guess your way through conversations as you’ll just look stupid when you do the wrong thing.
  • Forget the grammar. You will notice it naturally after huge input. You’ll simply notice that’s the way they do it.
  • Understand what you are listening. My method is to translate each “new” word into Jyutping, then into English and listen over-and-over to the Cantonese until it becomes natural.
  • Learn the tone number with every new word and memorise it. Otherwise, you’ll sound like a broken record.

To the know-it-all foreigners and to to locals that preach Cantonese has no grammar, the big news is that CANTONESE HAS GRAMMAR. Though for all learners, I suggest you don’t learn it until you are quite good. You don’t need to learn it because you’ll never speak smoothly when sentences need to be filtered through a wall of grammar rules. You’ll start figuring out that time and verbs go in certain places. You’ll notice the ending particles after you listen to them being said in context.

I hate when people tell me “your Cantonese is very good” but say it in English. Finally, all my built up frustration over the years can be explained by this video…

A while back, someone on the Cantonese learning forum described:

There are two Hong Kong’s.

Hong Kong (香港,香講) and Hong (m) Kong (香唔港, 香唔講).

“Heung Gong” (香港,香講) is “the HK that speaks to you in Cantonese”. You’ll make friends and speak Cantonese with them. Heung Gong (HK) people mostly live in Kowloon, the New Territories, Shenzhen and Guangzhou.

“Heung (m) Gong” (香唔港, 香唔講) or H(m)K is the HK that won’t speak in Cantonese to you.

Heung (m) Gong (HmK), is mainly located in certain parts of Central and in the offices of foreign capital firms. HmK’ers generally speak Cantonese among themselves. You’ll hear them joke, smile, laugh, greet and talk in Cantonese. But not to you.

They’ll speak “about” Cantonese in English. But not “in” Cantonese to you. To everyone else, yes, but not to you.

Some when they speak “in” English “about” Cantonese, will claim they’re speaking “in” Cantonese. You’ll notice it after a few experiences. Don’t get fooled.

“Heung Gong” (香講) people will accept you, speak Cantonese to you and welcome you. It’s heaven. Many can’t speak English and have no interest in English at all. They’ll talk “in” Cantonese. There’s no problem, no insults, no exclusion.

Today I presented a 2 hour presentation in 100% Cantonese, even the technical vocabulary to a Mainland outsourcing company. I had to study tons of technical computer vocabulary before the meeting and get fluent in professional sounding Cantonese like (鑒於上述我所講嘅原因 / gaam3 jyu1 soeng6 seot6 ngo5 so2 gong2 ge3 jyun4 jan1 / in light of the above mentioned reasons).

Today’s meeting went for 5 hours and I could understand nearly everything without needing to second guess or think. I guess I can say my progress after today’s meeting can be considered huge and quite amazing (not being up myself in anyway). One year ago I don’t think I could handle today’s meeting at all. I also found that I sounded pretty clear if I spoke slowly and articulate all my compounds.

What I had to get used to was to have English Powerpoint slides, but speak in Cantonese. Still I have a long way to go as I lack tons of professional and advanced sentence structures, but I’ll keep learning until people will mistake me for a native.

Hope you can understand… just talking out of my head without any rehearsal. I know I sound very foreign, but at least I tried.

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