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YouTuber Luke Truman taught himself Cantonese form scratch and went on to learn Spanish and Mandarin too. In this chat with Elle he shares his language leanring methods and tons of great resources for anyone wanting to learn Cantonese or Mandarin.
Elle: Hello everyone and welcome it to the LingQ podcast with me Elle and today I’m joined by another special guest, Luke Truman of the YouTube channel also called Luke Truman. How are you?
Luke: Yeah, I’m great. Thank you. Thank you so much for having me on, and I’m really excited to be here. Elle: Well, thank you so much for joining us.
So your channel. Uh, I was perusing, uh, today and last week, uh, you focus on Chinese. There’s a little Spanish. Uh, so, and I read in your “about” that you taught yourself Cantonese from scratch. Now, as someone who, I know you’re from the UK, English is your first language, seems to me like a language like Cantonese would be one of the more difficult languages you could teach yourself from scratch. So it’s pretty amazing. Um, how, how did that happen? First actually, why Cantonese?
And then how did you go about teaching yourself Cantonese?
Luke: Yeah so why Cantonese is kind of, for me, it was quite obvious choice although it might not be for most people. When I was at university, I played table tennis in the university clubs.
So I was around a lot of people from Hong Kong. And then I became really close to this one girl who later became my girlfriend.
Um, then we were dating after about two years I decided to start learning a bit of Cantonese because at the time I was going out for meals with her and her friends and I… when they’d speak in Cantonese I had no idea what was going on. So my original motivation, I guess, was just to really understand what the people around me were talking. And when I’d go out for meals, they’d always, you know, make an effort and speak to me in English. Maybe like one-to-one, but I always felt kind of like, not part of the group and left out
of the conversations because I could never join in. And whenever someone switched to English to speak to me, I always felt like they were accommodating me and I kind of felt a bit bad and a bit embarrassed. And also that if I’m going to be with this person, then I should probably try and learn that language. Elle: And so how did you go about, do you ever, I mean, this is, I know a number of years ago now, but how did you get into it? Cause it’s, I mean, you have to learn the Chinese characters. It seems really tough.
I mean, I guess you have, you had friends and a girlfriend who was speaking Cantonese, so that helped, but, um, what kind of method did you use to, to study Cantonese?
Luke: Well, I guess for the first maybe month or so, I didn’t really know what I was doing then I just kind of downloaded a few apps on my phone and just gave it a go.
I remember I was sitting in a car on holiday, I think it was in croatia at the time when I just started flicking through and trying to just learn a few words in that, you know, it was giving me words, like car and stuff.
And I did that little research about what Cantonese is I didn’t even know what a tone was. I didn’t… never heard of tones before. And when I was looking through the vocab, it was basically a few letters. And then there was this number next to it.
And now I know that the number was the tone, but at the time I didn’t even know what the number was. So I just ignored it completely. And I was like, that’s probably not that important. And then maybe, yeah, I kind of did that for a few weeks and then kind of stopped and didn’t really do anything. Cause I didn’t really get anywhere. And then. Um, I remember looking online and trying to Google how to learn Cantonese.
Um, and this website kept coming up over and over again, a website called Cantoneseclass101.Com.
So they’re run by, um, Innovative Language who also run, I guess, Chinese Pod 101. They’ve got them in every language, I guess it’s like Spanish Class or Spanish Pod or something. You know, they’ve got Italian Class, they’ve got loads of languages and it’s loads of kind of 10 to 15 minute podcasts with a short dialogue. And then they have, um, a complete transcript to the dialogue. So I started that for a bit and then maybe about a week or two later, I didn’t really make any progress. So I kind of just stopped again.
And then I was, because I already had the subscription, I was Googling online, you know, “how to learn Cantonese.” And I stumbled across this article by a polyglot called Olly Richards, who said how to use Cantonese Class 101 to actually learn Cantonese. And I was like, okay, well I have this program. I bought it already. I didn’t get anywhere before. So let’s just see what this guy has to say. And he made the big point of
basically don’t spend any time with a podcast because that, they’re just English waffle and you don’t need to know any of it.
