Saturday, January 2, 2021

How to start learning Cantonese as a total beginner

This guide is meant to help anyone at the beginning of the Cantonese learning process find the right resources for learning the language. This assumes you have no previous experience with another Chinese language; if you have previously studied Mandarin and want to study Cantonese through Mandarin (as opposed to through English), you can find a separate guide geared toward your needs here.

Cantonese is not an easy language to learn, but the process is incredibly rewarding. In addition to giving you a completely different access point to the cultures of Hong Kong, Macau, southern mainland China, and Chinese diaspora communities, studying Cantonese is also great exercise for your brain. It’s got six tones—depending on what you count as a “tone”—meaning English speakers are forced to develop a different conception of how pitch relates to meaning.

There is no one path toward learning a language. It really comes down to the individual needs of a learner, as well as where they live and what they have access to. To that end, this guide is essentially a series of  lists of major resources aimed at total beginners: Cantonese textbooks, dictionaries, apps and websites, study centers, listening resources, and video resources. As time goes on, I will try to review each of these resources more thoroughly, in which case I will add a link to the in-depth review. Where possible, I’ve linked to the publishes’ website; otherwise, I’ve linked to major online retailers like Amazon, though you may want to search around for a deal elsewhere if you can.

Most language teachers talk about four skills when it comes to learning a language: speaking, listening, reading, and writing. Cantonese has long been treated almost entirely as an oral language, so pedagogy has mostly focused on speaking and listening. Reading and writing get tricky because written colloquial Cantonese is very different from standard written Chinese; the former tends to appear in online fora and contemporary news media, while the latter is used in formal writings, official documents, historical texts (and roughly the same as the formal written Chinese used by Mandarin speakers in mainland China and Taiwan, if we ignore the simplified/traditional character divide). If you do eventually want to be able to read Chinese characters in Cantonese, then make sure to pick resources that have characters and not just romanization.


Cantonese learning books have been experiencing somewhat of a renaissance of late. The books I’ve listed here are those that offer the tools necessary for building basic Cantonese knowledge from the ground up. Once you get the hang of the basic sounds and grammar, there are a wealth of other books for you to explore (you can find some of them elsewhere on CantoBlog with tags like “Intermediate Cantonese” and “Advanced Cantonese”).

One thing to keep in mind: Cantonese textbooks often diverge in terms of which romanization system they use, the Yale system or Jyutping. I’ve tried to make a note where possible of which textbook uses which. However, you should probably get comfortable with both systems at some point if you want to be able to make use of all the books out there.

Complete Cantonese (Formerly Teach Yourself Cantonese), by Hugh Baker and Ho Pui-Kei

Publisher: Teach Yourself
Date of most recent edition: 2016
Romanization: Yale
Audio: Streams from app or online (older versions have a CD)

The 2011 edition of this course was my first Cantonese textbook ever way back when. It’s quite comprehensive, covering lots of major topics you might want to know about, from shopping to moving to office chitchat. It offers dialogs, readings, speaking exercises, and lots of cultural explanations. Text appears with romanization, Chinese characters, and in many cases, English translation. The extensive Chinese character offerings are by no means universal in Cantonese textbooks, so this is a great choice if you also hope to be able to read written Cantonese.

It has one major weakness: it includes a seventh tone—the high falling tone—that nearly all other modern Cantonese learning resources no longer include, as it has mostly fallen out of use in contemporary usage (the few places where it may still appear—like in the word at the end of sentences—are incredibly idiomatic and can be picked up with practice). One Amazon reviewer suggested taking a pen to the book and changing all high falling tones to high flat tones (as that’s how most are pronounced now).

If you can put up with that one small inconvenience, the book is worth it, especially now that their old CD audio files have been re-recorded and turned into an app you can download for your smartphone or tablet.

Colloquial Cantonese, by Dana Scott Bourgerie, Keith S. T. Tong, and Gregory James

Publisher: Routledge
Date of most recent edition: 2015
Romanization: Yale
Audio: MP3s available to download online, older versions come with CDs

This textbook is also a solid choice, with great dialogues, listening exercises, and cultural information (like a now outdate MTR map; those new stations keep opening up…). It keeps usage of Chinese characters to a minimum (meaning many dialogues only appear as romanization), but it does have little “Recognizing Chinese Character” sections for important things like transportation, food, etc.

