Saturday, January 2, 2021

How to start learning Cantonese after learning Mandarin

This guide is for people who have previously studied Mandarin and are looking for resources to learn Cantonese. If you have no previous experience with a Chinese language and want to start with Cantonese, you can find a more relevant guide here. Mandarin speakers with a shakier grasp of Chinese characters and grammar may prefer that guide, as this guide assumes you want to learn Cantonese through Mandarin (as opposed to through English). Explanatory notes in most of the books mentioned here are generally in Chinese (simplified or traditional characters, depending on the place of publication).

When coming to Cantonese after Mandarin, the main thing to be aware of is that the two are mutually unintelligible languages. While you can sometimes get away with using Mandarin vocabulary with a Cantonese pronunciation, you will often come off as overly formal. Common verbs frequently differ from Mandarin (like instead of ), and grammar and syntax are not exactly the same (e.g., direct and indirect objects appear in opposite order).

The best learning materials for you are probably the ones that explicitly address those differences. To that end, I’ve listed helpful textbooks, dictionaries, apps and websites, lesson centers, audio resources, and video resources that you might consider using.


Although these textbooks are written for Mandarin speakers, they generally still use a romanization system to show how characters are pronounced. These romanization systems (usually Jyutping or Yale) are a bit different from Mandarin pinyin, though Yale is the closer of the two options, so I would opt for that if you want to minimize confusion.

《粵語速成 初級教材》, 香港中文大學雅禮中國語文研習所

Publisher: 商務印書館(香港)有限公司
Date of most recent edition: 2010
Romanization: Yale
Audio: CDs

This is the textbook series I used in classes at CUHK (the link goes to the first of three books in a series). Dialogues are presented in both Cantonese and Mandarin, and the grammar points tend to focus on explicit differences between the two languages. As the books advance, they also teach you patterns in pronunciation shifts between Mandarin and Cantonese. Overall, a solid series. The first book also includes English translations of the vocabulary, but the later books in the series do not.

Cantonese in Hong Kong, by Kwok-kin Chan and Chung-mou Si

Publishers: Greenwood Press
Date of most recent edition: 2005
Romanization: Yale
Audio: CDs

This book includes explanations for Cantonese words and grammar in both English and Mandarin, making it very accessible for English speakers who also know Mandarin. Chapters are themed around specific tasks (“Asking for directions”) or locations (“Pacific Place,” “Macau,” etc.). One major flaw to be aware of, however, is that it still includes the high falling tone, which has mostly disappeared in contemporary Hong Kong Cantonese except in specific idiomatic circumstances; you should read the words marked in the book with the high falling tone as high level tones instead.


Pleco (App)

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

Pleco is must for anyone studying Mandarin or Cantonese. It’s a free app for iOS and Android that you can easily customize by downloading the dictionaries you want (some paid). For a detailed explanation of which dictionaries to download and how to configure Cantonese to appear, check out the CantoBlog guide here. I especially recommend downloading Guangzhou-Putonghua Cidian (GZP) and Guangzhouhua FangyanCidian (GZH), as they provide ample comparisons between differing Mandarin and Cantonese usages of specific characters or words.

《廣州話普通話同形詞對比詞典》, 周無忌, 饒秉才, 歐陽覺亞

Publisher: 商務印書館(香港)有限公司
Most recent edition: 2015
Romanization: Weird hybrid of Jyutping and phonetic alphabet

This dictionary explains the similarities and differences in usage of words that are comprised of the same characters in both Mandarin and Cantonese. It also offers alternative words in Cantonese for shared words with Mandarin that might sound formal if used in Cantonese in that form. Entries include context sentences. All entries are written in standard written Chinese in traditional characters, so your reading level needs to be fairly high in order to get much use out of the book.

《廣州話方言字字典》, 周無忌, 饒秉才, 歐陽覺亞

Publisher: 商務印書館(香港)有限公司
Most recent edition: 2019
Romanization: Weird hybrid of Jyutping and phonetic alphabet

This is a relatively new but important dictionary. It defines Cantonese-specific characters (e.g. , , etc.) in standard written Chinese, and sometimes provides a colloquial Mandarin equivalent. If your goal is to also become literate in written Cantonese, this book is a huge help.

Apps and websites


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

Quiz - Cantonese Kids Game

Developer: iAppsTeam
Platform: iOS
Romanization: None

This app is pretty simple. While aimed at children, it is a great way for beginning students to learn basic vocabulary like numbers, animals, and colors. Audio is offered in both Mandarin and Cantonese, meaning there is ample opportunity for aural reinforcement.

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. Since you already know Chinese characters, these books offer a way to expose yourself to slightly longer texts written in Cantonese rather than Mandarin.


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. I’ve noticed tutors on the platform who are fluent in both Mandarin and Cantonese, so you should probably search for one of them.

Lesson centers

University language programs in Hong Kong

Because many mainland Chinese move to Hong Kong, there is relatively high demand for Cantonese lessons taught in Mandarin. I took some of these courses through the Yale-China Chinese Language Center at CUHK and found them to be incredibly helpful. Some of these programs are offered at night or on weekends, while others require that you enroll full time as a student.

·      Hong Kong University

University language programs in North America

The following universities have offered Cantonese courses for Mandarin speakers in the past. You’ll need to check which courses are open to community members vs. enrolled students only. Also, course change frequently, so check back each year.

·      Stanford University
·      Ohio State University

Audio resources

To get your brain to recognize the sounds of Cantonese as entirely distinct from Mandarin, I highly recommend using one of the below radio apps. Occasionally, they’ll have interviews where one person is speaking in Mandarin and one is speaking in Cantonese. These can be great exercise for you, but also a little confusing.

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


If you've already learned to read Mandarin, then learning to read Cantonese can feel like playing the slightly more difficult sequel to a video game you put in hours trying to beat. The biggest obstacle is learning a hosts of Cantonese-specific characters, as well as unfamiliar usages of characters you already know from Mandarin. Note that the writing of colloquial Cantonese in Hong Kong is usually reserved for specific platforms/genres, like social media posts, tabloid reporting, and internet novels. 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. A lot of it is very different from Mandarin, though some of it actually migrated up north thanks to the popularity of Hong Kong pop culture in the 80s and 90s (e.g. 炒魷魚-->to get fired). 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

Mandarin speakers who can read Chinese quickly should be able to handle Cantonese videos with written Chinese subtitles. However, note that the Chinese that appears comes in two distinct flavors: Standard Written Chinese and written Cantonese. If it’s the former, you’re in luck—that’s basically the same as Mandarin, and you’ll just have to code switch to figure out which words overlap with Cantonese and where the Cantonese audio does something completely different. If it’s written Cantonese, however, you might find yourself confused.

An example:

Romanization: Něih haih bīn go ah?
Written Cantonese: 你係邊個呀?
Standard Written Chinese: 你是誰?/ 你是谁?
English translation: Who are you?

Most recent DVDs, TV shows, and streaming sites will use Standard Written Chinese subtitles. However, there are versions of Hong Kong films from the 80s and 90s that have Cantonese subtitles, and even today many kids films use written Cantonese.

·      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 shoes
·      Mainland Chinese streaming sites like iQiyi, QQ Video, Youku, or Bilibili