You know, they’re just taking 10 minutes to explain one grammar poinbt and you get like maybe two or three words of Cantonese. It’s just not enough. So instead you want to shift your focus onto the dialogues and you want to read through many, many times, you want to listen to the dialogues on repeat, you want to look up all the words and you really want to practice your ear and focus on listening a lot from the start.
So I started doing Olly’s approach he outlined in the, in the blog post.
And I started progressing quite fast, a lot more than what I was doing before. And I thought, okay, we’re onto something here. So I took the same method and used it to apply to other resources like, um, the Teach Yourself Cantonese, complete, complete beginner course book, um, and did that for a few months.
And then after that I started speaking a little bit. So I started practicing and again, my first few times on Skype I didn’t really know what I was doing. So most of the classes are in English and kind of stumbled about a bit there.
And then, um, later I stumbled across a website called AJATT and I’m trying to remember of the timelines. I think I also discovered Steve at some point. And his videos along with that I also discovered websites like AJATT and they all emphasize the power of how powerful it is to immerse yourself in native audio and content and read and all that sort of stuff. So I then started putting an emphasis on watching a lot of dramas in Cantonese.
Initially I did it with English subs, subtitles for the first few months because my comprehension was really low.
And then after a few months I decided to kick the subtitles and rewatch the shows I’d already watched cause I already had the context for it. Um, so did that for a few months. And then maybe after I got to the point about nine months/10 months, and I also used a few other resources, um, that had like fast, full speed audio. But with the transcripts, um, Cantonese conversations by Olly Richard’s again was really useful. And I started to kind of reach this… I felt like I’ve hit this ceiling in terms of how far my ability to comprehend was.
Getting so I could understand basic things, but my vocabulary was really small and I couldn’t read and write. And if I wanted to jump into most native content and as I prepared for it, it was too difficult. So about nine months in, I started to learn Chinese characters. I found the book called Remembering the Traditional Hanzi by James Heisig or The Traditional Hanzi by James Heising.
I always pronounce it “Z” because that’s the way the Cantonese word’s pronounced. And I got called out for it before in a video so I wanna state…
and, and…I learned, um, characters that way. It basically teaches you the 1,500 most characters, um, in terms of breaking them down into components and while it does, doesn’t teach you pronunciation… I basically came to the ability to write 1,500 characters by hand and break them down. So instead of looking at a bunch of squiggly lines, I see, you know, I look at that and it’s part A plus part B, it’s not just a bunch of lines that have no meaning anymore.
So when I went into reading after that, and I started with short content with lots of audio and, you know, short chapters, or I could go through it and that worked really well. And I started picking up vocabulary really quickly. Now I could read, I could text with my friends.
I could, you know, look for subtitles and do all this stuff. I could read comic books. I could read books, not at first, but after a lot of time, I started to build up to that and I started to pick up words a lot quicker.
So then it was just a lot of consuming as much content as I physically can. And speaking as much as I can basically from there on out.
And I did that for about two years overall and got to a, like a pretty comfortable level to the point where I could go out with my friends and easily join in the conversation out for dinner. I can read a few, I read a few novels in Cantonese that weren’t crazy fantasy genre or anything like that, but they were like set in real life and I still had enough vocabulary to kind of follow what was going on longer than that.
So that’s more or less what I did for Cantonese. Elle: Wow. And to pick up on a few things, you said that, did you say you learned to write 1500 chinese characters. Did I hear you say that?
Luke: Yeah. With the first book? Yeah.
So I did, um, I did more since then, because I studied the second book, which has another 1500.
And then when I was studying Mandarin, after I went to Taiwan for a year and we had to write out a lot of essays by hand and we did a lot of handwriting for that.
But at the time I only did the first 1,500. Um, I don’t think the second book’s really worth it. I think the second book was pretty much a waste of time, but…
Elle: oh, okay. And so how many, how many Chinese characters would you say you, you know, like you could write at any given time?
