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Cantonese Chinese Language Review
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Cantonese (Gwong2 Dung1 Wa2), also known as Yue, is a member of the Sino-Tibetan linguistic family, and is one of the top 20 most spoken languages in the world. Cantonese is the most influential Chinese dialect after Mandarin, and despite the fact that it has less total speakers, the geographical spread of Cantonese has historically been much greater and largely remains so to this day. While Mandarin is often seen by Cantonese people as merely a tool for use in government and business, Cantonese is lively, colorful, and fun to speak. The abundance of slang, unique culture, and distinctive sense of humor make it a highly enjoyable language to learn.

This profile was kindly submitted by 'Shusaku', one of our forum members.

Other topics on this page: Introduction ¦ Usefulness ¦ Chic factor ¦ Countries ¦ Speakers ¦ Economic Importance ¦ Travel ¦ Variations ¦ Culture ¦ Difficulties ¦ Pronunciation ¦ Grammar ¦ Vocabulary ¦ Transparency ¦ Spelling ¦ Time needed ¦ Ressources ¦ Books ¦ Schools ¦ Links

UsefulnessLearning the language is a must if you plan on living or spending a lot of time in a Cantonese speaking area and want to gain more than a superficial understanding of the culture. You may be able to get around with only Mandarin, but without Cantonese you'll always be treated as an outsider.
Chic factorAs with any Chinese language, speaking it well is considered to be extremely chic, at least in western countries and particularly if you have no Chinese background. Due to the extraordinary popularity of Cantonese films and Hong Kong pop culture, the chic factor extends to native speakers of other Chinese dialects as well.
CountriesThe greatest concentration of Cantonese speakers are located in southeast China, mainly in the populous Guangdong province, parts of Guangxi province, the island of Hainan, Hong Kong, and Macau. Other southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam also have a significant number of speakers. There are large and well established Cantonese communities all around the world, notably in North America, Europe, and Australia. Cantonese speakers were the earliest Chinese immigrants in many of these countries and despite the more recent migration of Mandarin and Hokkien speakers, the Cantonese still form a majority among the Chinese population in most countries.
SpeakersAnywhere from 60 to 100 million according to most estimates. Cantonese is among the top 20 most spoken languages in the world.
Economic importanceThere is at least some economic benefit to learning Cantonese, especially if you wish to do business with one of the many companies in the industrious Guangdong province. Although many speak Mandarin as a second language, most native Cantonese speakers prefer speaking Cantonese. Hong Kong also remains an economic powerhouse, but your benefit there is less due to the wide use of English.
TravelVery useful in Guangdong province where the level of English is particularly low, and the people who can speak Mandarin there often do so with a heavy accent. Also useful in Hong Kong but it's possible to get around there solely with English if necessary.
VariationsThe Cantonese accent in Guangzhou and Hong Kong is considered to be the standard. There are some regional subdialects which share varying degrees of intelligibility with standard Cantonese. Toisanese is one of the more famous of these subdialects.
CultureCantonese culture is quite distinct from the rest of China. The cuisine is often considered the very best variety of Chinese food, characterized by tasty dimsums and an abundance of seafood. The Hong Kong film industry is the third largest in the world after India and the US and is most famous for its distinctive style of martial arts movies and cop/triad crime dramas, but is also highly revered for the artistic works of directors like Wong Kar Wai. Cantonese speakers love their language and most consider it more colorful and expressive than Mandarin. To appreciate Cantonese humor, such as that seen in Stephen Chow movies (Shaolin Soccer, Kung Fu Hustle), learning Cantonese is a must.
Other topics on this page: Introduction ¦ Usefulness ¦ Chic factor ¦ Countries ¦ Speakers ¦ Economic Importance ¦ Travel ¦ Variations ¦ Culture ¦ Difficulties ¦ Pronunciation ¦ Grammar ¦ Vocabulary ¦ Transparency ¦ Spelling ¦ Time needed ¦ Ressources ¦ Books ¦ Schools ¦ Links
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DifficultyThe Cantonese tone system is quite difficult, even for speakers of other Chinese dialects. There are anywhere from 6 to 10 tones depending on how they are classified (the scary higher numbers are used mainly for linguistic comparison with the tone system in Middle Chinese - 6 is the more practical count.) The tones are difficult since one must consider both the pitch and contour of each syllable, and every syllable has a tone. Even when considering tones, there are a large number of homophones in Cantonese. Using the correct tone is crucial if you wish to be understood as a small tone mistake can completely change the meaning of a word. Another noteworthy feature of Cantonese is the large number of sentence-final particles which add subtle shades of mood and are difficult to master for non-native speakers. Since Cantonese is a tonal language, you cannot change the intonation of a word to show meaning like you can in English or other non-tonal languages. Particles are the Cantonese solution to this problem, and there are literally dozens of different ones ("a3", "me1", "la1", "bo3", "wo3", "a4", "lo3", "tim1", "je1", "ge3", "ga3" to name just a few.) Additionally, the particles are often chained together to add further meaning (e.g. "ge3 la3", "a1 ma3", etc.) Cantonese has many more particles than Mandarin. Cantonese is a living language which constantly adapts new slang. Keeping up with it all can be both fun and challenging. Although there are some excellent learning materials, they are somewhat difficult to find and are less numerous than those for other languages. One of the hardest aspects of all is that learning by reading is incredibly difficult due to the fact that Cantonese people generally write in Standard Written Chinese which is based on Mandarin and has a relatively large number of differences from spoken Cantonese, including both grammar and word choice. Finally, some people have reported that it is difficult to practice their Cantonese, especially in Hong Kong, due to the high level of English, and the fact that natives are not used to listening to foreigners speak their language. Although it may take a while to break through the beginner barrier there, you will have more luck in the more remote areas of Hong Kong, and even more so in mainland China.
