Cantonese as a Second Language

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That's the title of a new book from Routledge:

John C. Wakefield, ed., Cantonese as a Second Language:  Issues, Experiences and Suggestions for Teaching and Learning

Readers of Language Log know that I'm an ardent advocate of this vibrant language and will understand why I consider the publication of Cantonese as a Second Language a cause for celebration.

Two caveats:

1. It's a full-fledged language, not a mere "dialect".

2. You don't have to worry about the Sinographs when you learn it.

Here's the publisher's description of the book:

Cantonese is a language from southern China that is spoken by roughly 70 million people worldwide. It is the language of Hong Kong cinema and has traditionally been the most prominent language spoken in Chinatowns around the world. People choose to learn Cantonese for a variety of social and economic reasons: because it is a heritage language that one’s relatives speak; because it is the language of one’s partner and monolingual in-laws; because it is necessary for living and working in Hong Kong, Macau, Guangzhou, or other Cantonese-speaking communities; because it is the bridge to fully appreciating and understanding Cantonese culture; or simply because it is an irresistible challenge. Whatever the motivation, more and more people are choosing to learn Cantonese as an additional language.

This book discusses many issues related to both acquiring and teaching Cantonese. If you are a learner of Cantonese, this long overdue volume is essential to understanding both the grammatical and the social issues involved with learning this notoriously difficult language. If you are a teacher, this book will be invaluable to gaining insight into your students’ motivations and needs. And finally, if you are an applied linguist, the unique aspects related to the acquisition of Cantonese offer a fascinating contribution to the literature.

The Table of Contents:


1. The Cantonese Language (Robert S. Bauer and John C. Wakefield)

Part I: The Teaching and Learning of Cantonese

2. Teaching and Learning Cantonese as a Second Language: Language Attitudes and Learning Hurdles (Siu-lun Lee)

3. Learning Cantonese in the Work Context of Hong Kong: Needs, Practices, and Benefits (Winnie Chor)

4. A Study on Learner Needs for Cantonese as a Foreign Language (CFL) Curriculum Design in North America (Raymond Pai)

5. Teaching Cantonese as Part of a General Education Program: Issues and Challenges (Matthew B. Christensen)

Part II: Experience and Advice from Advanced Learners

6. My Cantonese Odyssey (Robert S. Bauer)

7. Self-Reflective Ethnographic Analysis of a Singaporean Learner of Hong Kong Cantonese (Lian-Hee Wee)

8. ‘Do you Dream in Cantonese?’ – The Long Road to a Competent L2 (John Guest)

9. Striving for Linguistic and Cultural Assimilation in Hong Kong (John C. Wakefield)

10. Cantonese as Seen from the Eyes of Japanese (Shin Kataoka)

Part III: Cantonese as a Second Language in the Hong Kong Education System

11. From Oracy to Literacy—the Role of Cantonese in L2 Chinese Language Teaching (Shui Duen Chan)

12. L2 Oral Cantonese Narrative Development in Ethnic Minority Children of Hong Kong (Cheung Hin Tat)

13. Teaching Jyutping to Non-Chinese Speaking Secondary School Students in Hong Kong (Chaak Ming Lau and Peggy Pik Ki Mok)

A timely note from Bob Bauer:

On this same topic: In today's (22 April 2019) South China Morning Post on page C1 is an article entitled "Cantonese culture still a big draw on mainland". The article is mistitled since it's actually about the Cantonese language. The article says that some mainlanders are studying Cantonese at a Beijing education centre called KUG. This name KUG is translated as "Hong Kong, you know" and involves some curious word-play: K = '(Hong) Kong', U = nei/ni 你 'you', G = zi1 (dou6/3) 'know', as the sound of the letter G is quite similar to the Cantonese pronunciation of 知 zi1 'know'. Anyway, among the students' motivations for paying about 2,000 Yuan for 30 hours of instruction in Cantonese are: 1. personal interest (such as enjoying Cantonese pop songs); 2. jobs with Hong Kong companies; 3. to prepare themselves for study or work in Hong Kong.

I found the article to which Bob is referring in the online edition of SCMP under a different title:

Hong Kong’s ‘golden age’ may be long gone, but some Chinese still feeling the pull of Cantonese culture

  • Politics not getting in the way of mainlanders keen to learn the language or attracted to Hong Kong, says Justin Lao, operator of study centre in Beijing

By chance, I also received this morning the following note from a Chinese colleague who was born and grew up in the PRC, earned her PhD in Chinese literature from an Ivy League university, taught at an American university until receiving tenure, then decided to take a job in Hong Kong.  She writes:

I and [my son] both like Hong Kong. He is learning Chinese characters and Cantonese. I guess I have forgotten how hard it was to learn Chinese! Even the first-grade Chinese lessons here are quite difficult. The traditional character system in HK makes it a little harder. But overall, I think it is the just the language itself and the enormous practice time it needs, which could be challenging for a seven year old boy. Other than the illiteracy and homework issues, [my son] has many friends and is very happy.

