I’ve reached that point in my Cantonese studies, that point I also reached when I was studying steno all those years ago – that point where too much is never enough. That point I never reached when trying to study foreign languages back in Australia, because the imperative just isn’t there. You’d have to possess a combination of aptitude and supreme dedication to attain fluency in a foreign tongue in a country where it wasn’t the lingua franca. If you know me, you know dedication isn’t my strong suit. A maxim in our family when I was growing up was known as “the [maiden name] spirit”: if at first you don’t succeed, give up. It might have been try, but don’t try again. Something along those lines. I’m sure my parents, both incredibly accomplished and successful individuals (who incidentally have both attained at least conversational fluency in foreign languages), applied these mottos in jest; unfortunately, taking things my parents said to heart was about the only area of my life I consistently attended to diligently. So, as an adult, I still have a childish tendency to move on from something if I can’t immediately clock it and/or it doesn’t interest me straightaway.
Now, living in Hong Kong, and more specifically in the New Territories, it is a huge irritation that I can’t communicate in the local language. An irritation that bites multiple times every day, and overrides “the [maiden name] spirit” I still have a tendency to exhibit. So now I have the exigency, but I also have no better aptitude for Chinese than any other Westerner, all things being fair; a history of moving on from things that I can’t be outstanding at; oh and two kids and a job that often involves really long hours, plus some other interests. And a brain-decaying habit of staying up really late every night. A brain, by the way, that is now 30 and getting less elastic by the day. I see Rufus picking up Mandarin at kinder like a proverbial plump Chux, fresh out of the packet. At approximately 7.5 times his age, my brain is more like a limp scourer that’s been left on the sink in a small puddle of dishwater for three months. It’s an anatomical fact, and you can take my word for that because, in one of the most on-point manifestations of “the [maiden name] spirit”, I completed SIX WHOLE WEEKS of a health sciences degree.
Nonetheless, me and my scourer (along with my husband and his equally aged scourer) have been taking Cantonese lessons from a lady in the next village who runs her own course from home. We go once a week, and after five months or so I can say that the increase in what I understand around me on the street has been huge. As I suppose would be typical, I understand vastly more than I can say. But it’s still extremely gratifying to be able to communicate to what I consider the barest socially acceptable extent for an expat (basic shopping, taxi directing, talking about work, family, school and friends, and geographical stuff). The locals are – so far, because they can tell I’m a beginner – extremely accommodating with my bastardisation of their tones and complicated sentence structure. Because of these quantifiable “successes”, I generally feel positive with my progress.
And there are unlimited opportunities for acquisition. Last week at work we had a Cantonese interpreter for one of the witnesses. I had my index book of Cantonese words on the table in front of me and updated it frantically (fear not, my boss, if you read this – there were many lengthy pauses during the interpretation where it was better for me to look busy than accidentally fall asleep on my steno machine, or peer intently at the ceiling counting the lights. Also, how good will it be when I can liaise with clients without having to have the conversation go through the nearest tech guy standing around).
So, the best thing about learning a language in a country where it’s the lingua franca is there are so many opportunities to practise and learn.
The second-best thing is we don’t really know many people here, so I have no shame in busting out some of my poorly formed sentences to any local in the vicinity. (This also applies to wearing the same house dress for weeks on end in the really hot months, and letting the kids get ice creams from McDonald’s all the time, and wearing my bogan clamshell hairclip in public. Though I suppose all these things could also be attributed to – standby! another apropos health sciences reference coming up! – the natural female progression upon having a couple of kids and turning 30. Am I going to get a bob haircut next…?)
I can see that, with the aggregation of my location and lack of shame, I am in a unique position to nail this thing. And suddenly, being conversational is not going to be enough. I yearn to be fluent…and yesterday. Every day where I’m not making demonstrable leaps in communicatory skill feels like a waste.
There’s a lot of talk about Cantonese being the hardest language in the world to learn, and that gweilos can never attain true fluency. But how then to explain this masterful performance of John Wakefield in a Days of our Lives style local drama:
Or Ho Kwok Wing, an Aussie whose mad and renowned fluency I hope to one day emulate:
While I was searching for these videos, I found the ultimate – RAPPING in Canto:
I’ve tended in the past (using “in the past” in the sense of “right up to this very minute”) to be a fanatical lover of gangsta rap, and throw gang signs in public. Could I become the world’s first white Cantonese rapper? It’s too exhilarating a prospect to even contemplate la.
And the most compelling evidence that the white man can conquer the fiendish tongue? Cecilie (alright, she’s a woman), a Norwegian who not only attained fluency and now teaches others but is advancing Cantonese as a world language through, basically, linguistic guerrilla fundamentalism. More power to her, and I urge you all to watch her videos even if you have no interest in learning Cantonese, just an interest in laughing, what.
I also went to a Chinese wedding recently. I sat in a congregation of about 100, nearly all locals, before a 70-year-old gweilo priest – who stunned me by opening his mouth and speaking perfect Cantonese. He did his homily seemingly ex tempore in Canto, and he even said “Teresa” authentically as the Chinese say it, “Tehr-eeessa”, instead of slipping back into his English pronunciation. What an inspiration. I’ve noticed plenty of these old “empire relics” here. An older expat is far more likely to speak Cantonese than a middle-aged or young one, I’ve found. I’m talking about people who are 60+ and who have lived here for many decades. I suppose when they came here, back then, it was likely for either diplomatic or missionary purposes – both of which would have been stymied by being unable to communicate with the locals. I haven’t done any research into this, but I think in the full blazing zenith of empire, the number of expats here who could speak Cantonese would have been very high. Compared to now where, anecdotally, it’s extremely low.
That priest, like no other priest ever, really, made me want to do better. I want to be as good as him.
And I know I can get there. I just have to find the best and quickest way. The logical flipside of “the [maiden name] spirit” is a urgent need for instant gratification. I don’t want this thing to drag out for years and years. I’ve been reading plenty of Cantonese blogs lately, and it seems most of the Caucasians who have attained fluency have a Cantonese-speaking spouse. They have also devoted hours to listening to vocab. At this stage the motivation isn’t strong enough to leave Joel for a Hong Kong dude, but I do spend hours on public transport every day with cans plugged in. So I’m going to start spending all that time listening to audio files of new Cantonese words instead of watching Glee clips (which, now that I think about it, is only a marginally lesser sacrifice than not leaving my beloved). I’m going to concentrate on 15 or 20 new words a day until I know this lexicon inside out. And just work on structure and form in my weekly lesson (since I really don’t have time or money to invest in more lesson time than that).
Many linguists recommend this method when learning a tonal language, particularly one rendered in characters so that standardised pronunciation is hard to get from a written list. Above all, it seems to be the most commonly recommended method for becoming fluent in the shortest space of time. I won’t be trying to learn to read the characters yet. This would take away from time I could spend on learning to speak, which at this stage is my absolute priority.
So. I’m going to coin a new family motto, and it’s going to be: “Go like a fucking maniac until you get there!”
Have any of you learned a tonal language, particularly a Chinese one? Any advice? Do I have any Hong Kong readers with experience in this? Or any Hong Kong readers at all?