In language learning, there is a lot to get on top of. You have the grammar, the pronunciation, the syntax. You have the essential receptive and productive language skills – listening and reading, and speaking and writing, respectively. And you have all those quirks that a particular language might have: a strange common idiom, an idiosyncratic way that nouns and adjectives need to agree, or the particular stress of a syllable.

All of this contributes to make learning a language one of the most difficult – and intimidating – tasks that there is.

But then there is a language like Cantonese, which necessarily brings its own particular challenges. The different script – as in, the non-alphabetic, logographic writing system. The phonetic differences, including the tonal structure of the language and the aspiration. And the fact that there are no verb tenses in the language at all – only temporal indications through the adverbs.

All of this makes Cantonese a little tricky to get your head around – at least at first.

Yet, there is something even more important than all of this for learning Cantonese – and arguably any language. That’s vocabulary learning, the process by which you will be encountering, memorizing, and using a new word. To some experts in linguistics, this is the most important part of the process of learning a second language.

And so, we’re here to tell you how best to learn your new vocabulary. We’ll be looking at some ways to learn new words in Cantonese – and ways to use them too.

Check out how you can learn to read Cantonese!

Why Learn Cantonese?

Although we’re often told that, in this day and age, it is best to learn more commonly spoken languages – such as Spanish, Mandarin, or Arabic – sometimes people are just drawn to a particular foreign language.

They don’t care to learn languages just because they might be useful, but – rather – they have different reasons for the appeal of a given new language. They might have fallen in love. Life might have led them to move to a particular place. They might have developed that strange interest in a place that just comes out of nowhere.

So, if you’re convinced that you want to be fluent in your language, there’s often no changing your mind. And we’re guessing that, if you are here, Cantonese is the language for you.

Without much more, we’ll let you know at least that it is a great language to learn, by the way. Sixty million people speak Cantonese, in one of the most commercially and culturally important areas of the world: China’s Guangdong province, Hong Kong, and Macau.

But it’s also one of those wonderful languages that native speakers of different languages learn to communicate with each other: a lingua franca. It’s used as such across southeast Asia.

As we said before though, this information probably isn’t enough to get you interested in the language. That, we hope, has happened already.

Check out our full guide to learning Cantonese.

Bus with Cantonese writing and vocabular
Practice your Cantonese vocab - and head to Hong Kong!

Why Focus on Learning Vocabulary?

A more important question really is why so much focus on learning vocab?

This isn’t as daft as it may sound. Yes, we all know that languages are made up of words – thanks. And so, without vocabulary, you aren’t going to go very far – thanks again.

But it’s more important than that.

Many linguists believe that our normal vocabularies are actually much smaller than we might assume. Whilst there might be over 170,000 words in the English language, the reality is that we use just the tiniest fraction of these day-to-day.

Three hundred words, actually, make up sixty-five percent of the things we say.

Think about that for a moment. With three hundred words, you can unlock the majority of content, speech, and lines in a given language. And, around those most common words, you can build your grammar, your own speech.

So, before you freak out about the amount of stuff you need to memorize, just think. Three hundred words. That’s getting you over half of the way to fluency. After that, when you build vocabulary, you are only becoming more advanced – but you know the essentials already.

Learn how to write in Cantonese!

How to Learn Vocabulary in Cantonese.

With that thought in mind, we hope you are going into your Cantonese vocabulary acquisition process with happy thoughts and a bit of optimism. Because developing a bit of fluency in a language is not as hard as you are often told it is.

Anyway, here are some ways to extend your own vocabulary list. They are, in fact, the only ways you’re going to improve your vocabulary.

Find out the Most Common Cantonese Words.

The step for a language learner hoping to develop their vocabulary skills is to check out the most common words in their target language.

You’ll find these quite easily with a quick Google. Memrise, for example, has a great feature on precisely this.

This list of words will constitute the fundamental elements of your vocabulary development. It provides a substantial and systematic way of organising your lexical learning – rather than just learning the words that you encounter (which is something that you will do later).

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Written Cantonese vocabulary on page
Find new vocabulary from your reading.

Write Down Your New Cantonese Words.

If you have found these word lists, then write them down for your own personal study.

Yes, we said write them down. We don’t mean copy and paste, print, or type up. We mean literally write them down. In this process, words stick better. You have to think about them, their shape, their sound, their ‘spelling’.

And we say ‘spelling’ because you need to write these words, initially at least, both in the Chinese characters and in their Romanized form. This way, you’ll get used to the shape and image of the Chinese character, but also have the crutch for your pronunciation.

Accompany this information with the meanings, any phonetic aids (such as the tones), and any mnemonic that will help your memorization.

Create a Cantonese Dictionary or Flashcard Bank.

With these words, you can do a couple of things – yet the aim here is to have a database of your new vocabulary.

This can be in flashcards – that you can carry around and flick through whenever you have a spare moment. These are good if you want to test yourself or want other people to test you on your new words.

Or, you can be old school and use a dictionary – but only one that you have made yourself. Building a receptive vocabulary is great, sure, but if you actually want to use these words, you’re going to have to develop that productive part of your language knowledge too. So, write them down; produce that language that you are hoping to memorise.

Find tips on Cantonese characters!

Use Language Apps.

Once you have got the basics down, try using language applications on your phone. Depending on how sophisticated they are, you can use them to practice all of your language skills – from reading and writing to speaking and listening.

What apps like Memrise, Duolingo, and Babbel do is organise your language learning into thematic stages – with quizzes, challenges, and tests. These provide vocabulary relevant to the particular theme that you are studying – and reinforce your knowledge through repetition, primarily.

When you are on the move, they are a great way to keep practising. But don’t rely on them entirely.

Cantonese vocabulary on your phone
The internet is a great place to learn Cantonese vocabulary

Immerse Yourself in the Language.

What you really want to be doing to develop your language skills is to pick up language and vocabulary from authentic contexts and situations. This means that your primary aim – after the initial three hundred words – should be to discover new words in dialogues, books, tv programmes, etc etc. In other words, places from which Cantonese people would learn language themselves.

This, among other things, means that you ought to do the following:

  • Read Cantonese literature and magazines;
  • Listen to Cantonese radio and music;
  • Watch Cantonese television and films.

In these places, you will find all sorts of colloquialisms, idioms, and expressions – and you’ll find that you’ll recognise many more words than you think you will.

Remember, after those first three hundred words, you are much better than you think you are.

Find other Cantonese learning strategies!

Simply Translate the Words You Need.

At this point, you are welcome to just translate yourself the words that you encounter in the world.

We don’t recommend things like Google Translate. Rather, find a reliable source of information on Cantonese, such as an Oxford Dictionary, a dictionary published by Routledge, or another prestigious institution.

Encounter a word, translate it, and write it down. Then you can start to memorise it.

Use Your New Words.

Yet, the fun starts when you actually start using your new vocabulary. There is no point learning it if you don’t intend to use it.

So find a native speaker of Cantonese – either a tutor or a friend. And practise, practise, practise.

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