These unrehearsed observations will strike poignant reverberations with many of the recent Language Log posts about young children learning Chinese in Shenzhen (which is also in the Cantosphere) and other parts of China.



  • Donald B. Snow, Cantonese as Written Language: The Growth of a Written Chinese Vernacular (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2003).
  • Stephen Matthews and Virginia Yip, Cantonese, A Comprehensive Grammar (London:  Routledge, 2011 [2nd edition]), and other works on Cantonese by the authors.
  • Robert S. Bauer and Paul K. Benedict, Modern Cantonese phonology (Berlin:  De Gruyter Mouton, 1997).
  • Kwan-hin Cheung and Robert S. Bauer, "The Representation of Cantonese with Chinese Characters",  Journal of Chinese linguistics: Monograph series (18); Project on Linguistic Analysis, University of California, 2002.


  1. Victor Mair said,

    April 22, 2019 @ 11:28 pm

    From Alex Wang (Shenzhen):

    “I guess I have forgotten how hard it was to learn Chinese!”

    Perhaps your friend and her son’s path would be very helpful for people to understand the issues facing tens of millions of children across the country. It is super toward realization of the issue that she was born here and then moved to the US and then moved back with her young son. I hope she keeps reporting! I hope she can document her experience.

    “Other than the illiteracy and homework issues, [my son] has many friends and is very happy.”

    Sounds like tens of millions of other children as well.

    Btw I have decided to homeschool my younger son. He has reading and oral lessons with a full-time person who I have instructed there is no need to learn writing. As long as he can read the characters and type the pinyin it's good enough. She will teach him the terminology of the other subjects.

    I will personally teach him the other subjects until 6th grade even though most parts are self-learned as he is a good reader.

    This has been going on for 3 weeks now.

    So now my younger one is the latter half of the sentence

    “[my son] has many friends and is very happy”

    With the time saved he spends it on the 3 things he loves, piano, tennis and art. (cats too)

    He will perform a small concert the latter half of the year

    Mozart K545 all 3 parts

    Bach BV1052

    Bach Goldberg Variations, Aria and variation 1

    Beethoven Sonata 8 Pathétique second movement.

    This version by Freddy Kempf (half-German half-Japanese) is so beautiful.

    He is able to do this as he now no longer needs to spend up to 90 min a day writing and wasting emotional energy (exhausting) being frustrated doing a ridiculous task.

  2. Alex said,

    April 23, 2019 @ 12:01 am

    I am curious if her son spoke putonghua at home while in the US like I did when I grew up. Mainly wondering if he has a oral base already or learning from 0 at 7 years old in HK.

  3. Chas Belov said,

    April 23, 2019 @ 12:41 am

    I love Cantonese even though I never became fluent. Sīk góng, `mh sīk tèng. (speak, not understand). I love Cantonese expressions like Walk, not carry eyes. (Watch where you're going!) although of course I hope not to need that one. Or that they call catfish "pond louse." And I love colloquial Cantonese characters such as 冇 (not have).

    It's funny. Before I studied Cantonese, it sounded harsh to me and Mandarin beautiful. After studying it, Cantonese sounds beautiful and Mandarin sounds thick and muddy. (But Shanghainese still sounds the prettiest.)

    I will have to check this book out.

  4. Philip Taylor said,

    April 23, 2019 @ 4:46 am

    I confess that I do not understand the reason for Victor's two caveats. As far as I can tell, there is mention neither of dialects not of sinographs in the publisher's introduction (both embedded and linked versions) so I am not at all clear why Victor mentioned either. It seems to me that the publication of Cantonese as a Second Language is indeed a "cause for celebration" and that no caveats are required.

  5. Chas Belov said,

    April 23, 2019 @ 10:50 am

    When I took Cantonese at San Francisco City College in the early '90s, about a third of the class was American Born Chinese (ABC) offspring of Cantonese-speaking immigrant parents, a third were speakers of other Chinese languages who wanted to get a job at a Cantonese-speaking restaurant, and the remainder were non-Chinese.

    For the introductory class, about half of the ABCs were told they were too fluent for that class and that they had to go to the second semester class.

    One more feature of Cantonese I find interesting is their bifurcation of "thank you", with "`m̀h gòi" for a favor and "dò jeh" for a gift, patronage, applause.

