Cantonese is indispensable for those living and working in Hong Kong, and for chatting with Cantonese-speaking friends and family. It could also be the next, even more exciting frontier for foreign language thrill-seekers that have ‘conquered’ Mandarin, or have at least dedicated several years to it already and are ready to dive deeper. Whether you need to know Cantonese, or simply want to, learning Cantonese makes you part of a growing trend.
Enrolments in Cantonese language classes in Hong Kong, for example, are on the up. As recently as a couple of years ago, total enrolment for Cantonese programmes at the Yale-Chinese Language Centre at the University of Hong Kong had grown by about 30 per cent from 1,508 in 2010 to 1,918. And learning centre Q Language saw a 60 per cent increase in students learning Cantonese from 2010 to 2015. At Hong Kong Language School, the number of Cantonese language students also more than doubled from 132 in 2010 to 311.
While linguistics and history buffs might deliberate over its status as a language or a dialect, Cantonese remains high on the list of the world’s most widely spoken languages. It’s spoken by about 100 million people in the southern provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi as well as Hong Kong, the cultural epicentre of Cantopop, and Macao, not to mention throughout South-East Asia. It’s also the main form of Chinese spoken in the Chinatowns here in the U.K., the United States, Canada, and Australia.
It presents a fantastic challenge to those who are determined to learn it. It’s supposed to be notoriously difficult to do so – but then again, Mandarin might have initially seemed just as difficult. While Mandarin’s four tones prove a headache to many, the number of Cantonese tones will put things into perspective for you. There are six tones in Cantonese, or nine, depending on how you define them.
You’ll be excited to learn some informal Chinese script used by Cantonese speakers in Hong Kong. Examples of some more simple differences include:
我們 and 我哋
我是 and 我係
不是 and 唔係
歡喜 and 鍾意
我的 and 我嘅
The variations extend to word order as well:
我比你大 and 我大過你
我先吃飯 and 我食飯先
我還没吃 and 我沖未食
As with Mandarin, you can’t rely entirely on reinforcement from Chinese script when learning Cantonese, however. If you’re looking for ways to immerse yourself in Cantonese, many successful learners recommend the abundance of Cantonese TV programmes, especially soap operas which feature everyday dialogue in familiar settings.
You might also start by learning some very enjoyable Cantonese proverbs:
[bōu dihn wá jūk]
(To boil telephone congee)
To talk for hours on the phone.
[fūng chēui gāi dáan hok]
(Wind breaks an eggshell)
Don’t worry about losing money. Be at ease with less fortune.
[máah láu jāp dóu gāt]
(A monkey got a tangerine)
Someone looks very happy as if he has discovered treasure.
[máh séi lohk deih hàahng]
(when one’s horse dies, one has to walk)
To rely on oneself, to have to get oneself through a difficulty without help.
However you approach the challenge, we wish you the best of luck! And remember, 千里之行，始于足下.