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Top 10 Reasons to Learn Cantonese

Written By: Due-East on October 21, 2009 5 Comments
The awesomeness that is Hong Kong
The awesomeness that is Hong Kong: Reason enough to learn Cantonese.
A friend of mine just sent me a link to a New York Times article about how Cantonese is slowly dying out in New York’s Chinatown. I couldn’t help but get a little sad reading it. Sure, it’s a ridiculously difficult language to learn (which is why it should be spelled Can’t-onese), but it’s also an amazingly interesting language brimming with character. So, here I make my case for why people should try to learn it in addition to Mandarin. Here you are: My top 10 reasons to learn Cantonese!
Reason 1: The Wow Factor – As I said above, Cantonese is ridiculously difficult. Nobody seems to agree on exactly how many tones it has. Some people say 7. Some say 9. And some say over 11, referencing so-called silent tones. Sorry, but if it’s silent, it’s not a tone. But the insistence on the existence of these so-called silent tones only ups the ‘cool factor’ of Cantonese. If you can master it, you’re pretty much an unstoppable language learning force. Native speakers will lavish you with praise, giving your self-esteem a temporary boost (at least until you say something wrong and get made fun of. See reason number 8). And also, I’ll be really jealous of you.
Reason 2: The Pronunciation – Mandarin pronunciation requires more precision than Cantonese. To speak Mandarin fluently and quickly, you have to train your tongue to make some pretty drastic motions in rapid succession. Cantonese, on the other hand, makes heavy use of the throat, and some words you don’t even really have to open your mouth to pronounce correctly. How cool is that?
Reason 3: The Slang – Cantonese is chock-full-o-slang and plays-on-words. Because there are 7 (or 9 or 11 or 7.5 billion or whatever) tones in Cantonese and because of the way the tones work, there are gobs of opportunities to coin new slang terms because so many words sound exactly like other words in every way, save for the pitch of the tone. It’s kind of like singing a word on an A instead of an A-flat changing the meaning of the word entirely. Yes, it’s hard, but don’t think about that…it’s also super cool.
Reason 4: The Particles – This is probably the coolest thing about Cantonese. There are tons of particles that native speakers slap on to the ends of sentences to stress emotion, and it sounds just plain cool. You know you’ve heard it in movies or on the streets: “something-something-something aaaaaaaahhh…something-something gaaalaaaaaahhh….something-something-something waaaahhhhh.” Total. Awesomeness. I swear, if I could can that and sell it, I’d be a rich man.
Reason 5: Hong Kong Movies – If you like Chinese movies, especially older ones, then you’ll enjoy them more after learning Cantonese. Let’s face it, sometimes subtitles don’t convey the same meaning as the spoken dialogue. So if you can learn enough Cantonese to follow along with the actors on the screen, you’ll enjoy Hong Kong movies more. Plus, remember the slang and plays-on-words? Yep, you’ll get a lot more of the jokes if you understand Cantonese.
Reason 6: The Music – If you’re a music lover like I am, learning Cantonese in addition to Mandarin (or any other language you may learn) will just open up that much more music to you. And who doesn’t want more music to listen to? Pretty much only deaf people. And maybe people who don’t like music, but I can’t understand that kind of person, so I don’t expect them to understand why I like Cantonese and thus don’t expect them to read this post.
Reason 7: The Food – Cantonese food is good. There’s a huge variety of tasty dishes to choose from, all full of flavor. Most are relatively tame, so you unadventurous people should be ok. But Cantonese food has those of you who like to try eating things you can’t quite identify but obviously came out of some animal’s nether regions covered as well. There’s something for everybody!
Reason 8: The Humility – Feel like you’ve got a problem with pride? Looking down on other people? Try learning Cantonese! Unless you have perfect pitch and unparalleled language learning abilities, you’re going to speak incorrectly. A lot. And you’ll get laughed at. Often. And may never be told why. And getting laughed at without intentionally being funny is a really good way to keep yourself humble.
Reason 9: Preserving Culture – I’ve heard that Cantonese is much more closely related to ancient Chinese than Mandarin is, so for you cultural purists out there, Cantonese is a good way to go.
Reason 10: Widening Your Horizons – Technically, this applies just as much to Mandarin as it does Cantonese, but this post isn’t about Mandarin, so let’s pretend Mandarin doesn’t exist for now. Learning another language is a great way to widen your horizons. Every culture has some distinct ways of thinking that other cultures just don’t have, and Westerners could stand to learn a lot about loyalty, hard work, and thrift from the Chinese.
Extra reason: To Get a Date – I hate to resort to this because I think learning another language for the purpose of getting a date is the epitome of lame (actually creepy), unless you’re doing it for the sake of impressing someone that you’re already interested in regardless of his or her cultural background, in which case it’s sort of romantic, so go with it. But in the interests of getting more people to learn Cantonese, I’ll go ahead and say it in the hopes that your motivations will change: girls and guys alike love it when you put forth the effort to learn to speak their native language. There, I said it.
Well, that’s it. Those are my 10 reasons for learning Cantonese. Interested? Then I suggest the following few methods to begin your learning:
  • Pimsleur Cantonese – Pimsleur is a great start for learning any language, and Cantonese is no exception. It’s expensive, but you can get it for about half price here. There’s only one level of Cantonese to learn (compared to Mandarin’s 3 levels), but it’s a start.
  • Teach Yourself Cantonese – This is a pretty good program for learning Cantonese. It includes a text book as well as CDs for you auditory learners. I never finished it because of getting sidetracked with life (only got through like 15 pages at most), but it’s a solid program. You can get it from lots of places, including Amazon.com. I’ll warn you; the binding on these books used to be pretty shoddy, but when I wrote the publisher to complain after my book fell apart for no reason, someone wrote back assuring me that their next editions would have upgraded binding. That was about 6 months ago, so hopefully it’s better now.
  • Cantonese Help Sheets – It’s not exactly a course, more of a tutor in learning Cantonese. It’s well worth a look. Check it out.
There you have it, my 10 plus reasons for learning Cantonese. Get started now, because it’ll take a lifetime to master…

