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How hard is Cantonese?

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skylee
Preferably someone well-educated who speaks Shanghainese really well.

 

I wonder if this is that easy, considering (I am making assumption here) that the language is not spoken by everyone in the community and is not promoted.  The difficulites that anonymoose mentioned seem to be 1) lack of learning resources and 2) lack of standardisation (not just romanisation, but also how to say and write some things).  These don't apply to Japanese, I think.  They are relevant to Cantonese (and probably to Minnan in Taiwan), though.  But Cantonese is widely spoken in many communities so it should be less hard.

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OneEye

My point is that the lack of learning resources and standardization doesn't matter. The methods I'm talking about are designed precisely to be used with languages that lack these things, but they will of course work with any language. The fact that Japanese has these things means that if I lived there, I could use these methods in tandem with textbooks and more traditional learning, and it should be all the more effective.

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skylee

Which means that the lack of those things makes learning, say, Shanghainess, less effective than learning Japanese using the same method.  This is called "harder".  :D

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imron
A unified romanization system is not necessary.

Not necessary no, just look at all the people who manage to learn English just fine, but it sure makes things simpler.

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OneEye

I'm not really following your point, skylee. Shanghainese ought to be much easier for anonymoose than Japanese, regardless of the method used.

 

imron, I don't think it really makes all that much of a difference. I can count on one hand the number of foreigners I've met in Taiwan that have good accents in Chinese. The pinyin system doesn't help at all. People develop native-like pronunciation and command of the spoken language through extensive listening and mimicking, not through pinyin.

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Lu

 

Going down Lu's sideroad, what strategies did you use for learning Hokkien? I am learning Shanghainese, and I can certainly identify with it being easier after having learnt Mandarin, but even so, it is particularly difficult because there is no standardisation - there are very few resources available, and those that are do not use any unified system for representing pronunciation, which means the only way to really know how something is pronounced is to listen to it from a native speaker, but the problem is that there is substantial variation between speakers, so it is difficult to know which pronunciation to adopt (or to know whether two different words in theory have the same pronunciation or different pronunciations). Also, I'm not sure what the situation is with Hokkien, but it seems like there are many common concepts which are difficult to express in Shanghainese.

I took classes at Maryknoll, which is aimed at missionaries but also teaches other people. (It meant that I learned words like 'father' and 'nun' at an early stage, but apart from that it was the usual stuff about going to the bookstore and making a phone call.) They have their own set of books and transcription system, which has the advantage of being fairly widely used (among people who can write Taiwanese in transcription, which means it's actually rarely used, but relatively widely). The teachers are native speakers who have learned said transcription system. Once I'd learned the system, it turned out that most Taiwanese speakers have pretty 标准 pronunciation. I managed to transcribe a pop song in Taiwanese (垃圾车, I think it's on the forums somewhere) almost entirely by listening closely.

 

There are other transcription systems - inventing transcription systems is a bit of national hobby in Taiwan - but as with Mandarin (-> pinyin, W-G, bopomofo), I think that as long as you start out with one and get well-versed in it, you can easily transition to others later if necessary. There are also different dialects (accents), but I never got far enough to notice them or be bothered by them. When I spoke Taiwanese I was never misunderstood. I think what I learned was Taizhong Taiwanese, but apparently that was widely enough understood.

 

Apart from Maryknoll there was at least one other language institute teaching Taiwanese, and all kinds of textbooks. There are not nearly as many resources as for Mandarin, but enough to get you a pretty decent basis to build on. I don't know if it's possible or adviseable to self-study, for me that's never a good fit so I didn't look into that. The only thing I never found was a really good dictionary.

 

I don't know any Shanghainese, but I suspect the problem with 'no words for common concepts' that you mention isn't that many young speakers don't speak Shanghainese all that well as they are more at home in Mandarin, and that many people in general are not that agile with languages. If the woman you asked about 孤独 is generally comfortable expressing herself in Shanghainese, she probably knows and has used the Shanghainese word for it, but cannot access it when she's in a Mandarin mindset. From Taiwanese conversation I've seen on tv and elsewhere it looks like you can have political discussions (the Talking Show was good for that), drama (soap series) and any other talk in it.

