Here are some initial musings before I dive back into learning Cantonese, the first language I was exposed to. I also plan to dive into Mandarin at the same time so check out that blog post when it comes out.

The background and my current Cantonese

I was born in Hong Kong (where Cantonese is the main language) but moved to Sydney, Australia when I was 6. By that stage I could do what you'd expect from a 6-year old: namely being able to hear and verbally communicate basic things.1 However, my understanding of written/read language was much more primitive which meant it was the first thing to disappear once I moved to Australia. I've since been able to maintain some sputtering spoken language skills owing mostly to the presence of several Cantonese-speaking communities throughout Sydney. Mostly importantly, I can still pass what I call the order test: i.e. going to a Cantonese restaurant and ordering my favourite meal without having to resort to English :).

So that's my current status: a basic understanding of the spoken form of Cantonese. Interestingly, I have a much better understanding of the language when hearing others speak than what I can speak myself. So there seems to be a lot of vocabulary and understanding of Cantonese buried in my brain at a level hidden from my own active recall.

So what am I expecting? Some key reflections

In the past few weeks I've gotten into the habit of watching Money Heist to learn Spanish, which is not a native language of mine but one I have a good foundation in through uni courses and some practice with native speakers. However, Cantonese is different to Spanish for a few reasons and I thought it'd be useful to lay out these thoughts before I dive into it:

  • The personal factor! Cantonese won't be the most 'useful' language based on how many people speak it, but it sure means something personal to me. It still evokes the sights and sounds of an early childhood in bustling Hong Kong, for example. As a medical student, seeing Cantonese-speaking patients requiring translators is motivation enough: there've been a few times where it hit me that 'hey, that could be someone in my family'. I'm a dual culture kid but growing up in Australian culture sometimes felt like it came at the expense of my Chinese side, which of course includes both culture and language. I could write further on identity but honestly this topic deserves its own post. In practice however, this meant that my Cantonese has slowly slipped from my memory without me even realising it. So reviving my Cantonese also represents a revival of a part of my identity, and that isn't something that will apply for say, Spanish. It also means that compared to other languages, I have a pretty powerful motivating force that'll drive my learning.
  • Cantonese is a relatively niche language compared to its Chinese sibling Mandarin and other giants in the language world such as English and Spanish2. This means that in theory, it should be much harder to find good quality free online resources for learning Cantonese. However, I'm much more inherently familiar with Cantonese than Spanish, so I'm expecting to have less work to learn it compared to other languages. Also, having an early exposure to the language means that I can more confidently test a number of tools and methods such as Language Reactor, which I've already shared my experiences with when learning Spanish. I'm already thinking things such as movies, Youtube videos, music, and real life practice such as ordering at restaurants and practising with family.
  • My big weakness with Cantonese is with the written/read language - and this is because I moved to Australia before my understanding of the Chinese alphabet was properly formed. Therefore my 'native' written alphabet is the Latin one (i.e. what English uses). I won't be starting from scratch here, but I expect it'll take a lot more effort to build this part of my language arsenal.
  • There's the added perk that any improvements in Cantonese will probably also improve my Mandarin in some way (another target language of mine). This is part of my rationale for tackling both Cantonese and Mandarin at the same time: they're considered separate languages as part of the same Chinese family, but there are a lot of words where the overlap is quite considerable. The best analogy for this I can think of is that it almost sounds like the same word in a different accent, for example American vs Scottish. Quite different, but just about intelligible if you think hard enough.

In summary

  • Aside from being passionate about languages, Cantonese is also about connecting more strongly with a side of myself that I haven't always fully been in touch with.
  • Because of my background and where I was born, Cantonese should be a relatively easy language to revive and make progress towards being fluent in, at least in spoken form. However, in written and read form I will be starting at a close-to-beginner level and the learning curve and commitment required will probably be higher.
  • While Cantonese and Mandarin are technically different languages, I expect to boost my learning with one by learning the other.
  • Just like my plans with Spanish, the key to getting a good end result will probably be by building a sustainable habit with a good mix of practicality (putting it to good use in real life) and enjoyment (absorbing media and entertainment in my target language).

So follow along as I document my journey getting back into Cantonese!

[1] National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders: Speech and Language Developmental Milestones (Last Updated 2022)

[2] CIA: The World Factbook (Last Updated 2022)