Listen to Podcast | Special Episode 2: Learning Cantonese – Top Myths Debunked!

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Podcast Transcript | Special Episode 2: Learning Cantonese – Top Myths Debunked!

Welcome back to this special series of Cantonese – How Do You Say Podcast. This is Eugene from LearnDialect.sg and for this 2nd episode, we are very glad to have Eric Chau with us again. In the previous episode, we talked about how no one is ever too old to learn Cantonese. Today, we’ll debunk other common myths when it comes to learning Cantonese. Let’s get going!

Learning Cantonese – Top Myth 1: If you are tone-deaf, you cannot learn Cantonese.

Eugene

In fact, in today’s podcast, Eric and I are going to talk about these common myths or misconceptions about learning Cantonese. We try to debunk each of the myths one by one. The first myth that we are going to explore is, if you are tone-deaf, you cannot learn Cantonese. So Eric, what do you think about that?

Eric

How do you define tone-deaf?

Eugene

Well, let me phrase it in another way. There are some people who use languages that are non-tonal, for example, English. Then they may say, “oh, I cannot learn Cantonese because my base language is not tonal”. What do you think of it?

Eric

I like the way you describe it. Yeah. I have watched a lot of programmes on YouTube and they are conducted by English-speaking people. A few of them are YouTube celebrities based in China. One of them is from the UK, but he was expressing himself fully in Mandarin. So how did he do that? I mean, of course, there were some occasions when he didn’t get the tones right. The first tone become the fourth tone, but he can at least pronounce the word.

For me, I can pick up the 4 tones in Mandarin. However, when it comes to speaking the first tone and the fourth tone, I tend to make mistakes. My way of speaking is influenced by Cantonese.  E.g. yi, er, san (1,2,3 in Mandarin), but in Cantonese, it’s yat, yi, saam. The ‘saam’ sounds like it is the fourth tone, but it doesn’t have to be the fourth tone. It depends on how you say it. Normally, when you say yat, yi, saam (with saam in Mandarin’s fourth tone), it’s when you are in a competition or when you are getting ready for something. So the person will speak with some kind of excitement. Yat… Yih… Saam! So, with this ingrained in my mind, whenever people say 1, 2, 3, or yi, er, san in Mandarin, I will automatically relate to my past experience of competition. So when I speak in Mandarin, I have a tendency to speak not yi er san1, but yi… er… san4!

In fact, when you are learning a new language, speak to someone who is a native speaker. When you make mistakes, people will forgive you. People are very forgiving. They will find you very cute. They will like you because you are saying something that is important to them. You’re making an effort and they will forgive you. They will be very generous to tell you how you should say it more accurately.

Eugene

On the side note, if we were to define tone deaf as being unable to differentiate musical tones… I know of some Cantonese friends who speak the language fluently but are unable to hit the right tones when they sing. Well, this is in fact consistent with a research study by Yun Nan et al, where it was found that that does not seem to be any transfer effect between fluency in a tonal language and music perception. So there we have it, we’ve just debunked our first myth.

Learning Cantonese – Top Myth 2: You need to learn how to write Chinese in order to learn Cantonese

Eugene

The next myth that will move on to is, you need to learn how to write Chinese or Mandarin in order to learn Cantonese. So do you agree with this, Eric?

Eric

The answer is no, based on the Indonesian and Filipino example that I had shared earlier. In addition, I also have a friend who is an Australian. He married a Taiwanese wife and we can understand him when he speaks Mandarin. Although some of the tones are inaccurate, but he is able to learn. For example, one word that I still remember him saying is ‘Philippines’. Fei1 lü4 bin1 – that’s how we say in Mandarin – but he would pronounce it as Fei3 lü3 bin1. So I think it must be because he heard it in such a way and then mimicked and pronounced it as Fei3 instead of Fei1. Tones are important, but as long as you are not saying something totally different with the wrong tone, I think this is really acceptable. You don’t have to learn or know how to write Chinese before you learn Cantonese. Well, it is a plus if you know it. For example, sometimes when I talked to my children, we came across certain words and phrases. I will then point out to them in their textbooks. I will tell them, “hey, these are the characters for this phrase. This is what I normally say to you in Cantonese, remember?” Then they will say, “oh yeah, this is the Cantonese version” or “this is the Mandarin version of your famous Cantonese line!”