PronunciationThere are at least 6 tones in Cantonese: high-level (1), mid-rising (2), mid-level (3), low-falling (4), low-rising (5), and low-level (6). There is also a high-falling tone which has gradually fallen out of use and is usually interchangeable with the high-level tone (a small number of characters are still pronounced with the high-falling tone, however.) Some also assign a separate tone to the "clipped" endings: -p, -t, and -k, but these are basically the same as tones 1, 3, and 6. The system of tones in Cantonese is difficult because of the fact that there are 2 different rising tones and 3 different level tones, the only difference being the starting pitch. There is also a moderate amount of tone sandhi in Cantonese where the tone of certain characters can change based on context or for little apparent reason. The aforementioned clipped -p, -t, and -k sounds are also an important feature - to pronounce these correctly, you essentially start to say the syllable but stop midway through the ending. Thus one must pay particular attention when different endings are used for similar sounding words which may be confused, for example, the numbers "baat3" (8) and "baak3" (100). Cantonese initials are typically easy for English speakers, with the possible exception of the ng- initial, although many native speakers often omit this nowadays. For example, the word "ngo5" ("I") often becomes "o5". There are also some other changes taking place today, the most common being the n- initial which is often changed to an l- initial (e.g. "nei5" (you) becomes "lei5".) Another common one is the gw- initial which is frequently changed to g- (e.g. "gwok3" (country) becomes "gok3".) Other sounds not found in English include: -eung (e.g. "heung1" (fragrant)), -eun (e.g. "seun3" (believe)), -eui (e.g. "heui3" (go)), -eut (e.g. "cheut1" (exit)), and -yu (e.g. "syu1" (book).) While Cantonese has undergone a lot of changes in recent years, it retains more features of Middle Chinese than many other dialects, and it is said that the famous Tang dynasty poems rhyme better when recited in Cantonese.
GrammarThere are many grammatical differences between Cantonese and other Chinese dialects but the grammar retains many common features of Chinese such as the use of aspects instead of tenses, a relatively fixed word order (Subject-Verb-Object), and numerical classifiers (measure words). Although different from European languages, the grammar is quite logical and is probably one of the easiest aspects of Cantonese. However, even though it's easy to speak grammatically correct Cantonese, there are a very large number of set expressions and idiomatic ways of saying things which must be learned in order to be truly functional in the language. These can only be learned through prolonged exposure to the language - you can't master these by simply studying a grammar book. And like all Chinese languages, the thousands of four-character set expressions will take a lifetime to master.
VocabularyCantonese shares most of the same vocabulary as the other Chinese dialects, but is of course pronounced differently. Some words, particularly the most common ones, are specific to Cantonese (e.g. "keui5" (he/she/it), "hai6" (to be), "jung1 yi3" (to like), "m4" (not), and many others.) There are virtually no cognates with western languages, except for a small number of mainly English loan words, such as "baai1 baai3" (goodbye), "bo1" (ball), etc. Although there are many single character words in Cantonese, the majority of vocabulary is made up by combining 2 or more characters. Learning vocabulary becomes easier once you have learned a decent number of characters since they can be combined to form many more words.
TransparencyCantonese is mutually unintelligible with the other Chinese dialects (and this is why they are often considered separate languages) but speakers of other dialects can learn Cantonese at a significant discount. Although one must learn the Cantonese pronunciation and tone of each character, once you learn enough of these you can start to guess how certain sounds will map from one dialect to another (of course there are exceptions.) For example, Mandarin tone 1 usually maps to Cantonese tone 1, tone 2 to tone 4, tone 3 to tones 2/5, and tone 4 to tones 3/6. This applies to other sounds as well, such as Mandarin "xi" often maps to "sai" in Cantonese, "shou" to "sau", etc. There is also a lot of Chinese vocabulary in Japanese and Korean, so speakers of those languages may enjoy some discount in learning Cantonese. For speakers of non-Asian languages, there will be little transparency.