Luke: Well, it varies a lot. So, cause I haven’t really practiced, um, writing up by hand since I, so I went for sabbatical for a year to study in Taiwan for Mandarin.
Um, when I left Taiwan at the time I, they basically had our tests would give us a news article to read and would read it and then basically write out what our opinions on the article, and just write it out by hand.
Um, so I could kind of do that at the time, but there was a lot of forgetting characters and paraphrasing or forgetting a character and then looking in the question to see if I’d written the character that I’d forgotten and I could kind of copy it.
So there was like, you know, it was, uh, things like that, but I kind of stumbled my way through a bit forgetting sometimes, some of the, some of the, um, radicals or sorry, the components, the wrong way around and stuff.
Um, but in terms of recognizing characters again, I, I don’t really use any sort of online system now. So I don’t track any of that, but I can read most, um, novels now, as long as they’re not too archaic in the language they use.
So some of the older books, there’s this really popular novelist from Hong Kong called Jin Yong who writes a lot about martial arts novels and because they’re quite old in the way, like it’s set in historical times, they use a lot of weird language that kind of is sort of half classical Chinese. So it’ll, as long as it doesn’t go to that sort of, uh, language attempt to be okay now. Um, yeah.
Elle: Wow. I can’t, I just can’t imagine writing. It’s an amazing accomplishment, I think, to be able to just write.
Cause I feel as though a lot of people who, uh, study Chinese, you know, Cantonese, Mandarin, or Japanese, maybe don’t go down the path of learning how to write the characters because, um, it’s really involved, takes a lot of time and maybe we’re not, you won’t really need to, to do it ever, you can just use… You’re on your computer or your phone. So, um, that’s a really, it’s a really cool skill. Luke: I completely agree. It’s not that practical and you forget them really quickly, but it was kind of fun.
So I enjoyed it.
Elle: Well, it must totally help… I mean, you say impractical, I guess kind of, but it’s, it must help with other aspects of learning the language. I mean, you’re writing it out, so that’s also reading and, you know, yeah. It helps for sure. I enjoyed that aspect of learning Japanese for sure. But when you said 1500 and the fact that, you know more than that to write out, that just blows me away. I think I could write like a hundred when I stopped studying Chinese characters, Kanji.
I mean, I’m very impressed. So then after Cantonese, did you move straight on to studying Mandarin or was there, or were there any languages in between?
Luke: Yeah. So I was planning a trip to Mexico with my family so I… and there was also a few Spanish dramas I wanted to watch. So I thought, you know, let’s just try and learn Spanish for a little bit. So I gave myself a kind of timeline of half a year to try and see how far I could get. And I just basically used similar methods to Cantonese.
Um, and just started really trying to just immerse myself as much as I can. Um, I used LingQ a lot for Spanish, which I found brilliant. I really like the feature of being able to import YouTube videos and then having the audio just so easily transferred into my phone in the app and just having a playlist of all the things that I’ve downloaded and going through on a system like that. It’s really easy to look at words.
So, and with some… When there’s a lot of cognation, I can at a relatively early stage jump into really interesting but short content and just do a lot of intensive work with that. I’m not, that’s what that I found really enjoyable. So I did that for about half a year.
Elle: Hmm. Excellent. And then you moved on to the Mandarin. Okay. Right. And so how, how similar are Cantonese and Mandarin?
Luke: Uh, well, the, the, the biggest overlap is obviously the Chinese characters are the same and this is always a complicated thing to explain, but effectively, um, standard written Chinese, which is basically based off Mandarin is the formal, um, written language in China, in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
And that is the same, obviously you have the traditional simplified character split, but in terms of the grammar and the word choice, it’s the same across all of them. And it doesn’t matter if you speak Taiwanese, it doesn’t matter.
You speak Cantonese or Hokkien or Shanghainese or Mandarin, you write the same way.
