I've been studying Cantonese off and on for about six months now and can piece together basic sentences with my vocabulary of about 2000 or so words. I'm at a very basic level.
Here are some of my observations about learning Cantonese in HK.
Whenever local HK Chinese find out I'm learning Cantonese, they usually seem to have this notion that I'm basically wasting my time because what I'm trying to do is, to them, ultimately futile. Here are the ususal explanations I get about why it's so difficult, virtually impossible, for foreigners to learn Cantonese:
1) "Cantonese has many slangs."
It astounds me how, for some reason, Cantonese speakers seem to think their language has a monopoly on slang. Sure Cantonese has tons of colorful, creative and playful slang expressions, but then again, what language doesn't?
I'm using proper English right now, but were I in a different situation with different company, I'd switch to using more street expressions, you dig?
More importantly, I'm not trying to learn all the latest cool slang expressions. That may come much later. For now, I'm practicing basic communication. One can learn English without learning every bit of slang out there. Ditto for Cantonese, right?
I mentioned the above to So Jene, and she said that maybe the HK locals aren't talking about slang expressions, but that they might be referring to Cantonese having a formal version and an informal version. Interpreted thusly, HK locals might be saying that the Cantonese that is usually taught in books and to foreigners is a formal textbook version which is different from the actual Cantonese that is used. I sort of doubt that this is what people mean when they say "Cantonese has many slangs" because Cantonese does have many slang expressions. But who knows?
2) "Cantonese has no grammar."
I'm not sure just how this bit of misinformation got its foothold. But in my study of the language, it's clear that Cantonese has a very logical and straightforward grammar. Sure there are some exceptions to certain grammatical rules, but the syntax that holds words together to form sentences is there, clear as day.
Yet, over and over, people say Cantonese has no grammar. The only sense I can make of this claim is that they may be talking about verb conjugation? Cantonese verbs change very little to show tense, and often do not change at all if context provides enough clues about tense. But this feature seems to me to make the language easier, not more difficult. Basically, this seems clear-cut. Cantones does indeed have grammar.
3) "Learn Mandarin. Cantonese is not useful."
This argument slides into the political realm. But the claim that Cantonese is not useful is one that can be gauged only by the individual. To some Cantonese is useful. To others it's not.
Indeed, if I were learning the language to work with Mandarin-speakers down the road, Mandarin would be more useful. But, this is not the case. I am learning Cantonese because living in HK is a good opportunity to learn another language, and the language most local HK people speak is Cantonese (despite how much English there is). At the present, Mandarin has no use for me. The language I need is Cantonese.
3b) "Learn Mandarin. Cantonese is dying out."
This is a corollary of #3. Usually I get this from Mandarin speaking Chinese or Cantonese-speakers who're down on HK. It's their view that heretic Cantonese-speakers will eventually realize the error of their ways and revert back to the national language, or that Cantonese-speakers will be driven by economic incentives or too apathetic to resist the encroachment of Mandarin.
That may happen, but I also know that spoken languages, especially ones that provide a sense of personal and political identity, are damn hard to put down, especially through government policy. People are stubborn.
For instance, Japan tried to wipe out Korean and impose the Japanese language as the official language during its 30 years+ occupation of Korea. Learning Japanese carried with it economic benefits and social mobility. Using Korean was penalized and formal education was carried out in Japanese. Despite this, the Korean language survived and thrived. Cantonese will be around a lot longer than many people think no matter how omnipotent the Chinese government seems to be.
**Basically, these are the top four reactions I get from HK Chinese about learning Cantonese, and my responses. That said, I'm not saying that learning Cantonese is easy. It's not, especially for English speakers. Cantonese is indeed not easy to learn, but I've found that the bulk of that difficulty stems from the following:
a) lack of good study material - (there are tons for Mandarin, very few for Cantonese.)
b) prevalence of English in HK. - Too easy to revert back to English and too easy to not use or practice Cantonese unless you make an effort to use Cantonese.
c) general busy culture of HK - Most people are too busy to stop and take the time to speak with you. People usually are too busy, busy, busy. There's definitely very little slacker culture here. That's just how it is.
NOW FOR THE FLIP SIDE
I turn now to those on the other side of the language divide.
Many non-HK people who cannot speak Cantonese but have lived in HK for a long time usually tend to have many reasons for why they haven't learned the language. Some have no interest. Some don't want to take classes. This is all fine and dandy as I don't think language acquisition is a duty or a requirement. Just so that we're clear. I don't fault anyone for not learning anything. God knows there are so many things out there I haven't learned.
But there are some who inevitably point the finger of blame at the local culture and people for their own failing to learn Cantonese. Their argument usually goes like this:
"It's not my fault that I haven't learned Cantonese despite living here x years. The local people all speak English to me. If I had lived in France for the same x years, I'd be fluent in French by now."
The fallacy of the above claim lies in the fact that language acquisition doesn't happen through osmosis but requires active effort, no matter what the environment. Of course, children may seem to pick up languages effortlessly, but they too make active effort through schoolwork and lots of repeated informal conversation practice.
The truth is, one can live in any foreign locale and never learn the language no matter how long that person lives there whether or not the native people engage him or her in the native tongue. Such cooperation may make the learning easier, but learning a new language requires time and effort. It's ridiculous to think a person would somehow acquire a language without making the effort.
The fact is, if a person doesn't need to or has very little interest in learning a new language, he or she simply won't.
This is true of Cantonese, French, Russian... The biggest factors in learning a language seem to be personal motivation and time investment.
There are plenty of people who come to HK from other places and manage to learn Cantonese despite all the obstacles and lack of encouragement. There are plenty more who do not. And that's fine.
But let's just be honest about the why.
Anyway, that's my two bits for the day.
On a less academic note and since I've already mentioned Japanese occupation in this post, So Jene and I spent Saturday afternoon in Lamma and stumbled on the tunnels that the Japanese military had dug during WWII. What fun!!!
I'll post a photo of the Japanese caves later.
Also, I shot around for the first time in a long time Sunday afternoon at Southorn Playground in Wanchai after my Cantonese class. It felt good to be on a basketball court, dribbling and shooting. My ankle felt good and strong. It didn't swell up much at all afterwards though it still looks pretty damn disgusting.
I need to start getting back in shape to play ball again on a more regular basis.
The 2.37 shop
1 week ago