Learning Cantonese – A Japanese Learner’s Perspective

It has been close to two decades since I began learning Japanese in college. I had opportunities to speak with Japanese people in the first several years I was learning the language. As time went on the language became less and less relevant for my real life, however, I still enjoy reading in Japanese, doing some translation, and writing about it on this website.

I had planned to make myself stick with one foreign language because even spending a lifetime learning Japanese, I knew I would never run out of new things to learn. However, I have finally gotten to a point where it seems like continuing to try to improve Japanese is having diminishing returns. I’m by no means an expert, but now I’m able to read what I want to read for the most part and listen to and enjoy audiobooks. I’m sure if I ever did need to have a conversation in Japanese for some reason I could stumble through. I would like to keep reading and translating as a hobby, but I can’t find the motivation to continue putting excessive effort into learning, especially for speaking and writing. That said, I’m still always up for a conversation if the opportunity arises.

There is another language that would be more useful for my life situation: Cantonese! Having a better grasp of the magnitude of the task than I did when I started Japanese, I’m expecting it will take many years before I get to a useful level, but I’m hoping things will go faster this time because of my experience with another language using Chinese characters, a better understanding of how I learn, and the much-improved resources available compared to when I started Japanese (Youtube didn’t exist yet!).

As I enjoy reading about others’ experiences when attempting something new, I would like to record the methods and things I try on this page.

Knowledge of Japanese Vs. English Only

I think the biggest advantage of already knowing Japanese is a familiarity with the characters. After reading many Japanese books, my mind feels relaxed and comfortable with Chinese characters. If I see a sentence written in Chinese characters right next to a romanization, such as Jyutping, my eyes are drawn to the familiar characters, instead of the less familiar combinations of letters and numbers. I check the Jyutping to see how a character is pronounced, but it’s relatively easy to attach the sound to the character and forget the romanization.

The character leaves an impression in my mind, and I can remember a sentence more easily when visualizing the characters. The characters almost work as more of a memory aid for a learner coming from Japanese. However, it seems that when coming directly from English the opposite is true. I have seen it recommended to ignore the characters in the beginning until solid speaking skills have been established. Instead of being helpful the Chinese characters are another aspect of the language that seems esoteric and needs to be slowly broken down into something familiar. I think this difference allows a Japanese learner to have an entirely different mindset and level of comfort with the language at the beginning stages.

My Learning Method

Learning Tones

I had taken two Mandarin classes in college and remembered that I never really grasped the tones. This time I wanted to start off on the right foot, so I started by trying to learn the tones. Youtube was a great resource for this. The video I found most helpful was from Sophie Yang. It turns out that learning the numbers from 0 to 10 is enough to cover all the tones, and method resonated with me. I found that it is difficult to get feedback from native speakers on tones, because unless they have experience teaching Cantonese as a foreign language, they don’t really know what the tones are.

What I found helpful, to allow me to hear the sounds, was downloading the Pleco Chinese dictionary iOS app and getting the flashcard add-on. I loaded a lot of words from a pre-existing deck and set the audio to Cantonese. I listened to each word and tried to identify the tones. I’m not sure if this is 100% accurate since the words are in isolation, instead of used in a sentence, but it did help me solidify hearing the tones. I stayed at this stage for a month or two and now, at least conceptually, understand the tones.

Learning Sentences

For the next stage in learning, I wanted to listen to lots of understandable input and attempt to shadow it. I started by downloading Youtube videos where I could extract known Cantonese sentences then edit them in Audacity to remove any English and make each phrase repeat six times. The CantoneseClass101 videos were helpful for this, but the video I liked the most was “Super Easy Cantonese”, linked below. Unfortunately there are only three videos in this series. I would need closer to one thousand!

I found out that it took quite some time to edit the audio into an appropriate format to drill the sentences. Time being a very important consideration for me, I needed someone to do that labor for me. I found an almost ideal solution in a language learning platform called Glossika. I started with the free trial and grew into a routine of listening for an hour or so a day when my ears were free. Pretty much all Glossika does is play a lot of sentences from a web app, and show you the transcription and translation. It adds sentences in a logical order so you get the benefits of spaced repetition.

At first, I set to add 10 new sentences each day, play each review twice, and not play any English audio. I would check the translations and transcriptions the second time I hear a new sentence (I tried my best to understand it on my own the first time), then I no longer looked at the screen unless I needed to refresh my memory.

I had turned off the English prompts because I thought the best way to learn was to immerse in the target language as much as possible. I started to realize that there was an issue with this. I was parroting the Cantonese, but I was never forced to generate the sentence on my own. When I tried speaking Cantonese it took me a long time to understand or generate sentences.