 

 

Work intensively with audio and in person with native speakers who are willing to correct you, and you'll acquire the phonological system much more quickly than you think. There's not really a need to learn a romanization system, especially if native speakers don't even use one.

If this works for you: great. Personally I wouldn't want to try learning a language without a romanisation system. You hear a new word but can't write it down or look it up, you want to look up a new word but the only thing you can do is wait for a native speaker to come by because you can't write it. Of course you can build your own transcription system, but why reinvent the wheel? There must be at least some systems for Shanghainese already in existence, and surely there are one or two that are more widely used and well-researched, so I would just learn and use those. But if your system works well for you, we just have different learning styles.

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BigMax

Hi, to add my 2 cents, Cantonese is RIDICULOUSLY 'hard'! 

 

I am currently living in Guangdong, and having been learning Mandarin for a couple of years. Therefore I can pick out some Cantonese words, such as '如果', which  sounds pretty close in both languages. But there are 2 fundamental problems, 1) the 9 tones, and 2) it is kinda useless. I loathe people saying a language is useless, but if you are in Guangdong, most people will speak Mandarin, and if you are in HK, Macau, Malaysia then Canto speakers are going to able to speak English/Mandarin.

 

I would add a caveat that, if you were to settle down in a Cantonese speaking area, learn it. I had a HK girlfriend and she taught me some basic stuff. But, really, Mandarin is going to be more useful for you and take a lot less time to learn. 

 

To sum up 'how hard' I feel Cantonese is; after studying for an hour, and then going back to Mandarin, it is like going from running in concrete boots to floating on air (and Mandarin aint easy!) 

 

 

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Lu

How useful a language is entirely depends on who you want to talk to (or what you want to do with it in general), so indeed I object to the idea that a language, any language, can be objectively useless. If it's useless to you, then why are you even learning it?

 

And how can tones be so hard when you already know Mandarin? In my experience, once you're used to the concept of tones, an additional number of them is just a matter of practice. I had little trouble with the 7 tones in Taiwanese and can't imagine the 6/7/9 tones of Cantonese can be all that more difficult. If the number of tones are the one thing that makes Cantonese so hard, it can't be more difficult than Mandarin after the first few weeks.

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BigMax

I didn't say it was useless. I said if you live somewhere then you should learn the local dialect. I live in Guangdong, had a girlfriend from Hong Kong so I'm learning Cantonese.

 

But if one were to offer advise as to what to learn, Mandarin or Cantonese, then I would say Mandarin as most Canto speakers can either speak Mandarin or English. Therefore, if you want to learn 'Chinese' choose Mandarin. If you have a good Mandarin level, choose Japanese.

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Lu

 

But if one were to offer advise as to what to learn, Mandarin or Cantonese, then I would say Mandarin

I would first ask what the learner wants to use Chinese for. I agree that in many cases, Mandarin will be the best choice, but in other cases, Cantonese, or Shanghainese, or something else entirely, might be more useful.

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BigMax

I'm very happy to concede that point.

 

On your Shanghaiese point, I used to live in 无锡, which has an amazing dialect. Almost entirely different to Mandarin and more closely aligned to Japanese or Korean. The 无锡话 word for 'socks', for example, is the same as Korea 'yau ma'. I have heard that 无锡话 and Shanghaiese are similar.

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anonymoose

Well, realistically, I'd say that Shanghainese is pretty unneccessary in the sense that one can get by perfectly without it. After all, many inhabitants of Shanghai do not speak Shanghainese. But then one could say the same about any acquired skill, playing the piano for instance. But sometimes we do things not out of neccessity, but simply out of interest.

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renzhe

I have heard that 无锡话 and Shanghaiese are similar.

They are mutually intelligible to a large degree.

