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How hard is Cantonese?


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People keep telling me how Cantonese is like the second hardest Chinese language and how it's very very difficult. But having grown up in a Cantonese-speaking environment, I don't quite understand how hard it is.


Some people tell me it's the tones. But well, Cantonese only has one more phonemic tone than Mandarin. Mandarin has five: the fifth being the neutral tone. Tones 7-9 in Cantonese are exactly the same as tones 1, 3 and 9, except they're shorter because they end with a non-nasal consonant.


Some tell me it's because of the -p/-t/-k stops. But then, it exists in many other Asian languages, and English, to a certain extend, has those, although they're usually released with the exception of -t.


Some tell me it's because of the tone shifts of the so-called "colloquial" and "literary" pronunciations. CantoDict writes it this way. For most cases, the colloquial tone 2 is used when it is at the end of a word, while the literary is used at the beginning. And otherwise, use the colloquial pronunciation pretty much everywhere, unless you're reading a poem/a book/things like that. Not very related but, colloquial pronunciations tend to resemble Middle Chinese more than the literary pronunciation.

An example: 棋: colloquial: kei2; literary: kei4

End of word, colloquial pronunciation is used: 象棋 (chess, kei2); beginning of word: literary pronunciation is used: 棋盤 (chessboard, kei4)

So while people claim it's random, it's not quite the case.


Cantonese has a simpler vowel arrange than Mandarin. Mandarin has these peculiar er, si, shi vowels, and "triphtongs" like ui and iu, plus the hard-to-learn pinyin system.

The diphthongs of Cantonese are simply the main vowels plus /i/ and /u/, so you don't need to memorize a table of finals once you memorize the basic vowels, unlike Mandarin. And while it doesn't have a standardized Romanization (some use Yale and some use LSHK, while others use others), both Romanizations are easier to read than Hanyu Pinyin and perhaps Romanizations for other Chinese languages. It is also easier to look up on Cantonese pronunciations and Romanizations than other Chinese languages.


Cantonese also doesn't have voiced stop consonants, which is something I have had a lot of trouble with. And I do mean a lot.

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But having grown up in a Cantonese-speaking environment


You answered your own question. Difficulty in language learning is linked to the abstract concept of "language distance" and also simply exposure. Of course you will not find Cantonese as difficult if you grew up around it.


I'm curious as to who told you it was the "second hardest Chinese language". Also curious about what the supposed "first" would be, too.


People who talk in those terms have no idea how rubbish that idea is.

However, you seem to have misunderstood the challenge of tones for speakers of non-tonal languages. Even supposing the number of phonemic tones are only 1 more than in Mandarin, the system uses two different registers, meaning the pitch contours for 1, 3, and 6 are identical (as are 2 and 5) and it is instead their relative pitch which distinguishes their meaning. This is only barely true for Mandarin tones.

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Without having studied Cantonese, it seems to me that the major difficulty in learning non-Mandarin languages is the fact that they are (almost) never written. Since modern written vernacular is based on Mandarin grammar and vocabulary, reading is very useful for reinforcing what you hear, learning new grammar patterns, and the like. It also means that Cantonese speakers have to learn a very different grammar and vocabulary if they want to read.

The second problem is the lack of good learning materials aimed at beginners, especially foreign beginners. There are many good courses, teachers, textbooks, podcasts, and other materials for learning Mandarin, plus there is all the literature you can read. When learning Cantonese or Shanghainese, there are very few materials, very few experienced teachers, very few courses, and most of what you find is aimed at native speakers of some other Chinese language.

People sometimes make the claim that Cantonese is intrinsically more complicated than Mandarin, because of tones, or a pitch-based tone system, opposed to Mandarin's contour-based one, or similar reasons. Maybe that's true, but I imagine a lot of it is exaggerated.

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Thank you for visiting this subforum!

I am intermediate in Mandarin and a beginner in Cantonese.