I decided that, even though I’m reluctant to add English into my routine, hearing a sentence in English as a prompt does not trigger too much brain activity. It is worth the tradeoff for me to have a way to force myself to generate the sentence instead of parroting it. My thinking was reinforced by this article from Glossika. It made the Glossika sessions take a bit more effort, but they are still reasonable to do while driving or other things where my ears are available.

I try to understand without reading at first, but I eventually check the characters that are being used for each sound. Coming from learning Japanese, I find that having the characters really helps with the memorization while using this tool. I have a picture in my mind for each sound, and many of the characters are used in several words. Checking the characters allows me to make connections and avoid false connections. I’m not sure what the experience would be like learning without a related language background, but I feel like having experience with Chinese characters is a huge advantage. Of course, even if sometimes similar, none of the pronunciation is the same, and often words with the same characters as Japanese have different meanings. I think the advantage of knowing Japanese when learning Cantonese may be similar to the advantage of knowing English when learning Spanish, where there are many cognates to help jog your memory.

Overcoming the limitations of Glossika

After many years of studying Japanese, I found that it was still very difficult to listen to native media. I eventually identified that the problem was a lack of vocabulary. Glossika introduces vocabulary slowly so I started to build vocabulary by using flashcards. I would find sentences I somewhat understood and enter fill in the blank cards in Anki. I found adding cards to be too time-consuming, so after doing this for a few weeks I switched to a pre-made deck from the Anki library.

I used the premade deck to be able to memorize the pronunciation of 20 new words a day. I didn’t worry too much about understanding them perfectly because I planned to do that in context from native material. What this did was not improve my vocabulary, but after a few weeks, I was able to (roughly) pronounce about 90% of the characters that pop-up in subtitles. This was helpful for being able to pick out the words in Apple Daily videos, but I still didn’t know the meanings of the words.

I think if I had kept doing this I could look up all the words I don’t know and eventually understand the tabloid news. However, much of the content isn’t relevant to the kind of conversations I would like to have. Also, the content is scripted and spoken very clearly. That makes it easy to pick out the words, but it doesn’t help me understand real unscripted speaking, which sounds completely different. I realized that at this stage, it was more than vocabulary holding me back.

I realized I needed a source of content that used everyday language I was likely to want to use. I tried watching episodes of 愛回家, a Hong Kong drama, on YouTube but it was very hard to follow. The subtitles are much away away from the dialog than those of the news, so it took a long time to understand just one line, and often I ended up having to give up. I needed something with a better path to comprehension.

Fortunately, right as I was running into a wall, Cantolounge Academy opened up to new subscribers. I decided to go for it a few days ago and the material is ideal for my current stage. I now have access to podcasts spoken in relaxed language, which come with both the transcript and the translation. This completely solves my problem of finding something in natural language that I can work towards understanding. Everything needed is provided, so it’s just a matter of putting in the time and effort. I feel like with this material, perfectly complementing the muscle memory training of Glossika, I now have a clear and efficient path forward.

Update August 1, 2019:

Cantolounge has ended and Glossika has changed its offering enough to where it no longer works for me, in the same month! I’ll update after I figure out how to work around these setbacks.

Update August 20, 2020:

I have been getting back into studying Cantonese with new resources. Here is a post featuring some of the best I have found.

Future Goals

At about a half year from the time I first started learning the numbers for the tones, I’ve shifted my goals solidly towards spoken language. I do work on reading, but only as it helps me grasp the spoken language quicker. I try to read subtitles and transcripts. I stay away from books and articles because at this stage I’m not able to discern what is usable in Cantonese and what is Mandarin-specific. After the summer I would like to shift some focus back to Japanese, but we’ll see where things go.

3 thoughts on “Learning Cantonese – A Japanese Learner’s Perspective”

  1. Thanks for the detailed notes, it’s interesting to see how aspects of Japanese are helping you to learn Cantonese faster.

    I watched the video and was surprised to see that apparently whereas Mandarin has just pitch transitions, Cantonese has actual relative pitches. While I have a background in music, I think getting used to listening and speaking with these would take some time indeed. After watching the 2nd video, I felt like some of the phrases were still vaguely ringing in my head for a minute or two, so maybe if I only give my brain a chance it will pick it up (:

    The problem is that with my memory it’s hard for me to study little by little, since I feel like I will just forget too much between sessions, hence my near constant pressure on Japanese study/consumption of media (which hasn’t let up much in two decades!). So it’s hard for me to imagine studying another language unless devote a huge time investment into it. But I guess even if I dabble in another language and forget it later, it still could be a fun/worthy experience.

