Wanted: Cantonese Materials For Foreigners Who Already Know Mandarin

I am not even close to committing to trying to think about beginning to learn Cantonese. It’s Mandarin all the way for me (for now). But the fact is: I’m finishing my 3rd year in Cantonese Land (where I happily use Mandarin, by the way) and I really should at least know about the báihuà 白话 here. (Oh! The peer pressure!)

According to this thread at Sinoglot, it’ll be easier for me to learn Cantonese (if I ever decided to) by comparing it to the Mandarin that I already know than it would be for someone starting from scratch (seems obvious, but it’s complicated, apparently). I won’t be able to ignore the Mandarin I already know so I’ll be comparing no matter what happens.

What I’d really like to find is some materials that outline:

1) The different Romanization systems of Cantonese (and which one I should learn)

2) The tones (including how many there are: a shockingly difficult question for any of these native speakers to answer).

3) The phonemes

4) Anything else that would be helpful in getting the “discount” based on the Mandarin I already know.

I realize the target market for this resource is (can it be true?) even smaller than the target market for my own book, but I was wondering if these things exist anywhere (outside of the comments section of that thread, of course).

Anyone (including you in that thread) have any ideas?


  1. Hey, Albert, my colleague is a Chinese teacher in HK. He just finished a master degree in Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language. Here are his answers.

    Question 1: There are 3 different system of Cantonese Romanization. Each has its difference.

    Question 2: Basically, there are 6 tones, but some fundamental scholars would classify them into 9 tones.

    Question 3: The Phonemes are more or less the same, but Cantonese has a few more. Besides, there’s no set rules for intonation shift, unlike the putonghua tonal shift. For Cantonese, it’s more subtle and complicated.

    If you need more help, you can reach him at zipzipziv -AT- hotmail -DOT- com

  2. Some tips:

    If your Chinese reading skills are up to it, there are a fair amount of materials available (in Hong Kong bookstores at least) for Chinese people who want to learn Cantonese, written in Chinese. For obvious reasons, these books all highlight the differences and similarities between Mandarin and Cantonese.

    As for Cantonese learning materials in English written for people who already know Mandarin, the closest I can think of is this bilingual book:


    I bought it many years ago and seem to have misplaced my copy, but I recall that it had some very useful glossaries and grammar explanations. Some of the English translations were a bit dodgy, though. Also, one danger of this kind of book is that it perhaps makes Cantonese seem more different from Mandarin than it really is, intimidating the learner. It’s useful to remember that many Mandarin expressions can be used perfectly well in Cantonese (i.e. spoken with Cantonese pronunciation of each syllable), even though a “pure” (i.e. unique) Cantonese equivalent may exist.

    The widely available Cantonese grammar books by Stephen Matthews and Virginia Yip are excellent and do point out some of the similarities and differences between Mandarin and Cantonese. The drawback with these books is that they don’t provide characters, so you have to guess at the Mandarin cognates of words. This becomes rather easy with experience, by the way.

    Wikipedia also has some pretty good introductory articles about various aspects of Cantonese.

    Finally, if you are serious about learning Cantonese, you should make a habit of memorizing (or at least casting a glance at) the Cantonese pronunciation when you look up characters. Cantonese pronunciations of characters are provided alongside Mandarin in quite a few printed and electronic dictionaries. Memorizing them is not as hard as it sounds because of the relatively systematic correspondences between Cantonese and Mandarin pronunciations.

  3. A Short Cut to Cantonese: An innovative approach for speakers of Mandarin, by Yin-Ping Cream Lee at Chinese University of Hong Kong.

    It’s a pretty decent book, and it comes with CDs as well. I was gifted it by a fellow Mandarin-speaking foreigner from, coincidentally, not too far from where I was raised (and thus also a native French, but English-dominate, speaker), and I found it quite useful. I don’t speak a lot of Cantonese as I work in a Mandarin-and-English-only environment, but it helped me immensely in the beginning and has allowed me to speak at least everyday Cantonese.

    The colloquial Cantonese-Mandarin book is simply a list of words, and, whilst I do enjoy the book quite a bit being that I’m here in Hong Kong and constantly am struggling to use the HK way of saying things in Mandarin and Cantonese rather than the standard way (does this make sense? i.e. even when speaking Mandarin, I adopt Cantonese word usage and syntax, as this is what HKers tend to understand), it isn’t truly helpful for anything other than a glossary.

  4. Hey Albert,

    My colleague and I here at 华师附中, both of us having studied Mandarin in college, started learning Cantonese this year from a textbook called 新时空粤语(上册), published by 暨南大学出版社 (though we actually picked it up at the 华师大 bookstore). I give it two thumbs up.

    We read through the lessons and conversations with our tutor and, at the height of our diligence (it has waned somewhat recently…) even memorized the passages that follow, and believe it or not they’re actually kind of entertaining, even legitimately humorous sometimes, and the text in between has got some good stuff about usage, especially HK vs. Guangzhou and Cantonese vs. Mandarin and stuff like that. Let me know if you’re interested and I can give you more details or tell you exactly where to get it.

  5. @Lina: True, Colloquial Cantonese and Putonghua Equivalents containes mostly lists of words, but as far as I recall it has some essay-like sections at the back that I found very interesting.

  6. “Cantonese 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.”


  7. As someone who learned Cantonese after Japanese but before Mandarin … a word of advice, or two:

    1) listen, listen, listen – and then listen some more. To REAL Cantonese, not the news but movies or hanging out with people, etc.

    2) First, learn the initials, vowels and finals (there really aren’t that many) from a book that has a tape/CD/mp3, but don’t worry much about the tones.
    After you can pronounce the sounds, start noticing them in the words you hear.
    Then, as soon as possible, get rid of the book, stop writing anything down in Cantonese pinyin (of course Chinese characters is OK), and just repeat what you hear people saying. With six (or more) tones, and so much slang and so many borrowed words, you’re better off not approaching Cantonese at all like a “classroom” language. Who can think of six tones when they’re talking? Not me. But I love speaking Cantonese.

    Oh, and find some Cantonese-only-speaking in-laws. That works pretty well, too. 🙂

  8. I learned Cantonese first, living in Hong Kong, and I’m glad I got to go from Cantonese to Mandarin and not the other way around. But I think one of the keys is that it’s the very common, very basic vocab that is different. All the more advanced vocab is the same, with Cantonese pronunciation, of course, but the same words and characters. So I can usually pick up new words in Mandarin just by listening for context and comparing to the Cantonese I already know.
    Another thing is that Cantonese has a vastly more diverse phonetic structure than Mandarin,since it has several consonant finals, more vowels, and more tones. So it may be more obvious to me as a Cantonese speaker when I’m hearing a word in Mandarin than it would be for a Mandarin speaker hearing it in Cantonese.
    Stick with Yale pinyin, and avoid tone numbers.
    I love Cantonese — I speak Mandarin all the time but Cantonese feels like home.

  9. Try 今日粤语. We used it at 中山大学 in GZ. My teacher (潘小洛) was one of the authors of the new edition. It is aimed squarely at those who both speak mandarin and read Chinese as all explanations are in Chinese. Was pretty good, but would complement it with some books on current slang that you can get in HK as a lot of the language in 今日粤语 is a bit formal.

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