For me, understanding the exact status of written Cantonese and the relationship between spoken Cantonese and Standard Written Chinese, but especially, what I should do about it with regard to how I study, what my flashcards should look like, etc., has been by far my biggest problem; I don't want to start out on the wrong road, right? Thank goodness I have a tutor. She answered these questions, more than once! I found it hard to believe her answers, but only because I wondered if she understood my questions exactly.


At first I thought the lack of materials was a problem. Now I'm not as worried (at the beginner's level) because just one good beginner's course is enough (I don't need a dozen to choose from). A bigger problem was that there's a lot less activity on the internet, with fewer opinions to consult, so it can feel lonely trying to choose from the available materials. I think I've made my choices but with no consensus of support; in contrast, it is very easy to trust e.g. NPCR for Mandarin and begin right away!


None of the things you mentioned are among my worst problems. If you want to, you can read about how I experienced the Cantonese tones here:


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Well, I'm mostly irritated at how people tell me Cantonese is the hardest language ever all the time and so people don't learn it, and Canto was ranked the second hardest Chinese language somewhere in this forum, add to the fact that people toss all those reasons at me and say that Cantonese pronunciation is random while Mandarin is systematic. which is why I'm asking whether it really is that hard. But I grew up in a Canto-speaking environment, so perhaps I wouldn't be in the best position to say "Cantonese is not the hardest language", even though I think so to a large extend. Because I think Korean and Indian are hard, and other languages to a certain extent because sometimes things can be voiced, like "phrase" being pronounced "fraze" instead of "frase" but "base" being pronounced "base" and not "baze".


Something perhaps related would be that a number Hong Kongers think non-tonal languages are hard because they're clueless as to what tones they are supposed to pronounce the words in and so they end up speaking English with 2 main tones: one for stressed syllables and one for unstressed ones. And here English speakers say Chinese languages are difficult because it is tonal.


About the tone contours, I think you're referring to how they're all level? Well that could be a challenge, even if there's only one more tone than Mandarin. Although I myself have had trouble distinguishing the tones 1 and 4 of Mandarin, probably because the merging of high level and high falling is something found in Cantonese.

But the thing is how people keep saying Mandarin only has 4 tones so it's easy but Cantonese has 9 so it's the hardest. I mean, Cantonese isn't even the Chinese that has the most tones, and as I have said, Mandarin actually has 5 while Cantonese can be considered to have only 6. It is that saying that bothers me.


But my counter-arguments still stand for their arguments. Cantonese isn't just about pronunciation. In fact, it probably has one of the easiest grammars if you compare it with other languages in the world. Although the particles may pose a problem for learners as it is hard to explain, but I don't think the particles are so bad that it makes it more difficult than all other Chinese languages but one.


Well, Cantonese actually can be written, the problem is that not many people will write it outside of... well, when you're talking with friends.


I think there should be some good materials around for learning Cantonese. Otherwise, how would you explain the many Cantonese learners from all around the world at Sheik's Cantonese website? A majority of Chinese who do not live in China speak Cantonese, and so Cantonese exposure may not be as big as a problem as one may think.

As for being able to find teachers easily, well, few people give Cantonese a lot of respect so that cannot be helped...

I actually only started to love Cantonese after watching this video:

Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JRCKE8JmJXM; Youku: http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XNDgzODI1MjYw.html



Thanks for your welcome. Yes I'm new here.


About what you could do with Cantonese, speaking Cantonese actually makes me have a lot of fun with jokes that you could not have at least in English. One of them is "你咪繼續噉樣囉." It is used in a certain context at school, and everyone laughed, but the English equivalent, "then you continue to be like this," doesn't really have too much of a comedic effect, even in that situation.


I would actually want to do the job of helping Cantonese learners learn Canto, but I cannot really teach because I wouldn't know where to start!

That link you provided is dead for me, so I couldn't read it.

EDIT: OK the link worked just now. I'll read it in the meantime.