    And I finally figured out how to get a falling accent over the m on a Mac; type the m, then in the keyboard viewer navigate to Unicode, Combining Characters, then click the falling accent. Voila! (How do you say Voila! in Cantonese?)

  6. John Wakefield said,

    April 23, 2019 @ 8:26 pm

    Philip Taylor said:
    "I confess that I do not understand the reason for Victor's two caveats. As far as I can tell, there is mention neither of dialects not of sinographs in the publisher's introduction…"

    It is true that the online introduction does not mention these things, but they are discussed in the book. They are important and worth mentioning, so no harm done.

    Thank you, Victor, for your support of Cantonese and for announcing the book. We are excited about it and feel it is long overdue.

    NOTE: The title of chapter 4 has been updated to: A Case Study of Cantonese as a Foreign Language Curriculum Design in North America: Establishing the Cantonese Language Program at the University of British Columbia (Raymond Pai)

  7. Alex said,

    April 23, 2019 @ 8:40 pm

    I was curious as to how the Cantonese language forms new words. Do they just take the written as prescribed by the mainland and pronounce it differently? How does that work for things that are sound based like 沙拉 or peoples names? do they just chose different characters because the sound is different?


  8. Ouen said,

    April 24, 2019 @ 3:31 am

    I’m curious to know how much Cantonese is actually spoken in Shenzhen. From what I can tell more Cantonese is spoken in HK and Macau than nearby regions in China, though you can hear quite a lot of Cantonese in Guangzhou and definitely so in smaller cities. As for Shenzhen, my impression as a visitor is that Mandarin is used significantly more there than other parts of Guangdong (excluding Min and Hakka speaking locales of course).

    My observations aren’t as valuable as that of someone who lives or has lived in Shenzhen and I’m curious about what others think

  9. B.Ma said,

    April 24, 2019 @ 3:40 am

    Voila: perhaps 搞点.

    唔该 means "you shouldn't have done that [for me]" / you didn't need to do that.
    多谢 – if it's weird to say "Many Thanks" in English, you probably want to say 唔该 in Cantonese.

    沙拉 is 沙律 in Cantonese. In the news from local TV stations, they seem to be using the mainland Mandarin-based forms even when they sound weird in Cantonese. For example, Dubai is 迪拜 (dikbai) in "official"/"polite" contexts although most people would say 杜拜 in speech.

  10. ouen said,

    April 24, 2019 @ 3:57 am

    @alex definitely in the past foreign loan words were given different forms in Hong Kong than in Mandarin speaking places like the mainland or Taiwan.

    巧克力 is what is used for chocolate in Taiwan and China and 朱古力is (or was at least) somewhat more common in HK. 巧克力 does not sound like ‘chocolate’ when you read it in Cantonese, it’s
    Haau hak lik.

    There are also loaned words like taxi that aren’t used in mandarin speaking regions, but a new word based on indigenous morphemes is used instead.

    A character like 文 is pronounced wen in mandarin and man in Chinese, so it can’t be used the same way when transcribing foreign words in each language. There was a cantopop star called Roman who wrote his stage name as 羅文. The Chinese for Roman Polanski’s first name is 羅曼, this works as a transcription in both Cantonese and in Mandarin actually.

    Also, I’m sure there are some foreign loans that had characters chosen according to their pronunciation in one form of Sinitic, and the same characters were used to write that word despite the change in reading meaning that it no longer resembles the word in the original language. I can’t think of an example from Cantonese, but Oden おでん was adopted into Taiwanese from the Japanese as 黑輪, (literally ‘black wheel’ which doesn’t sound appetising to me), in Taiwanese mandarin they also use 黑輪, despite the fact that just using those same characters means it no longer sounds like the Japanese. 黑 is O in Taiwanese and Hei in mandarin.

  11. Mei said,

    April 24, 2019 @ 7:43 am

    My son knows Mandarin. But as most children of similar backgrounds living in America, they only speak English back as it is easier. Before age five, he seemed only be able to preserve one language at a time. (we lived in China for one year and he forgot English in a few months. When we moved back to the U.S. again, he forgot Chinese in a few months…)

    I admire those who teach their own children Chinese not to say homeschooling. Many of friends who grew up in America reported lots of yelling and tears involved, when their parents tried to teach them Chinese:-) I myself am also considering hiring a tutor, as my patience and energy at the end of the day is usually limited. Meanwhile, I also hear that by around third or fourth grade, children usually get much better at learning Chinese on their own (perhaps thanks to both maturity and the Chinese they have acquired by then).

