Master Cantonese with a little application... on your phone

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 March, 2012, 12:00am


For most foreigners learning Chinese, the biggest struggle is finding the right tones when presented with romanised script. Dean Head, the creator of Fonetic Cantonese, says this is because 'the tongue is a muscle. Since English does not require the tongue to contort to different shapes to make those tones and sounds, our muscles find it difficult to make the necessary movement required to produce those sounds.'

Head confronted this problem by creating an app that provides audio cues to the most commonly used words he came across when he was learning Cantonese. Smartphone technology was not developed when he first came up with the idea. He had initially written the book Fonetic Cantonese using the international phonetics system, which foreigners would be more familiar with. When the iPhone arrived, he found a local to help with audio pronunciations and made it available as an app.

Words and phrases are presented in English, in alphabetical order, and are indexed so that searching any keyword will find all phrases containing that word. This makes the app simple and straightforward to use and an indispensable pocket reference for the traveller or Cantonese beginner.

Hanna Torneus, an IT manager from Sweden, uses Fonetic Cantonese to look up words so she can listen to the audio and repeat it for practice. 'Just looking at the phonetics doesn't make much sense to me and I wouldn't dare speak up using the phonetics because I'm not a native English speaker. But, when I hear it on the phone, I'm sure of how to say it now.'

Benny Lewis, polyglot and author of The Language Hacking Guide, says one of the most daunting problems for language learners is remembering words. The most helpful way to recall them, therefore, is to give them context and association. 'Take the word you need to remember and make an imaginative association with its translation,' he says.

Chinagram is an app that helps users remember difficult Chinese characters by providing vivid image associations. It tells the story of Chinese writing and the logic behind radicals (or roots) that make up characters. For example, the root for father, is associated with a pair of hammers - the tools of a man's trade. The addition of the phonogram tells us how we should pronounce (father).

If increasing vocabulary is your focus, Pleco is a free download that comes with half a dozen dictionaries plus the option of paid extras. This app's optical character recogniser and handwriting recognition function, which are paid features, make it distinctive. Point a phone camera at any printed Chinese word and the dictionary will search for its meaning. It works live, with images and even whole documents. The app's full-screen Chinese handwriting recogniser lets you use the entire width of the iPhone's screen to draw characters. It is also extremely accurate and tolerant of stroke order mistakes. Although it does not come with a Cantonese dictionary, it has both simplified and traditional Chinese entries, making it useful for understanding the words we see every day, on signboards and menus.

Unfortunately, there are no apps on the market that help with conversational skills - the most important reason to learn a language. Until artificial technology speeds up with voice recognition and contextual and differentiated feedback, your best bet is just to speak up.

There are many apps on the market to learn language, but whichever ones you decide to use should genuinely improve your understanding or help you learn something useful as quickly as possible. Anastassia Silvestro, a student of Cantonese at the Hong Kong Language Learning Centre, finds that learning useful long-term vocabulary and grammar is best done in the classroom. It is when she is on the street and needs to use the language immediately that such apps are useful.

According to Lewis, anything that promises long-term results for a price is protecting itself from the fact that peoples' interest often wanes with time and can be blamed for the lack of results. So, look for apps that improve your language ability from the word go.