I have mastered pinyin in a short time. But it doesn't stop it from being difficult. I mean, I have mastered Cantonese (pretty much), but that doesn't stop it from being difficult. It posed too many problems to all my friends from other countries and the Japanese Airport when they were trying to look for someone with a Mandarin name. And my friends have spent weeks trying to learn pinyin and still they find it difficult having to remember all those exceptions

The use of e, j, q, x and z(h), c(h) and s(h) is one thing, but they can understand it after learning.

Then there is the zi and zhi vowels, distinct from the ji vowel, and then you need to remember the "u" after j q x and y is actually the sound /y/ and not /u/, and then a after /i/ and /y/ is actually the "eh" sound, so that "quan" is actually pronounced something like "tsywen" instead of "tswann".

And there is -un standing for wen, but yun is actually /y/ and not "ywen".

On the other hand, they found Cantonese Romanizations to be very easy to learn.


But hey, we're talking about Cantonese, not pinyin.

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The hardest thing i find it learning Cantonese is the ng sound. As it the words 'ngaahn5' (eyes), 'ngaam1' (correct) and 'ngah4 (teeth). This ng sound doesnt exist in English and no matter how much i try to say it i dont quite know if what i am saying is right or not. Luckily i guess, many people in HK now dont even bother with it either so i can say 'Oh5/Aw5' for 'I; and its ok.


Chinese grammar is quite simple. However i cant read Chinese which is a disadvantage when trying to build up my vocabulary.


I cant speak a word of Mandarin but it sounds more foreign to English than Cantonese does (to me - I'm sure others would disagree). Besides the ng sound, Canotnese and English have alot of similar sounds. (Acutally the eu sound in 'seun sam' (confident) doesnt exist in English). However to me, Mandarin sounds like people are not opening their mouth when the speak and when they do speak, they are saying 'shoe' an incredible amount of times.

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Funny... My friend Ellis, also from Australia, thinks this is a very easy sound, to my surprise. I told him to imagine he is pronouncing the word "singer", but without the "si-" part. And he gets it accurately every time. The only thing he has trouble with is the ts/ch sound and the ds/j sound to an extend, and also the vowel yu. He keeps pronouncing it as "you" in English. He has more trouble with ts/ch than ds/j though.

"Cantonese and English have a lot of similar sounds."

Yeah. "High bin dough bay chin", right?

(For those of you who don't know, it's from a video he made.)

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Edit: I wrote this before I saw the previous post.




Sidney Lau's suggestion for learning the ng is from "singing or dancing". See and hear the ngo?


If you say "singing or dancing or singing or dancing..." long enough I know you'll find the ngo!

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I think you guys are missing the point here. Those of you who keep telling me I answered my own question.

If that is the case, it'll mean that Cantonese isn't HARD, and by HARD I mean like the hardest 25%~15% of the languages in the world, which I'll happily accept.

I'm asking HOW hard is Cantonese, that makes it being claimed as the hardest language and the second hardest Chinese.

And if you don't think those are reasonable claims, well, that will be good.

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In terms of language learning time, for monolingual English speakers, it is about 4 times as hard as French. There is no significant difference in difficulty among Chinese languages that I know of. Any ranking will have to show some data to back it up.

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If that is the case, it'll mean that Cantonese isn't HARD, and by HARD I mean like the hardest 25%~15% of the languages in the world, which I'll happily accept.

This is what shows a fundamental misunderstanding of language difficulty. Languages are only difficult relative to the mother tongue of the learner.


I'm asking HOW hard is Cantonese, that makes it being claimed as the hardest language and the second hardest Chinese.

I'm not sure I understand what you're saying. Considering what I have said above, there is no objective difficulty rating. If you mean "how is Cantonese hard", as in "in what ways is Cantonese hard", then it is a different story.

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Well I think French conjugation qualifies as hard.

My French teacher told me that the French kids have the most trouble learning conjugation, which does not exist in Chinese.

So I think that will qualify as objective "difficulty".


So when people claim "Cantonese is the most difficult", you're saying they only mean it is difficult because of their native language?


