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 the same level as my Japanese, but I’m hoping things will go faster this time because of my experience with another Asian language, 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 Canotense, 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.

Vocabulary

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. I began intentionally building up my vocabulary by grabbing sentences from what I read, making fill in the blank flash cards targeting the recollection of a word in context, then drilling them in Anki. It’s a very basic method, but combined with lots of listening to podcasts I noticed a great improvement in my listening ability after a few months.

I like the Glossika method for learning patterns, but it is limited in the amount of vocabulary it introduces. I am emulating the same method that worked for me in Japanese at an advanced level but am starting from the (near) beginning.

I watch videos from the Apple Daily, which I learned about from Baggio on Cantolounge, which is a great source of information for intermediate Cantonese learners. The videos have subtitles, which are in standard Chinese (diglossia is a challenging feature of Cantonese, meaning the written language is different from the spoken). Usually, most of the words are pronounced in the audio, so I can hear how they actually sound.

When I find a sentence I can mostly understand that seems to have useful words, I write the sentence in Anki on several cards, each with a single word replaced with an underline. I write the word and its Jyutping on the back. I don’t include an English translation, because I will just look it up again if I forget. This hassle makes me more likely to remember it, and additionally, I want to see the least English I possibly can while studying a foreign language.

Future Goals

I’m still only about two months into studying Cantonese. Where I take it in the long run is still in the air and will depend on how things go. Right now I make sure to learn ten new sentences in Glossika every day and do Anki reviews, but I only sporadically listen to native media and add more cards to the Anki deck. I still want to have a small amount of time available to do some reading for fun.

A possible future goal would be to reach full literacy. If I decide to go that route, I may even review some Chinese novels on this site in addition to Japanese.