Cantonese (sometimes called standard Cantonese) has its origins in the area of Guangzhou (once called Canton) in the south of China. Many consider Cantonese the prestige dialect of Yue. Cantonese is spoken in mainland China as a lingua franca in areas in and around the Guangdong Province . The language is used in everyday life in both Hong Kong and Macau.
If you're a beginner, learning Cantonese can feel overwhelming.
But when you start breaking down the language learning process, piece by piece, things begin to look a lot easier.
At first, Cantonese speakers sound incomprehensible, and the written text is confusing. However with a little direction, dedication, and a bit of patience you can speak and even read proficiently in Cantonese.
Just imagine leisurely talking to your Chinese friends on the streets of Macau or Hong Kong. Imagine watching Cantonese movies and media, and being able to understand and enjoy it. Think of what it would be like to connect with the local culture of a Chinese immigrant community, or reconnect with your heritage.
All this is possible and more. In this article, we cover everything you need to know about learning the Cantonese language. You'll find everything you need to get started, from the best courses or audio programs, to best free places to learn the language. No matter what your learning goals are, there's something for you here.
What is the best way to learn Cantonese?
When it comes to learning resources, there aren't as many options for Cantonese as there are for more popular foreign languages (especially if you're not living in Hong Kong). However, there still are some great options available if you want to learn Cantonese.
Cantoneseclass101 is the most complete and comprehensive Cantonese course we've come across. The class is setup as a Cantonese podcast. Each episode is essentially a Cantonese audio lesson. Each lesson teaches a Cantonese conversation between two native speakers. Two podcast hosts work as your personal Cantonese teachers, and explain the conversation. They teach you the grammar and vocabulary behind the dialogue. They often even share cultural tips and insights about Hong Kong and other Cantonese speaking regions of China.
The audio lessons are split across 5 levels from absolute beginner to advanced. There are literally hundreds of lessons on Cantoneseclass101. On just the first level there are 289 lessons!
In addition to the podcast lessons, Cantoneseclass101 also offers a bunch of bonus resources for learning Cantonese. There are essential word lists (with audio), a Cantonese dictionary, resources on how to read and write traditional Chinese characters, pronunciation and alphabet guides, and a grammar bank (a reference tool for Cantonese grammar rules). There's also a flashcard system on the site, that allows you to ad words and phrases directly from your lessons into your own personal flashcard deck. This makes for an effective and convenient learning experience.
Cantoneseclass101 is a powerful Cantonese learning resource, and it's sure to give you a leg up on your journey to fluency. While you do need a premium membership to access all of the podcast lessons (which starts at $4 per month), Cantoneseclass101 also offers a free lifetime account that gives you access to their bonus resources, as well as some of the podcast lessons too.
Pimsleur is an audio course designed to teach you conversational Cantonese. Pimsleur is able to do this through it's question and response technique. The course is made up of individual lessons which are each 30 minutes long.
In each lesson you learn important words and phrases by repeating after the audio recording you hear. After this you will be required to ask and answer questions in Cantonese using the phrases you've learned. You have a limited amount of time before the course reveals the right response. This process simulates what it's like when you speak Cantonese with a real person.
Being an audio course, Pimsleur doesn't offer much if you're looking to learn how to read and write Cantonese. The other downside of Pimsleur is that there is only one level available for their Cantonese course (most languages have 3 or even 5 levels). So you're not likely to reach an intermediate level of fluency which such a limited course.
Pimsleur does offer an effective way to learn the basics of how to speak Cantonese. It's a good foundation for your listening and speaking skills.
Italki is a an app and website where language learners can search language teachers from around the world for paid private Cantonese lessons through video chat. Teachers provide everything learners need for their classes, including textbooks (usually shared via download files), videos, pdfs, and other learning materials.
There are XX Cantonese teachers from around the world (many are from Hong Kong or Macau). Every teacher has his or her own methodology for their Cantonese lessons, so it's best to try lessons with a few different teachers before making a decision on which one you'll pick. Luckily many teachers offer trial lessons, which are short 30 minute introductory lessons that are considerably less expensive than normal lessons. No matter what your goals are for learning Cantonese, you are likely to find a teacher who will help you achieve them.
Italki has more than just paid lessons. There are a lot of useful free resources as well. Users can search through the profiles of other Italki users to find a language partner. This is an excellent way to connect with Cantonese speakers who are learning English, and work with them as a language exchange partner. Italki also has a language learning blog, where teachers publish articles on different languages. There is also a public forum for users can ask each other for tips and translation in their target languages. Users also have a public notebook where they write in their target language and have their entries corrected by native speakers.
*With purchase of $20 or more. After you complete your first lesson 10 free Italki credits will be added to your account.
Is Cantonese Difficult to learn?
The bad news
I'm going to be frank with you, Cantonese is not the easiest language to learn for native English speakers. There's a few reasons for that...
Cantonese and English don't have much in common
If you are a native English speaker who has never learned a foreign language, then Cantonese will be more difficult than some other languages. This is because Cantonese, linguistically speaking, is far removed from English. Languages like French, Spanish, and even German are more closely related to English in their grammar, vocabulary, and alphabet. So compared to Cantonese those languages would be easier.
Cantonese doesn't have an alphabet
Cantonese also poses another challenge for native English speakers: it has no alphabet. Instead of an alphabet, Cantonese uses characters to represent words. You have to essentially memorize each character to understand which word it represents, and there are over 50,000 of them. Granted you don't need to learn anywhere near 50,000 characters to read Cantonese proficiently. In fact to be literate in Cantonese you only need to learn three to four thousand (which is less than 50,000 but still feels like a lot).
