How to learn Cantonese in Hong Kong: Part 1


How to learn Cantonese in Hong Kong?

Where to learn Cantonese in Hong Kong?

How long does it take to learn Cantonese as a second language?


My Cantonese journey started over 14 years ago and it is by far even close to being finished.  While at times I haven’t been very diligent in my studies, I have devoted countless hours of time to learning this crazy ass language.  I say ‘crazy ass’ as I have become an even crazier ass person from learning Cantonese.  I truly love this language and I am still so excited to learn more and I’m constantly pushing myself to learn even more as well.

Although I have spent so much time learning Cantonese, I do know now that I should have made some adjustments in my learning at the earlier stages of going after this language.  I wish that I had someone like myself to talk to when it came to learning as it would have given me a better perspective going in.

First let me start by saying that if you have no tonal language learning knowledge at all then it will be something to focus on in the earlier part of your journey.  Most people that go after Cantonese are those of English speaking countries and fail to try to get the truest of sound production as possible. Copy what you hear and do various tone drills.  I will talk more about tones in Part 2.


How to learn Cantonese?

What a big question.  I think that you should start with having proper lessons from a proper language teacher.  Someone that is trained or who has experience in teaching.  Being as that you can’t read 中文字 you will need to learn a system of romanisation in order to learn it and put a mental aspect to learning individual words and with appropriate tone stress into your daily life.  When I say daily, I mean daily.  You need to start labelling things around your house and office with the names of everything.  You will quickly learn some beginning sentence structures and you can place post-its on everything around you.  This is really important as you will soon feel yourself learning the language passively while you are just drinking a cup of tea in your flat.

The next and most vital thing that you MUST do is………..use the language.  Make yourself use the language all the time.  You cannot get upset if people laugh at you, because they will.  You cannot get frustrated when people don’t understand what you’re saying, because they won’t.  You can’t give up because you think that it’s just too damn difficult to learn, because you will want to.  I choose my words carefully most of the time and vital means vital.  You have to use the language always.  Unless you find yourself in a life threatening situation and you feel that you can’t convey your message in Cantonese then you deviate and use English.  Otherwise, on the street you stay in character.  Emulate every sound you hear.  Order that number 3 combo meal in Cantonese and when people start speaking to you so fast that you don’t know what the hell is going on…….just smile and nod your head in agreeance.  You’ll be okay in the long run.

So, Hong Kong.  What a great place to learn Cantonese and if done properly and most importantly, CONSISTENTLY, then you will be able to get around and do things in the city that few other foreigners are able to do. Consistency is the key.  That old adage that the slow and steady turtle wins the race, well it’s true.  I’ve met countless people who have said that they tried to learn Canto but quit because it was……blah, blah blah.  I feel that if you really want to learn something as difficult as a language that you need to at least spend about 7-10 years of solid study before you can stop learning it.  I say this because it is very difficult.  Even those that have a very good mind for learning languages can’t learn Cantonese at a proficient level in only a few years.  Time and energy and embarrassment (if you believe in it) is what is needed in order to succeed.

Where to learn Cantonese in Hong Kong?

Okay, Okay — Where — That’s what so many people want to know.  Where is the best place to go to learn Cantonese?  Okay.  In my opinion the best place is Chinese University’s Yale in China Language Centre.  The language centre has been teaching Cantonese and Mandarin for a long long time.  They are very passionate about teaching Chinese language and have a lot to offer.  There are a few different classes to choose from and you can get accreditation from your learning if that is what you’re after.  Another place that I have taken lessons at is the Hong Kong Language Learning Centre.  They were good for the time that I had spent with them in the summer of 2001 and have been open for quite awhile.  Although, after having been to Chinese University to take lessons there, I realised that the textbooks used at the HKLLC are almost identical in nature to the ones used at CU.  One good point for the HKLLC is that you could arrange for private lessons and that may be helpful.  There are many other places around Hong Kong.  Your budget and schedule will help you decide which place may be best for learning.  As you get really into the language you will soon realise where to go.  But do get some lessons.

One point to mention when getting into Cantonese learning is that a lot of the vocabulary that you learn from most of the textbooks and dictionaries is a bit outdated.  One set of books to get would be books that are written by Stephen Matthews and Virginia Yip.  They are a husband and wife tandem of professors of linguistics at Hong Kong University and Chinese University, respectively.  They have done tons of research in the field of Cantonese learning and language acquisition.  They have written several really good textbooks that you should pick up. 41YgRWzJE2L._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_ 41HD89wUQnL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_ 41Bj-+ZLb9L._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_

How long does it take to learn Cantonese?

This is entirely up to you and how diligent you are to study.  How you are able to let things roll off your back as people may laugh a bit or you find yourself in a situation where no-one knows what you’re trying to say.  The beauty of those situations is that you learn very quickly as to what to say and what not to say.

You can not be shy in any kind of a way in order to learn Cantonese.  It is a language that you really have to get out on the streets and use at all times.  Sit at the back of the minibus and yell at the driver as to where to drop you off.  When people speak to you in English, STAY IN CHARACTER!

If you are always trying to use the language and spending time with the books to get more sentence structures down and taking some lessons, you will be surprised as to how quickly you can get the language into your daily life.  It will help you tremendously in Hong Kong.

Lastly, Hong Kong people are EXTREMELY nice people.  They are very willing to help you learn and are very respectful.  They may snicker a bit at your pronunciation only because as a tonal language, if you say something with the wrong tone, it is a completely different word that has no reference to the dim sum that you’re trying to order.  Some of those mispronunciations can be quite funny to a native speaker and they can’t help but to laugh a bit.  Don’t let it discourage you.  Laugh with them and learn from your mistake.

Well, that covers the gist of Part 1.  Part 2 will be for those that are already learning some Cantonese and need some advice for areas as to tones, reading and writing and other fun things that you can do with your new found language skills.

I hope this is helpful and your comments are also helpful to me, so don’t be shy.




4 thoughts on “How to learn Cantonese in Hong Kong: Part 1

  1. I am leanring cantonese as well and even being a Chinese I find learning it a disarster. I like the point that “then you will be able to get around and do things in the city that few other foreigners are able to do”. That’s true and you are able to do more than people from mainland can do. How sarcastic. ╮(╯-╰)╭ Clover ^^

    1. Hey Clover. Thanks for your comment. I wish you all the best in your journey to learn Cantonese. I think that it is a great language to learn with lots of flavour. If I can help you in any way just let me know. I will soon be adding another post about Cantonese learning that I hope will be helpful to you and others.

  2. I have discovered some points through your website post. One other thing I would like to talk about is that there are lots of games available on the market designed particularly for toddler age kids. They include pattern acceptance, colors, dogs, and forms. These often focus on familiarization instead of memorization. This makes a child engaged without sensing like they are learning. Thanks

    1. Thank you for reading. There are tons of things that I didn’t include and yes there are many things for kids to do to help them to learn Cantonese. To think about how children could learn Cantonese would have to be a separate article by itself with some understanding as to what situation the children were ling in, in reference to their learning environment, home life (parent’s languages) and other factors. Thanks for your comment though and I hope that you enjoy future posts.

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