I was to be honest a bit irritated by all those claims that Cantonese is THE hardest language and how it is the SECOND most difficult Chinese because honestly I think if anything, Indian is harder than Cantonese for speakers of English, French, Canto,etc alike.

And by how difficult, I am more like referring to what are the difficulties of Cantonese that would cause all those claims.

Or perhaps they just did not know about other Chinese languages, which is a possible case, because Americans think Chinese is just one language instead of being as diverse as having Yue, Mandarin, Hokkien, etc. And they hear Cantonese the most but when they look up "Chinese" on the Internet, they think the Cantonese they hear is Mandarin.

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My French teacher told me that the French kids have the most trouble learning conjugation, which does not exist in French.

So I think that will qualify as objective "difficulty".

I heard that Cantonese native speaker kids have the most trouble learning Chinese characters, which do not exist in Chinese :)

There is such a thing as "language distance". People find it easier to learn languages which are more similar to their mother tongue. Like Portuguese-Spanish, or English-German. Or Czech-Polish. They share a lot of vocabulary and many grammatical features. I have a Vietnamese friend who became fluent in Mandarin in about three months. I hated him. But his German was, and always remained rubbish, despite seeming "easy" to me.

Personally, I don't find declensions and conjugations difficult, because my language has them, and the concept comes easily and naturally to me. But I have problems with things like articles and counting words, which do not exist in my language. Even today (after almost 30 years of learning), when I make mistakes in English, they are most often something related to "the" or "a".

It is very likely that you don't notice the inherent difficulty in Cantonese because things that are so very difficult for us seem natural to you. My language has the most logical writing system in the world, or is close to it. It takes literally 30 minutes to master. You don't know how difficult Chinese characters seem to someone like me, who has never had to worry about reading and writing in his life. The whole concept of tones is enough to twist the brain of any European in a knot. We don't have such things, we did not learn them as babies, and acquiring them is very very difficult. The concept where you have to "sing" every single syllable correctly, and where you have to memorise 5000 characters where 30 would suffice, that seems insane to somebody coming from my language. More difficult than conjugations which (to me) are the most natural thing in the world. But then when people start learning my language, they complain about tenses, moods, cases and pitch accent, all the things I never think about.

So when you consider the difficulty of Cantonese, think about the fact that most of us have to THINK before EVERY SINGLE CHARACTER we pronounce. Every single word is like remembering some obscure fact from a dictionary. All the time. Just like you don't have to think about the tone of a character and it comes easily, the concept of a genitive case or third person plural comes naturally to me. Cantonese is difficult, it's just that you don't notice it because it's YOUR language ;)

EDIT: Most of this applies to Mandarin or Hokkien, or any other Chinese language group. I have no idea if some of them are so much more difficult than others, but I suspect that they aren't.

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"I heard that Cantonese native speaker kids have the most trouble learning Chinese characters, which do not exist in Chinese"

What I say is the truth, and you only make up things. It is the truth, what the teacher told me, whether you want to believe it or not.


It may be easy to you, but that doesn't stop it from being difficult.


About "Indian", I was more referring to languages that have both aspiration and voicing distinctions. I will admit that is wrong, but that is just something from my friends, and I forgot this isn't there.


I do have to read and write. Yes I do not understand, which is why I ask what are the difficulties of it, and you seemed to have taken it as an offense because you keep stressing how I don't think it's difficult because it's my language.

And as I said before, the confusion works both ways, about tonal languages and non-tonal languages, at least from the case around here. Not sure about other places. It's actually a prominent feature of English with a <place here> accent.


I will say it again. I do not deny that it may be difficult, but I don't think it is THE most difficult language, or the second most difficult Chinese, because of the grammar things you have to worry about in other languages. As my French, Australian and Hungarian friends have said, Chinese has simple grammar.

I know you're going to say it's just grammar, and there are other parts of the language. Yes I am aware of that, but I am just talking about grammar there, not saying that it makes the language easier.


I don't really know about "thinking before you say something" though. I think about just as much for the languages I learn.

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