SpellingAlthough Cantonese speakers typically write in Standard Written Chinese, it is possible to write Cantonese as it is spoken. In addition to the thousands of standard Chinese characters, there are several hundred dialectal characters in use in newspapers, comics, magazine articles, and even some novels, but written vernacular Cantonese is still generally rare. Most of these Cantonese-specific characters are created from an existing Chinese character with the same sound, with a "mouth" radical added to the left side. Additionally, it is usually necessary to learn to recognize both the traditional and simplified forms of characters, since Hong Kong uses traditional and mainland China uses simplified. Learning at least 2000-3000 characters is required for basic literacy in the written language. There are also several systems of romanization for Cantonese, the most common ones being Yale, Jyutping, and Sidney Lau's system. Switching back and forth between these systems is a nuisance for the learner but fortunately is not too difficult.
Time neededIf this is your first Chinese language, you'll need at least 1 to 2 years of hard study to become functional in speaking. Probably several more years to learn Chinese writing since it differs so much from the spoken language. Because of the many challenges listed above, Cantonese is generally regarded as being more difficult than Mandarin. If you learn both spoken Cantonese and written Chinese at the same time, however, you'll later find that you can learn Mandarin by essentially just learning new pronunciations, since you'll already be familiar with the grammar and word choice by virtue of your experience with written Chinese.
Other topics on this page: Introduction ¦ Usefulness ¦ Chic factor ¦ Countries ¦ Speakers ¦ Economic Importance ¦ Travel ¦ Variations ¦ Culture ¦ Difficulties ¦ Pronunciation ¦ Grammar ¦ Vocabulary ¦ Transparency ¦ Spelling ¦ Time needed ¦ Ressources ¦ Books ¦ Schools ¦ Links
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BooksThe most comprehensive books are the ones written by Sidney Lau. There are a total of 6 thick books in this series: 2 each of Elementary Cantonese, Intermediate Cantonese, and Advanced Cantonese. Although they are a bit dated (1970's), the grammatical explanations are very thorough and clear. There are also a lot of dialogues and drills for practice, and all Cantonese text is given in both romanization and Chinese characters (even if you are not interested in the characters, it's best to look for books which include them as they are indispensable for use when getting help from a native speaker.) The books are fairly inexpensive - the whole 6 book series costs a total of only about USD$70. They are widely available in bookstores in Hong Kong but sadly are difficult to locate elsewhere. It is possible to order these online but the cost is higher. The Teach Yourself Cantonese book by Baker and Ho is also quite good. This one comes with 2 CDs which are fairly decent after some moderate editing. The explanatory text in this book is not as thorough as the Sidney Lau series, but the examples are even more colloquial and many of the dialogues are downright hilarious. This book is inexpensive and is easy to find. It also includes both romanization and Chinese characters for all the dialogues. For building vocabulary, "The Right Word in Cantonese" by Kwan Choi Wah is pretty good, as is the "Pocket Cantonese Dictionary" by Philip Yungkin Lee. The Lonely Planet Cantonese Phrasebook isn't bad either. The "Chinese-English Dictionary" published by The Chinese University Press is a character dictionary which includes the 6000 most common characters and is based primarily on Cantonese pronunciation using Yale romanization. Mandarin Pinyin pronunciations are also given. The book is organized based on traditional characters, but simplified variants are also provided. There are other Cantonese books available which are not listed here due to their lack of Chinese characters. Once again - if you ever want to consult with a native speaker, you will need the characters - it's difficult enough for learners to deal with so many systems of romanization, let alone native speakers. For listening practice, there are countless excellent Cantonese movies to watch. There are also several Cantonese radio stations on the internet, and RTHK being two good ones.
SchoolsThere are a few universities which offer Cantonese courses in the US and in Hong Kong but classes are generally difficult to find.
Links1. - Contains an interactive dictionary, language notes, and a lively forum. 2. - Free Cantonese lessons 3. - Hong Kong movie reviews 4. - Cantonese talk radio stations 5. - More Cantonese radio stations 6. - Chinese/Cantonese character database, with sounds 7. - Voice of America news broadcasts in Cantonese
Other topics on this page: Introduction ¦ Usefulness ¦ Chic factor ¦ Countries ¦ Speakers ¦ Economic Importance ¦ Travel ¦ Variations ¦ Culture ¦ Difficulties ¦ Pronunciation ¦ Grammar ¦ Vocabulary ¦ Transparency ¦ Spelling ¦ Time needed ¦ Ressources ¦ Books ¦ Schools ¦ Links
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