And that’s kind of how Mandarin’s worded. So it’s based off that. Um, with Cantonese, you can read it out colloquially as it’s spoken, but that’s really rare and only really seen in things like maybe in YouTube comments or texting or comic books and stuff like that. There are some novels, but they’re rare. Um, so that’s the biggest overlap. And then I guess the other bigger, biggest overlap is just in terms of, you know, vocabulary.
So a lot of things sound really similar to, if you take a common word, for example, like “ni hao” in Mandarin means “hello”. In Cantonese, you can pronounce it “ni hao”. So it kind of sounds close enough that you can kind of guess, and that helps, um, really speed up the ability to improve your comprehension by quite a lot.
Um, the things that always tripped me up is the endings of words. The “ao” sound and “oo” sound almost seems to be a one for one swap.
So if it’s an “ao” in Mandarin, it’s an “ou” in Cantonese and vice versa. And it just seems to like swap you around. So for example, I don’t know, “head” in Cantonese, his … and in Mandarin it’s … So if you’re trying to swap between the two, it’s almost for every word, it’s just kind of like the inverse with enough exceptions to trip you up. Yeah.
Elle: So do you find that you get, you get tripped up a lot when you’re, cause you’re actively, your language right now that you’re studying and really immersed in is Mandarin., right? And so do you find you’re often using the Cantonese? Luke: Yeah, I mean, when I was in Taiwan for like the first I did four semesters there and I think on my first day in class, on semester one, two and three, I had different teachers and then the teacher said on day one, “wait, do you know Cantonese?”
And they said that basically every semester until my last one, when I got a bit better with fixing my weird accent.
Um, so they could obviously tell where the way I pronounce certain words, wrong that it was kind of more towards the Cantonese pronunciation. Um, for example, the word for time is … and in Mandarin, it’s … so I’d always say … and kind of have that “ow” sound in Cantonese when it should be … and I do that a lot and that would be the most common one.
You can probably click on any of my Mandarin-speaking videos and see a remanence of it there still. Um, so yeah, I find that quite confusing, but I have gotten a lot better now. Um, I do still make mistakes, but it’s, it’s less of an issue now. Elle: And for anyone listening, who maybe is on the journey studying, uh, Cantonese or Mandarin, or is thinking maybe they want to give it a go because it is, it’s a scary thought.
I think, especially coming from an English as a first language point of view, um, it’s… people say it’s a very difficult language to learn. They both are. Uh, do you have any tips for anyone who is thinking about maybe starting that journey of learning to read the characters or just, just learning Cantonese or Mandarin?
Luke: Yeah. I mean, I guess, um, with a lot of these things, I kind of think sometimes we’re our own worst enemy.
So like one quote I really liked by, I think it was Mohammed Ali says, um, it’s not the mountains ahead that wear us out it’s the pebble in our shoe, you know, stuff like that. I think we feel like that a lot of the time, we spend so much time worrying about how hard it’s going to be, that if we just started and got going, you know, it would start progressing quicker than we thought. And then as soon as you start progressing, when you feel that, you’re going to be motivated to carry on.
So it’s kind of that, that first bit before you feel any tangible progress, it’s the bit that you most likely to give up in. So I feel like if you can just get started and feel some progress, then you’re going to be motivated and want to carry on. At least that’s what happened to me. Um, And when I didn’t feel progress by using inefficient methods, then I did give up after like a week or two. Cause I thought, well, this is pointless,
I’m not getting anywhere.
Um, I think the big thing for me is don’t be so worried about what you can and can’t say to begin with, because like you said, it’s, there’s, the sounds are very different. The tones are very different. The characters are very different and it’s all very new and a fun, it takes a long time for me to get used to. So I think just, regardless of whether you learn characters or not. I feel like putting a big emphasis on listening at the start is very useful.
Um, and with the characters, I did use a book called Remembering the Traditional Hanzi by James. Hiseig which, he has a Kanji version, which teaches us, like, I think or the Joy of Kanji, which is something like 2000.