One of the excellent features of this book is that it will explain new Cantonese vocabulary within paragraphs of English prose that offer helpful cultural background information about Hong Kong. This casual mixing of Cantonese and English happens a lot IRL, so it’s not too weird within the context of the book. Overall, this is a solid choice for someone moving to Hong Kong who cares more about speaking than ever reading extensive texts in Chinese characters.

Basic Cantonese: A Grammar and Workbook, by Virginia Yip and Stephen Matthews

Publisher: Routledge
Date of most recent edition: 2017
Romanization: Yale
Audio: None

Because this book offers no audio recordings, it should really be treated as a supplement to another Cantonese course rather than a stand-alone textbook. It is also structured around grammar—chapter titles include “Noun classifiers,” “Adjectives,” etc.—so it really is more of a resource for formalizing your understanding of Cantonese mechanics rather than helping you talk about particular subjects.

I highly recommend this book for people attempting to bring more academic formality to their study of Cantonese. The level of linguistic detail far exceeds many other textbooks, and the ample number of exercises means you have plenty of opportunities to test your understanding of the rules.

If you want Chinese characters and not just romanization, make sure to get the 2nd edition (2017); the previous edition provides romanization only.

Cantonese in Communication, by the Chinese University of Hong Kong

Publisher: The Commercial Press
Date of most recent edition: 2018
Romanization: Yale
Audio: Scan a QR code in the book to access online audio

If you are in Hong Kong and take Cantonese at CUHK, you will likely use this book. CUHK is one of the epicenters of contemporary Cantonese pedagogy in Hong Kong, so this book reflects the considerable experience of the teachers at its publishing institution. That being said, it really is designed for classroom use—it might not be as good for self-study. 

This textbook is very methodical. Each chapter is structured as follows: Contexts and linguistics functions; Texts (i.e. dialogues); Vocabulary in us; Notes on language structure; Notes on pragmatic knowledge; Contextualized speaking practice; Listening and speaking. Lessons are centered around specific functions and tasks (e.g. touring Hong Kong, introducing oneself) rather offering a buffet of themed vocabulary for you to mix and match.

This textbook does include Chinese characters, but because it is for oral Cantonese, the stress is much more on speaking and listening than it is on reading. If you have a teacher to speak with, I think this could be a great book to use.


As with the textbooks above, I’ve tried to note the romanization method used in each of these dictionaries. When you’re just beginning, it’s probably best that you pick a dictionary with the same romanization method as the materials that you use.

Pleco (App)

Developer: Pleco Inc.
Most recent edition: Regularly updated
Romanization: Yale or Jyutping

Pleco is must for anyone studying Cantonese. It’s a free app for iOS and Android that you can easily customize by downloading the dictionaries you want (there are many, some free, some paid). For a detailed explanation of which dictionaries to download and how to configure Cantonese to appear, check out the CantoBlog guide here.

English-Cantonese Dictionary, by The Chinese University Press

Publisher: The Chinese University Press
Most recent edition: 2011
Romanization: Yale

If you like to have a paper dictionary flip through (always great for browsing), this is a solid choice. Some of the phrases might feel a little dated now, but it should be helpful enough for students just finding their feet with Cantonese.

Apps and websites

Apps are a great way to tackle Cantonese learning when you’re on the go. That being said, there aren’t as many apps for learning Cantonese as there are for other East Asian languages; I’m still holding out for something on the same level as Duo Lingo or Lingo Deer (the latter is especially good for Korean, Japanese, and Mandarin). 


(See the entry above under “Dictionaries” for more details, or go the CantoBlog guide to Pleco)

Developer: Glossika
Platform: Desktop browser
Romanization: Yale and Jyutping

If your goal is to improve your awareness of Cantonese pronunciation and tones, I think this is one of the best self-study tools on the market. However, it doesn't explain individual vocabulary or grammar, so it should be approached as a supplement to other resources. Read the Cantoblog review for a longer exploration of its features. 


Developer: Drops
Platform: iOS/Android
Romanization: Jyutping

Drops is a vocabulary-building app that supports a number of less frequently studied languages, including Cantonese. It focuses a lot on matching words in your target language with pictures (rather than the direct translation in English), which is a strategy I like a lot. However, a few caveats to be aware of:
·      It focuses mostly on nouns and the occasional verb, so use this more as a supplement to other modes of study that teach sentence construction.
·      The words they use in the later units are very formal (basically standard written Chinese vocabulary pronounced in Cantonese rather than colloquial Cantonese), so your speech might sound a bit stilted if you incorporate some of these words into everyday conversatio.
·      The app is very spotty when it comes to characters that switch tones in certain contexts (like sixth-tone characters that become a second tone at the end of a word). The audio is usually right when the romanization is wrong, but that still creates some confusion.

