Monday, December 1, 2008

"Cantonese Has Many Slangs" and other myths about learning the Wa

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.


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.


hkorbust said...

You missed the point that English is an "official" language - and that Hong Kong has colonial British heritage.

On grammar - yes they are likely referring to tenses - eg. past/future, which are only "implied" in Chinese.

Points 3+4. I subscribe to this view. Not only is Mandarin more useful (with the exception that immigrant groups in the US/UK tend to speak Cantonese)- but it is easier than Cantonese.

Most people in HK speak decent Mandarin these days. Much better than the average English level. That trend will continue.

Winifred said...

I've been in HK for 16 years now and my Cantonese is passable. It helped that I already knew Mandarin.

"1) "Cantonese has many slangs."

I agree w/ you on this - although there is a lot of slang, it has little bearing on basic communication. Yeah, we might end up sounding a tad stilted to the really hip types, but so what?

"2) "Cantonese has no grammar."

I agree w/ you on this as well.

Cantonese has as much grammar as Mandarin, and I've found both Cantonese and Mandarin easier to learn than French or German or even Spanish because of the more straightforward grammar.

"3) "Learn Mandarin. Cantonese is not useful.""

I speak OK Mandarin, I learned it before Cantonese and it has helped me in my Cantonese. As you point out, "useful for what"? Cantonese is far more useful for day-to-day living in Hong Kong.

I find myself sometimes using Mandarin instead of Cantonese - or we do a thing where I speak Mandarin and the other person answers in Cantonese and we proceed like that. That has made me lazier in Cantonese.

3b) "Learn Mandarin. Cantonese is dying out."

It's definitely not dying out. According to Ethnologue, there are about 52 million Cantonese speakers in the world, in contrast, there are only ~17 million people who speak Dutch. Do foreigners living in Amsterdam tell each other not to both w/ Dutch because it's a "dying" language

It's also fun and just relaxing to know that you can basically go anywhere in Hong Kong and interact w/ people.

As a Euro-American woman, when I go into a local cha chaan teng or small store, I can see that people are a bit tense (Oh no, English will be required). So I usually will say something in Cantonese immediately. It helps people relax.

Mhgoi, since you're Korean-American, do you get cut less slack for your Cantonese? I have found when speaking to my ABC or CBC friends that HK people *expect* them to have much better Cantonese than me, even though we all grew up in the USA and English is our first language.

mao365 said...

Hi Winifred,

I'm so impressed that you speak Mandarin and Cantonese. Cool.

As for how my Korean face affects my Cantonese interactions with locals, it all depends on the situation and how I'm dressed...

Usually, local HK people think I'm some dumb yokel from the mainland who is struggling with Cantonese or a Japanese tourist.

And as for being given slack... who knows? Perhaps due to my Asian face, HK people are maybe ever so slightly less quick to switch to English with me as I stumble along in my poor Cantonese.

But usually, as soon as they figure out I can't speak Cantonese well, they switch immediately to English (if they can speak English). I come across very few who switch to putonghua with me. Maybe it's just me and the places I frequent, but I don't find at all that most people in HK speak decent Mandarin.

Of course, whatever the case, once I say I'm Korean (not Korean-American as that involves too much explanation and often seems to confuse people), they inevitably shout "Daaih Jang Gam!!!" (I think I might have written a post about this phenomenon.)

Anyway, that's been my experience.

hkorbust said...

Cantonese is under some unusual pressure (especially when compared to Dutch!) For example - The concept of merging Shenzhen with Hong Kong (lunacy at best), and the growing influence of China.

Moreover, China's foreing policy has always been governed by pushing Mandarin speakers to the extremities - look at Inner Mongolia, Tibet, and Xinjiang (where there are loudspeakers with Mandarin radio in the streets).

The conspiracy theorist in me thinks HK is/will be subject to the same pressures.

Anonymous said...

I too also get the same thing, my Wifes family (and my wife for that matter) are always telling me that i should learn Mandarin instead of Canto as Canto will soon ne useless!

I prpbably going to try and learn Mandarin first and then Canto as itwill help with jobs and the like, if you ever fancy a game of BBall after 5th Jan your on!

GIT Mist

Anonymous said...

Next time i may even check what i have typed before hitting "Publish Your Comments" ...

mao365 said...

Hey g.i.m,

Let me know when you get here. We can definitely play ball.


cecilie said...

Mao, you're definitely treated differently from Caucasians because you didn't add a number (5?) common reaction that we Whitey get and which has kept thousands of foreigners from learning Cantonese, obedient as they are: "Don't learn Cantonese, it's too difficult FOR YOU."

Locals only think Canto is too difficult for the beige, not for Indonesian helpers with two years of schooling, for example. They're expected to learn the language as soon as they touch down at the airport.

I've seen it time and time again: Many locals think language is a genetic trait.

mao365 said...

That may very well be. But whether locals cooperate or not, the main burden or responsibility of language acquisition lies on the learner. Anyway, I address your #5 tangentially in the rest of my post NOW FOR THE FLIP SIDE.

As frustrating as it is to be constantly challenged and/or discouraged, at a certain level, giving up because locals tell them Cantonese is too difficult, is just a lame excuse... I don't know your students who gave up because of this, but they should toughen up a bit.