The Mandarin one was 1,500. I don’t think it’s necessarily. Actually, I don’t think it’s necessarily relevant to learn that many characters in one go in the start at the beginning because it is quite dry. So unless you’re really a big like Hanzi nerd, then maybe you don’t do that.
I think there’s lots of really good courses out there that teach you the fundamentals of how characters work with only a few hundred. And then once you kind of get that basic knowledge, you can just move on. So, you know, once you understand that, okay, well, on… Most of them are sound plus meaning. So you have a sound component of the character that tells you roughly how it’s pronounced and you have a meaning that’s, you know, so for example, it might be … which is the one for copper. You’ve got the gold bit on the right.
And the one that looks kind of like a cave, it was HiSeig, it was a cave and that, and it’s pronounced … as well. So, you know, that’s the sound, that’s the meaning. Most characters are like that. And once you kind of get used to that in your head and you know what the basic elements are, it’s a lot easier. So there were a few courses out there. You can try that with, there’s um a book that Vladimir Skultety wrote which teaches about 300 characters.
He had a PhD in Chinese characters that, that I’ve heard really good things about that. There’s Outlier Chinese. I did a course also about 300 characters, long with that.
Again, he’s got a, I think a PhD in Chinese phonology and lots of crazy stuff. And I’ve got an interview with him on my channel and he’s his, knowledge on Mandarin just completely blew my mind. It’s like, he’s a very smart guy, so his course is very, very good as well. So just picking anything like that and just
getting a basic idea of what they are.
And then just trying to jump into just reading. And when you first get started, preferably something with audio is better because then you can, if you can kind of try and pair up the audio and the characters and not kind of put so much strain on your brain to recall sounds that you may or may not be able to remember.
Elle: Right. Well there we have it got us some excellent advice there. Some great. Uh, content. I’ll put the links in the description too, for anyone who is interested in checking those out.
Uh, you mentioned interviews on your channel, just there and you have some excellent ones. I see. Uh, is there anyone though, who you would love?
I was wondering who would love to have on your,channel? It can be, you know, unrealistic, like… the Pope or something. Is there anyone you’d love to have on? Um, yeah.
And if so, who and why?
Luke: I mean, yeah, I think Pope speaks in Chinese would be a great clickbait and I’d get so many views of that.
Chinese, um, sphere. I guess the one that I kind of looked up to a lot was Dasha, which translates to like big mountain he’s Canadian comedian. Well, he was born in Canada, lives in China and has done for like maybe like 30, 40 years. And he speaks absolutely phenomenal. And it’s not that he just speaks like a native, he also makes lots of jokes and you know, he’s standing in front of a crowd of thousands of Chinese people, making them all laugh. It’s just completely blows my mind every time I watch one of his performances.
So yeah, I would love to get him on, um, maybe more realistic. Um, there’s also this other, I think he’s a polyglto he speaks a few languages called Laoma on … Again speaks really kind of, like really authentic Northern accent in China. And he has really, really good pronunciation. He has lots of videos, teaching English, pronunciation to Chinese people, he’s lived there for a long time and he speaks really good. So I’d love to get Laoma on the channek as well if, uh, if I got the opportunity.
Elle: Well, fingers crossed and to go back to Dashu, is that his name?
Luke: It’s Dashu. It’s like big mountain. Elle: Uh, I feel like making people laugh in the language, you know, making other people understand that language laugh is like the ultimate. I feel, you know, as it’s so nuanced, you know, comedy in different cultures. So yeah, I imagine that I would be, yeah, just, just would be an amazing feeling.
So, and he’s Canadian, you said? Luke: Yeah. Pretty sure he’s Canadian, yeah, pretty sure.
Elle: All right. Cool. Okay. Well, uh, all of these great pieces of content that you have mentioned, I will put in the description and also a link to your channel for anyone who’s interested in, checking it out. Thank you so much for joining us today Luke.
Luke: Thank you so much for having me on. I really enjoyed it.