November 28, 2010

Learning Cantonese - part I.

As every good language lover I also have a wish list of languages that I would love to speak one day but sadly as life is short most of these wishes only remain wishes. Cantonese was also one of those languages I wanted to study for a long time but since I had no friends from Hong Kong (or the area) or plans to live there any time soon, it remained only a wish for a possible future date. Last year in November I visited Hong Kong for 10 days and I had so much fun there and the Cantonese language sounded so good that I decided that I really wanted to study the language the first chance I get.

I personally don’t think it is a very good idea to study more than one language at the same time and I also don’t think it is a good idea to try and learn as many languages as one can in the shortest possible time, because in my opinion language learning should not be viewed upon as a sport or a competition so as I study Farsi at the moment, to study a little bit of Cantonese as well would be against my own philosophy. But then again I also think that interest and motivation are extremely important so a bit of Cantonese can do no harm. I only decided to dab a little with the sound system of the language anyway. The only resource that I am using right now is the new cantoneseclass101 podcast. There are currently not that many newbie and beginner lessons available, but it will do fine for now.
 In my Learning Chinese blog entry I was talking about how in my view the “mathematical” explanation of tones (or any explanation of tones for that matter) negatively influenced my entire learning process. Cantonese pronunciation is even more complex than Mandarin (I intentionally do not mention tones and their number in either language) so people could logically assume it should be more difficult to learn than Mandarin. The fact is that little kids in Hong Kong learn Cantonese effortlessly with a native pronunciation just as we've learned our native languages and western kids growing up in those regions do the same. Cantonese people often don't even know that their language has tones whatsoever. I know that a child’s brain is at a different stage of development while absorbing the native language and is at the time under completely different conditions than we are but there are some similarities and I decided to choose a similar, maybe a little bit more sophisticated but still similar approach as children have.

While learning Mandarin I was constantly thinking about what I was doing wrong and why it was so difficult for me to be effortlessly fluent and have native like pronunciation in this language. I was also observing my foreign friends here in Taiwan and one of my Japanese friends in particular completely blew me away. He was 21, and came to Taiwan with almost zero knowledge of Chinese. He was not a very diligent student and has spent most of his time hanging out with his Taiwanese friends. After 10 months in Taiwan his Chinese was absolutely amazing. He sounded very Taiwanese with good grammar, vocabulary and Taiwanese pronunciation, the only “problem” being that he sounded exactly like his friends. He copied everything they were saying and gradually had built up enough sentences and vocabulary to start speaking on his own. I've never seen him take any notes, deliberately study grammar or force himself to study in his free time. One might argue that because of the influence of Japanese vocabulary has had on Chinese he had a big advantage, but this advantage helped him only during more technical discussions. In everyday speech he was just really good in mimicking his friends and gradually started to put together sentences himself. His pronunciation was also very good. At least for someone who has been studying the language for only 10 months.

So where does Cantonese and child language acquisition come into all of this? I wanted to adopt the same “strategy” my Japanese friend has adopted, because it was very effective and because it was closest to how little children learn their first language and give it little structure using my experience. 

In the first months I would only try to listen to interesting material and later mimic with no stress of forgetting something the things I've heard until I build up a solid sound and sentence structure basis to start serious studies and eventually spend some time in Hong Kong. It might sound completely unprofessional, but at the same time I did learn 4 foreign languages (Italian, Russian, Spanish, Mandarin) from scratch to advanced fluency as an adult (after the age of 23) so I think if anything, I can at least talk from my own experience as a student and teacher of foreign languages, that with languages as different to us as Cantonese, all other known strategies will fail.

The duration of this “Listen with no stress only” period can be adapted to any language a student wishes to study and varies from case to case. Languages like English, German, Russian, Italian or French, even if they are incomprehensible at first while you study them, they really seem like dialects of the same language when compared to Mandarin or Cantonese. They share the same structures, same vocabulary and culture. After you've understood the inner logic of 80-90% of what’s going on in the language (and I don't mean grammar, just the pure way the language works) you're good to go. This might vary from a couple of months for Italian to a couple of years for Mandarin.

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