    Another phenomenon that I noticed after moving to HK is that many of my colleagues(originally from China) who study China or even Chinese do not care whether their children read or write Chinese. Most sent their kids to international schools with very limited Chinese education. On the one hand they do not trust local HK education (exam-based, lots of homework); on the other hand, they feel English is the useful one. There are several highly selected school that boast on truly bilingual education. But in reality, it is very difficult to achieve in reality. Again, speaking fluently is one thing, truly bilingual in reading/writing in subject matters is another. I am sure there are plenty of studies on this topic, and I am still in the process of experimenting….

  12. Mei said,

    April 24, 2019 @ 7:51 am

    Dear Victor and others: I don’t think I know enough to comment on the Cantonese issue, certainly not from the perspective of a linguistic or someone who has studied Cantonese (history, culture, or current politics). I only have some observations from my limited personal experience (past 8 months only) and through my son’s education. I did notice that Chinese lessons in mainland China (Mandarin) start pinyin from 1st grade, while there is no transliteration system taught in local Cantonese school (until higher grades?). This makes it harder for my son to learn Chinese reading and writing. Even on occasions when he knows how to write the character, he does not necessarily know what it means or how to read it. So I started putting Mandarin pronunciation (pinyin) over characters lately, so that hopefully he can practice on his own. This is probably only a problem for mandarin speakers and does not apply to native Cantonese children. Another thing I noticed is that my Hong Kong college students feel that their Chinese is not good, because they’ve spent so much time preparing for the tests and studying English in secondary school. So somehow the difficult Chinese lessons (e.g. over 500 words for 1st grade) do not translate into high-quality Chinese reading/writing abilities in adult life?

  13. Alex said,

    April 24, 2019 @ 8:54 am

    @b ma

    Thanks for the feedback.

    On Cantonese in SZ (here 11 almost 12 years) I have found that there are two types of Cantonese speakers. Those who grew up with it and those who learned via tv.
    I cant say I know what percentage of the population speak Cantonese but I come across it frequently. As for the staff within SZ I'd say 20%. It was just the other day when I had to go to HK with a colleague. I took a mental note when the taxi driver at HK side of the border crossing realized my colleague could speak Cantonese as she gave the address in her first language. The 40 min trip became like 2 old friends shooting the breeze. The concept of being from the same hometown is strong here.

    It also seems many of those who didnt speak Cantonese but born in Guangdong have similar language/dialect to Cantonese so they pick it up quickly.

    My next question is are there any studies on which is easier to learn.

  14. Alex said,

    April 24, 2019 @ 9:06 am



    I was born in the US and my father insisted only Chinese at home. It was easy as it became habit. Whats funny is when I speak with my older brother as an adult I usually use Chinese definitely out of habit. I have found this habit of switching the main conversational language with an individual easy to change. Perhaps only a week or so if done exclusively.

    Ive tried it with both my sons (born in HK) and wife (mainlander) and several neighbors who are fluent in English. When I asked my older son to use only English with my younger son he was able to do so fairly quickly. Now Im about to switch back to mainly Chinese with my younger son as he has lost his primary environment.

  15. Bob Ladd said,

    April 24, 2019 @ 12:30 pm

    @Chas Belov:
    While you're putting accents in the right place, maybe you could put one on voilà? :-)

    Thanks for the tip, though.

  16. maidhc said,

    April 25, 2019 @ 3:31 am

    I know a few parents who have brought up their children in the US speaking a non-English language. The trick seems to be that one parent speaks exclusively in the non-English language, while the other parent may use English. That way it is always clear to the child when they can speak English and when not. Otherwise they may respond in English when spoken to in the other language.

    Another way that works well is to have a grandparent around who only speaks the home language, if that is possible.

    When I was growing up I had some friends whose parents sent them to Hebrew school. Mostly they learned enough to get through their Bar Mitzvah and that was it. A few were later sent off to Israel to live on a kibbutz, and of course they became fluent. But I guess that would be the case whatever country you were sent to.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    April 25, 2019 @ 10:23 am

    The following post grew out of this one:

    "How to maintain first and second language skills" (4/25/19)

  18. Chas Belov said,

    April 26, 2019 @ 12:33 am

    @Bob Ladd: voilà

    Nàh! Néih hòi m̀hhòisām a?
    There! You hap-not-happy [question-marker]?
    There! Are you happy?

    * – Smiling when I say that, pardner.

  19. Chas Belov said,

    April 26, 2019 @ 12:42 am

    And lest I be corrected:

    There! You open-not-open heart [question-marker]

    belongs between the first two and last two lines of the Cantonese.

    But I prefer my gloss. :)

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