How to Study Cantonese – Storybooks

Developer: How to Study Cantonese
Platform: Any device that can handle Epub file format
Romanization: Yale and Jyutping

How to Study Cantonese is a digital publishing house that creates picture books written in colloquial Cantonese. The prices are a bit steep given how short the texts are, but they come with Chinese characters, both Jyutping and Yale romanization, English translations, and audio recordings. If you get to a point where you want to start being able to read basic prose in Cantonese, this is a solid place to start. I’d suggest going through it repeatedly with the audio at first in order to simulate the experience of someone reading to you.


Developer: italki
Platform: Android, iOS, Desktop
Romanization: Many

italki is a platform for finding private language tutors with whom you can take electronic lessons. You buy credits through the app and spend them on your tutor(s) of choice. Reviewers note a variety of experiences, so it really comes down to what sort of tutor you find. If you (like most people) live in a place without access to formal Cantonese classes, this can offer you a resource for practicing your speech.

Lesson centers

If you especially want to improve your Cantonese speaking, then lessons are very helpful. Tones are very important in Cantonese; having a teacher present means someone can spot-check your sense of pitch. This is especially critical just as you are starting out.

A lot of people who study Cantonese do so because they live in or are moving to Hong Kong, in which case they are quite lucky—there are plenty of places to take lessons in the S.A.R. For people elsewhere, you might have to get a bit more creative.

University language programs in Hong Kong

The following language programs in Hong Kong offer substantial training in Cantonese. I only have personal experience from the CUHK program, which I liked a lot, but I know people who enjoyed other programs as well. Also, following the COVID-19 pandemic, CUHK and other universities began offering remote classes that can be taken internationally, so try looking for one of those if possible.

·      Hong Kong University

University language programs in North America

Hong Kong remains the best place to get Cantonese language education. However, the following university in North America also offer Cantonese language instruction. You might have to check what course are open to enrolled students vs. community members, and offerings are prone to change.

·      Stanford University
·      Ohio State University
·      New York University

Private lessons

There are numerous language schools in Hong Kong that offer private lessons, as well as tutors who work independently. Outside of Hong Kong, offerings are probably more limited. Interested learners can try community listings, sites like Craigslist (it’s how I found my first Mandarin in the US), or apps like italki (see under “Apps and websites”).

When evaluating a possible teacher, I recommend writing down beforehand what your concrete goals are. During your first meeting, ask the teacher what methods they might use to help you achieve these goals. Finding the right teacher can take time, but it can make all the difference in terms of helping you optimize the rate at which you acquire Cantonese.

Audio resources

When you’re just starting a language, it’s critical that you get a sense for the sound. To that end, I highly recommend listening to at least ten minutes of Cantonese audio daily, even if it’s just on in the background while you do dishes or walk to the office. Below are various Hong Kong radio stations with apps that let you listen from afar.

·      RTHK iOS/Android
·      Commercial Radio iOS/Android
·      D100 iOS/Android


Actually reading Cantonese-specific characters is a skill that many learners choose not to work on, as most written documents and literature in Hong Kong use formal Chinese. However, a growing body of fiction, not to mention social media and fora, use written colloquial Cantonese. The following are a few books for practicing Cantonese reading, with some offering more guidance than others.


Once you have learned the basics of Cantonese grammar and vocabulary, you'll likely want to learn some slang. While speaking with people is a great opportunity for learning these types of words and phrases (and also learning what slang has already become old-fashioned—Cantonese changes fast!), there are also some awesome books out there for giving you a leg up. These include:

Video resources

Videos require more attention than the radio or music, but the addition of subtitles (in most cases) means you’re able to make more sense of what’s going on. Here are a few place you can visit for Cantonese video (some require memberships).

·      YouTube (various channels, but a few major ones below)
o   視電台
·      一丁目
o   Great for local Hong Kong documentaries and topical news
·      RTHK
·      ViuTV
·      TVB
·      Foreign-based streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Crunchyroll
o   Just search for Cantonese films and TV shows