    Speaking about Japanese, for me as well it took years until I could understand random podcasts, and even if I assume that I can learn another language faster (Say, twice as fast), I would still have a few *years* before I would get to that point. I guess I don’t think much in terms of goals that reach beyond a year nowadays, though there are a few exceptions.

    Fortunately for my Japanes study I was able to mostly avoid using (tedious) repetitive learning tools like Anki, and even (to a certain extent) vocabulary lists. I tried to focus on the method where I would look up whatever I came across in native-level content, but that can become quite tedious in it’s own way. While learning tools like Anki seem pretty boring in a sense because they have no (or little) connection to culture and grammar, I guess there is a sort of satisfaction to knowing you can get a certain percentage right. But if I compare those sorts of exercises to actually reading/listening to the language, it’s hard for me to imagine the time in the learning tools is worth it (in the long run). I think one exception would be cases where there is a vocab list followed by a structured dialogue or passage that uses those words, since then you can actually see them in action before they slip your mind.

    1. After spending some time with Cantonese, I think I like the tone system. The romanization method gives you a bit more information about how something should than that of Japanese. I’m not convinced Japanese pronunciation is as easy as people think, considering you intend to sound native. You need to learn the pitch information. It’s not included because it doesn’t affect meaning (much).

      One thing missing in Cantonese jyutping is the length of vowels, which is covered in Japanese. They don’t change the meaning so that’s why it is left out, but I have noticed there are length differences. You just can’t fit everything in a romanization system, but I feel that jyutping gives you more info than romaji/kana, so you can have more confidence in how something sounds. I did realize that the 大辞林 app contains information about pitch accent, but it was too late. I only had a paper dictionary from NHK to help me at the beginning, and it was too cumbersome to be of daily use.

      I have also been working on improving, or trying to maintain, Japanese for almost a couple of decades, though I have had years where I didn’t do much more than read a book and listen to a few podcasts or less. I’m definitely not at the level I imagined I could reach after that amount of time, but I am at a level that I can get plenty of enjoyment out of it, considering I don’t have any need for the language in my day to day life.

      I have braced myself for the amount of time it will take to get to a similar level in Cantonese, but I’m still hoping for much faster results. I’m hoping to reach a similar level to my 19 years of Japanese in 3 years. That is just in the listening speaking side, since there isn’t much material available for reading in Cantonese. I think reading will come with it though, since I basically can’t understand what I can’t read (probably could work on that, but not worth it to me) I’m hoping prior Japanese knowledge and modern resources will provide a tremendous boost in efficiency. Much more than 2x. That said, I have wondered if I would be smarter to learn Spanish, seeing English speakers can learn it much faster, I already have a bit of exposure, and speakers are much more prevelant where I live.

      I didn’t use Anki type tools much when studying Japanese in the beginning, but when I did later on, I noticed much faster progress. The results I could see made it less tedious for me. I only used it in conjunction with lots of reading because what was most satisfying was coming accross words I knew I wouldn’t have known otherwise. I’m still continuously experimenting with whether I can find an effective way to use Anki for Cantonese. I agree that learning from native materials (or speakers) is mandatory and other tools are supplements. However, for me I found the supplemental tools to be well worth the time. When I tried Anki I spent maybe 10% Anki 90% spending time with native materials. The awesome thing about Anki is that words don’t slip your mind, and since I included context, I found myself understanding the words more deeply over time. You have to strategically choose words though.

  2. The jyutping system looks pretty scary to me because of the numbers, basically information overload. But I can imagine that it can be very useful once you get over the initial learning curve. I definitely agree the Japanese pronunciation isn’t as easy as others think, and I have posted on that very same thing a few times over the years.

    Wow, 19 years condensed into 3, that sounds like a pretty lofty goal. But as you said you do have a lot going for you, and since reading (and presumably writing) isn’t a priority that should make it easier to focus on fewer things.

    Learning Spanish would likely be faster, as you say, and I have studied that for 2 years in school. Though my level is pretty low at this point, it’s nice to still be able to pick out words here and there. But having lived in South Florida, Latin cultures just don’t feel as “exotic” to me as Asian ones. But I’m still open to learning more of the language eventually.

    If you spent only 10% time on Anki and noticed a big difference, that sounds like a good investment. Though I think I’m past the point where I would ever use Anki for Japanese myself, I still want to understand whether I should suggest it to others. While I think you have described a good success story for it, my general feel is that some people over-rely on it, though I don’t have hard data for that.

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