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5 Responses to “Top 10 Reasons to Learn Cantonese”

  1. Guus says on: 22 October 2009 at 1:17 am

    Haha – a long-term learner of Mandarin, I guess that Chinese language will keep me busy for a while. Your reasons are mainly cultural, and though I agree with you on the coolness factor and the interestingness of the language, I think you’d agree that Mandarin beats Cantonese in terms of how broad its being used.

    That said, I think anyone just speaking Mandarin will have a hard time getting anything done in HK and Guangdong

  2. 孙智谦 says on: 22 October 2009 at 2:25 pm

    Mandarin has me plenty busy, too. But I’ve found that Cantonese is like an infection in people’s hearts. I’ve known several of people who at one time made fun of Cantonese and looked down on it as rough and ugly-sounding, but after being around it a while completely changed their tune. I didn’t particularly love it when I first heard it, but now if for some reason i don’t hear it, I kind of miss it. I’ve tried to just focus on Mandarin for a few years now, but in time I always fall off the wagon and try to pick up a few words or phrases of Cantonese.

    “Cantonese, I wish I could quit you.” Is there a 12-step group for Cantonese? Cantoholics Anonymous, maybe?

  3. Ben Ross says on: 7 November 2009 at 10:48 am

    Cantonese is still alive and kicking in Chicago. While the number of Mandarin speakers is gradually increasing, Cantonese (or more accurately Taishan hua)is still the dominant language in Chinatown.

  4. John Moxford says on: 14 November 2009 at 12:12 pm

    The article is very good and I agree that it is very important that the culture and languages are preserved. I urge you all to learn Cantonese.

  5. Brian King says on: 31 December 2009 at 11:02 am

    I agree. There are plenty of reasons to learn Cantonese. My article at http://hanyu.com/2009/08/02/so-yuh-wanna-learn-cantonese-eh/ which laid out 5 reasons NOT to learn Cantonese, was intended to be taken tongue in cheek and to stimulate discussion. I encourage anybody interested in learning Cantonese to do so.

    BTW, the number of tones is often misunderstood. There’s no need to analyze Cantonese as having more than 6 tones. There are 3 level tones, 1 falling, and 2 rising. The Entering Tone is the same as the 3 level tones, except it always has a final stop consonant -p, -t, -k. Treating the Entering Tones as 3 separate tones gives 9 tones.

    For some speakers, the high level tone may also have a slight fall to it, leading some to posit 7 tones.


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