Cantonese: My Plan

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.

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For example, this is a mailbox. 11B!

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?

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12 Comments Add yours

  1. Rhi says:

    Sounds like you are powering through it! The dictionary, word, tones and phonetics section of your brain must be HUGE! (is there such a part? did you learn that at uni? I’m sure there must be).
    I am probably at a similar point in learning Dutch. I guess linguistically it is an ‘easier’ language to learn, but socially, it’s so hard to practice, and there is so little incentive for me to do so, so I am really going very slowly. Everyone here wants to speak English, so even if I order drinks at the bar perfectly, the barman dude will answer in English. Ditto for bus drivers, check out chicks, telephone salespeople and mormons – they instantly switch to English the second they suspect I am not Flemish.
    But I want to go back to work! So I need to be perfectly fluent before I can go for a Museum job. I have classes once a week, I read my text book in bed at night (zzzzz) and I watch heaps of local TV.
    I do have a local husband, but ‘our language’ is English and we find it really really hard to switch, even for an hour or so for me to practice. Hans automatically speaks English to me. Gee, maybe I DO need a new husband!
    Does Rufus go to a local school, or international/English one? Huge incentive for me is that I want to be able to help Milla with homework, and also go to help out in the classroom etc. It’s mortally embarrassing not to be able to talk to a bunch of 4 year olds.
    Good luck with your plan! x

    1. jadeluxe says:

      There might be such a part in the brain! I guess they got to brains somewhere after the six-week mark 😉
      The people here who speak any English do want to speak it (so if I get in a taxi and speak Cantonese, they respond in English if they can) – but luckily hardly any of them do speak English out where I live, so I get a fair chance to practise.
      I feel you on the text book. Definitely puts me to sleep. Which is a good thing I guess. I fell asleep last night with my headphones and woke up five minutes later with a shock to some lady repeating phrases. Not relaxing.
      Rufus goes to a British kindergarten at the moment (which is probably 60% Westerners, 40% other) but will start at a local school in August. We’re looking forward to him overtaking us in Cantonese after about three weeks!
      It is embarrassing not being able to speak to 4-year-olds. We went to a party with Rufus recently for a French kid. At one point a little French girl rode up to me on a trike and said something about m’appelle, which was the cue for literally my only French sentence – “Je m’appelle Jade!” which I reeled off feeling incredibly proud of myself. She then responded in a whole stream of perfect French and then turned around on her little 2-year-old legs and trundled away confused when I had no response. Shamed by a toddler!
      How is your kids’ Dutch?

      1. Rhi says:

        I’m sure if you go to sleep with Cantonese playing in your ear you will just learn it by osmosis somehow.. or you’ll be one of those people who wake up from a coma speaking a new language fluently…
        Yeah, our kids are perfectly bilingual. Milla had always heard Hans speaking Dutch to her, but she preferred to speak English. But literally 3 weeks after starting at a local kindy here when we first arrived, she started speaking it perfectly too. She is excellent at it all, it astounds me. She switches between people and always just *knows* what language to use. She loves to correct me, and quiz me. It’s even MORE embarrassing than not being able to talk to a strange 4 year old. Being corrected by your own 3.5 year old… Tate will be bilingual, but his vocab at the moment hasn’t really extended past mama, dada and cheeeeeze.

  2. Jenny says:

    Sounds like your Cantonese is already more advanced than mine after 15 years! (Although 99% of what I know was learned in the first year.) You have the advantage in living in an area where you will encounter people who don’t speak English. The only people who don’t speak English in Discovery Bay are the street sweepers, and my conversation with them is limited to “Tin hei ho ho ah?” which always gets a laugh.

    BTW, I don’t think most elderly long-term expats speak more Cantonese than younger ones. My parents-in-law and their friends who have been here 40+ years don’t know much more than me. And in colonial times I think the Brits spoke even less Cantonese, especially the ruling class, because they made the rules and it was up to locals to learn English if they wanted to get on. Chinese people were banned from living on The Peak until mid-20th century, and in court hearings Chinese people were referred to as “Chinaman #1, Chinaman #2”, etc, so you get the picture of colonial arrogance…

  3. jadeluxe says:

    I find adding an “ah” or a “la” to anything is good for a laugh. Do you have “tin hei mm ho ah” for a day like today? 🙂
    Yes, my idea about long-term expats speaking more Cantonese could be well off. I’m definitely not known for my research. I knew about The Peak (and feel much sympathy for the coolies who had to run the gweilos up the hill in sedan chairs before the tram was made!) but had no idea about the court hearings. That’s quite hilarious, in a very inappropriate way…

  4. Diane Schad says:

    Hello: I find your blog very interesting as I have a sister who lives in Hong Kong and relatives in Australia. I’m a court reporter from Columbus, Ohio. USA.

    1. jadeluxe says:

      Hi Diane…
      Sorry, this is MONTHS late…I only just saw your comment now! Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment – I love to know who’s reading and where they’re from! We have so many connections! 😉 Where does your sister live?

  5. Jenny says:

    I think the colonial tradition of expats not speaking canto (which may not be the case in Sai Kung) makes it harder for us to learn, because locals often don’t EXPECT us to try, at least in westernised areas. Time is also money here…once I was struggling to speak Cantonese in a taxi and the driver actually said, ‘Speak English, it’s faster’!

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