I personally find Wu languages fascinating. With their sharp, Japanese-sounding staccato and pitch accent, they are the coolest-sounding Chinese language family for me.

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querido

With regard to listening comprehension only, which for me is the hardest thing, I think Cantonese will be easier than Mandarin; at least in the Cantonese materials I'm exposed to now (learning materials, RTHK podcasts, etc.) Cantonese speakers move their lips more.

Also, Cantonese dialogue tends to be richer in hints concerning the speakers' reactions and feelings about what is being said. That can help orient one to what is happening.

 

[Edit: Over three years later, I still agree with those two points.]

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anonymoose
I took classes at Maryknoll

 

I guess you were lucky to have access to classes. As far as I know, there are no widely recognised classes available for Shanghainese. A lot of the universities in Shanghai offer optional classes in Shanghainese alongside their Mandarin classes. I attended one at Jiaotong University, but it was next to useless. Apart from being a native speaker, the teacher didn't really have a clue about how to teach the language. He basically just used one of the low quality courses available in the shops, reading through the dialogues and having people repeating. There was never any explanation of tones or grammar (which does have its difference from Mandarin, even if only minor).

 

I don't know any Shanghainese, but I suspect the problem with 'no words for common concepts' that you mention isn't that many young speakers don't speak Shanghainese all that well as they are more at home in Mandarin, and that many people in general are not that agile with languages. If the woman you asked about 孤独 is generally comfortable expressing herself in Shanghainese, she probably knows and has used the Shanghainese word for it, but cannot access it when she's in a Mandarin mindset.

 

Yes, I think that's basically the problem. But the example I gave was just an example. It is actually surprising the number of times I have asked various people how to express a relatively ordinary concept in Shanghainese, only to be met with consternation. Actually, just yesterday I asked a different person how to express 孤独 in Shanghainese, and the answer I got was that usually one would rather say something like 我觉得一个人没劲啊.

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Lu

 

I attended one at Jiaotong University, but it was next to useless. Apart from being a native speaker, the teacher didn't really have a clue about how to teach the language. He basically just used one of the low quality courses available in the shops, reading through the dialogues and having people repeating. There was never any explanation of tones or grammar (which does have its difference from Mandarin, even if only minor).

I've had similar classes for Taiwanese as well, at Shida. The teacher was lovely and well-meaning, but the material was crappy and I soon dropped out. But as I understood, Shanghainese is actually being learned, not just by interested foreigners but also by business people from elsewhere who hope it'll give them an edge with their Shanghainese business partners. Aren't there better courses somewhere? I found Maryknoll through Forumosa, where people also recommended some other language schools that taught it, isn't there a Shanghai expat forum where someone will have ideas?

 

But yes, I was lucky, if there hadn't been classes I wouldn't have learned at all. I'm not good at self-study.

 

 

Actually, just yesterday I asked a different person how to express 孤独 in Shanghainese, and the answer I got was that usually one would rather say something like 我觉得一个人没劲啊.

Hm. Perhaps they just use different ways of saying things and there are also lots of common concepts in Shanghainese that you'd need half a sentence for in English? I'd still think it's because many people don't give that much thought to language, but of course I could be wrong.

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Pastaforever

As a native Cantonese speaker, I think learning Cantonese can be extremely difficult for a foreigner.

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Debbie Chan

As a Cantonese speaker, I think one of the reasons for Cantonese to be difficult to learn is that what we say are usually different from what we write, and that's one of the things that distinguish Cantonese from Mandarin too.  Also, in some peculiar cases, we can change the order of the words and it still makes sense while it rarely if not never happen in Mandarin and English(or maybe other languages too, I don't really know), which makes Cantonese harder to be understood.  There are also some phrases or expressions in Cantonese that have no translation or similar terms in other languages.

 

I don't know much about the tones since, you know, I'm a native speaker so they just kick in naturally, but I think it can be a huge issue as using the wrong tone can end up in a totally different word.

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