Cantonese at a Glance

Is Cantonese on your shortlist of languages to learn?

Below I give a quick and dirty synopsis of what you should be aware of and to expect when you go down this road.

Chinese is a special case within languages, so before I go any further I'd like to let you know something.

Chinese is called a language, but what people actually speak are different dialects. The problem is that the dialects are so different the are not mutually intelligible and may as well be considered separate languages.

With that said there are two main dialects you should be aware of. First is Mandarin and the second is Cantonese. Mandarin is the more widely spoken while Cantonese is spoken mainly in Hong Kong and the surround areas (As well as areas with high concentrations of Hong Kongese immigrants).

In this post I'll focus on Cantonese. To see a At a Glance of Mandarin click here.


Semi-useful in Hong Kong, but most Hong Kongese speak English pretty fluently.

Like Japanese, it is  a bit of a niche language.

Fluency Time

Quite a while. If you are coming from a Romance language like I'm assuming it's going to take much longer than a language like Spanish.

The reasons a various(some of the same reasons as Japanese), but mostly because of:

  • Hanzi(Chinese characters). There are 3000 kanji that are used and expected to be remembered. But unlike Japanese there is no standardized list to say which are absolutely necessary.
  • Tones. Not that hard once you get used to them, but at the beginning its a pain.
    Tones are when a word has the exact same sound but said in a different tone of voice. An example is when you ask a question and inflect your voice to signify its a question.
    Mandarin has at least 4 tones, but Cantonese has more with either 6 or 9 depending on how they are counting tones. And each tone makes the sound have a completely different meaning.

With consistent daily effort expect 1-2 years to be fluent enough to handle daily tasks.

Top Countries

Hong Kong and pockets in the west coast of USA. Not really a big language.

Future Outlook

For native Hong Kongese it will probably be important, but in general it is a niche language. The majority of the populace being pretty good at English further inhibits it.

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