Cantonese is a tonal language
Like other Chinese languages, Cantonese is a tonal language. In English we typically change the tone or pitch to put emphasis on a word. In Cantonese changing the tone changes the meaning of a word completely. There are a total of 6 tones in Cantonese (one more than in Mandarin). You'll have to learn them all if you want to be able to speak and understand Cantonese.
Lack of resources
If you're learning Cantonese you will quickly notice a lack of learning materials. If you're studying Mandarin Chinese, you have your pick of textbooks, teachers, apps, podcasts, and pretty another other learning tool you can think of. But when it comes to Cantonese, good resources are rare and hard to find (which is one reason we wrote this article).
The good news
Okay, now for the good news. There are a lot of difficult aspects when it comes to Cantonese, but there are other features of the language that are easy.
Cantonese grammar isn't so bad
In Cantonese, nouns don't have a grammatical gender, unlike most European languages. Also there's no verb conjugations to worry about (this means verbs don't change forms for I/he/she/we/they/etc). Tenses are also straight forward. You simply add a word to a verb to signify the tense. The words that signify tenses are the same for every verb, which makes things easy.
People often over estimate the difficult of Cantonese
People often exaggerate on how hard it is to learn Cantonese. Sure, the language isn't a walk in the park. However there is no challenge in Cantonese you can't overcome with practice and a little patience. Once you've studied the language for awhile, it seems less and less intimidating.
How long does it take to learn Cantonese?
According to the Foreign Service Institute of the United States, it's takes approximately 88 weeks and 2200 hours of class time to become fluent in Cantonese. This estimate of 2200 hours class time doesn't factor in the hours of homework time required outside of traditional Cantonese lessons. The total required about of time both in and outside of class will be higher than 2200.
Note that while it may take that long to become fluent, it's possible to become conversationally proficient in a shorter amount of time. Either way, if you want to learn Cantonese to fluency be prepared to stick it out for the long haul. Learning a language is a marathon, not a sprint.
Is it easier to learn Mandarin or Cantonese?
Some argue that Mandarin is the easier of the two Chinese languages because it has less tones and more learning resources. On one hand that's probably true. I don't know that the absence of one tone would make the learning of Mandarin THAT much easier than Cantonese. However it's hard to get around the fact that there just aren't that many resources for speaking Cantonese.
Finding someone to practice speaking Cantonese might also be more difficult than finding a Mandarin speaking language exchange partner. It depends on where you live. If you live in or around Hong Kong or Macau, then speaking Cantonese won't be an issue. Also if you live near a Chinese immigrant community, there's a chance they might be Cantonese speakers.
Linguistically speaking, both Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese are very different from Western European languages, and will pose similar difficulties to learners who speak a distantly related language. Someone who is learning a Chinese (or even Asian) language for the first time, probably won't be able to tell of any special difficulty in learning one versus the other.
How do you speak Cantonese for beginners?
The best way for a beginner to learn Cantonese Chinese is to focus on three areas of the language: vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. Pronunciation is actually one of the best ways to learn a language. Mastering the Cantonese tones and sound system will help you understand native speakers, remember new words, and speak freely. As you get a good grasp on pronunciation, focus on frequently used vocabulary and basic grammar. At this stage you're just trying to learn Cantonese Chinese to the point that you can understand basic dialogues and get your point across when talking about simple subjects.
Where can I learn Cantonese for free?
If you want to learn Cantonese for free there some available options.
The first and most obvious choice is Youtube. There are several helpful channel to assist your Cantonese learning.
The first channel is the Cantoneseclass101 channel. In addition to creating the most comprehensive course for learning Cantonese, the folks at Cantoneseclass101 have also put out a large collection of Cantonese learning videos on their Youtube channel. You'll find videos on topics as diverse as vocabulary lessons, listening practice, and learning tips.
Cantonese Corner is a channel made by Sue Marguerite, a native English speaker who has lived in Hong Kong since 1988. She is a professional translator and has made a large collection of videos on learning Cantonese. She covers everything from teaching the Cantonese tones, grammar, to discussing cultural topics.
Dope Chinese is a Chinese learning channel for both Mandarin and Cantonese. The videos are made by Gloria, a Chinese teacher and native speaker. On this channel you'll find tons of lessons on Cantonese vocabulary, including some very interesting lessons on Cantonese slang.
Free websites to learn Cantonese
There aren't a ton of sites for someone learning Cantonese, but here are two notable options:
Cantoense.ca is a Cantonese learning site where you'll find Cantonese words and phrases sorted by topics. Each phrase has it's English translation, traditional Chinese characters, and native audio.
Okay, so we already mentioned that Cantoneseclass101 is one of the best ways to learn Cantonese. And while most of the podcast lessons are only available through a paid account, there are ton of resources available for a free account. We won't list the free resources again here. We just couldn't mention free Cantonese learning sites, and not mention Cantoneseclass101 again.
Free apps to learn Cantonese
Simply Learn Cantonese
Simply Learn Cantonese is essentially an audio and text based phrasebook. Here you'll find a useful collection of vocabulary you can use to get around Hong Kong, Macau, or any other Cantonese speaking place. The app also features flashcards and quizzes to help you review what you learn. This is an easy way to start speaking right away, even if you're only using basic words and phrases.
Free Cantonese by Nemo
Nemo is similar to Simply Learn Cantonese, in that it's also a collection of Cantonese words and phrases. Nemo features lessons which sort vocabulary into groups of the most important or most commonly used phrases. It's a great resource for anyone traveling to Hong Kong or Macau and wants to start conversations.
The Cantonese language holds a wonderful world of history and culture for anyone who decides to learn it. Though the road to fluency may be long, and at times bumpy, it's well worth the effort. So whether you're planning a trip to Hong Kong, or plan on having Cantonese conversations at home, use the tips and tools mentioned in this article to give you a boost with vocabulary and grammar so you can start speaking today. Good luck!