Eugene

My personal view to this myth is that it depends on the reason you are learning Cantonese, or for that matter, any other languages including Hokkien and Teochew. Majority of people I know want to pick up these languages for verbal communication instead of written communication. Given this context, it is entirely possible to learn Cantonese without knowing how to write. In fact, written and spoken Cantonese can be quite different, as the written form is based on Mandarin. So if you speak using the written form, you may sound very weird to Cantonese speakers as you are essentially speaking Mandarin but with Cantonese pronunciation. For example, “don’t move” would be written and spoken as 不要動 in Mandarin, but read in Cantonese as bat yiu dung. However, in daily conversations, Cantonese says 唔好郁 mm hou yuk. As such, if you wish to learn to speak Cantonese, I would go one step further and suggest to practise speaking with others. This improves your fluency and familiarity with the language. Learning to write would not be your main priority. So there you go, myth 2 is debunked.

Learning Cantonese – Top Myth 3: Children are better at learning Cantonese

Eugene

What Eric just mentioned brings us to our next myth, children are better at learning Cantonese. I would say there’s a bit of a comparison here between children being younger and thus able to learn better and faster versus adults. Do we think that that’s true though, Eric?

Eric

Yes, I mean, to a certain extent, children are better at learning everything, including languages. But don’t forget the fact that adults have very rich life experiences. Through their growing-up years, they have learned other dialects and thus certain phrases have similar pronunciation as other dialects. So I don’t think adults are disadvantaged in that sense.

For me, as an adult, I’ve been living here for so long. I do not proactively seek to learn Teochew or Hokkien. But if a random stranger in the street asks me a question in Teochew or Hokkien (e.g. What time is it? How do I get from here to there), I can understand what the person is saying. Every single word. I don’t know why, I don’t know how, but it must be due to the influence of what I have been hearing all these years. Subconsciously, these words enter my mind. I may not understand at that point of time. But if you have enough exposure to the languages, and then one fine day when someone speaks to you, you can figure it out.

A very recent example was someone coming to my house to do some renovation. It was a new apartment and the workers were rushing for time. So obviously, they scratched the wall and the floor. I got a bit unhappy so I asked the workers to be a bit more careful. I could hear one of the workers mumbling something in Hokkien and I was able to understand it. But I kept quiet. When they finished the job, I asked them, “what time are you coming back tomorrow?” in Hokkien.

Eugene

So you purposely put him in a spot. *Laughs*

Eric

Right. So the worker was thinking, “uh-oh, this guy understood me and he could speak Hokkien.” But for me, I was putting in all my courage to sort of fight back. It shows one thing. If you really want to do it, feel the need to do it, somehow you can do it. Very often as adults, you learn subconsciously without realizing it. When the situation calls for it, you can mutter something out.

Eugene

When there’s a will, there’s a way.  So this is our third myth being debunked. And good luck to Eric’s contractor and I hope he did a good job for his contracting work.

Eric

He zipped his mouth for the next few days. *Laughs*

Eugene

According to an article by BBC in 2018, adults are much better at studying a language in a classroom with a teacher explaining the rules versus children. The article also mentioned various research studies conducted by Israel and UK, which showed that late starters acquired new language faster than their younger counterparts. Once again, we debunk a common myth that children are better at learning Cantonese.

Learning Cantonese – Top Myth 4: Learning Cantonese is no longer useful in today’s context.

Eugene

Okay, moving on to the next myth, learning Cantonese is no longer useful in today’s content. Do we think that’s true, Eric?

Eric

Okay. Yeah, a lot of people will be having this thought. Then they will also think that, “well, my grandparents are so old. I mean, what’s the point when I finally become proficient? You are no longer around!” Yes, in a way it is true.

But let me also share with you that a few years ago, I was in Vietnam. I was with my wife, my children, my mother-in-law and my wife’s extended family. I was the only male. I was holding a map at the time. We didn’t know where to go in Vietnam.  We were just discussing if we should turn right, turn left or walk straight, in order to get to the hotel that we booked. We couldn’t find a taxi on the road. I was talking to my family members in Cantonese, when one random passerby walked up and say to me in Cantonese. “You should go walk further down. Not far off, you’ll find the restaurant that you’re looking for.” So my initial thoughts were that, “hey, you’re eavesdropping on me”, but when I thought deeper, “oh my god! Aren’t you a Vietnamese? You are obviously a Vietnamese but you can speak my dialect. How amazing!” So you see, we will never know when the situation will call for it. This is just one example.

There was also once when I was overseas in a tour group. The tour group consisted of people from other countries. They knew that I looked Chinese, so they asked me what I could speak. So of course, I replied in English, “yeah, I could speak English obviously,” and they laughed. “By the way, I can speak Mandarin and Cantonese.” I don’t know why but they got a bit excited when I mentioned Cantonese. They explained later that in their neighbourhood, a lot of new migrants speak Cantonese. These Americans find it amazing. They always like to go to Cantonese restaurants, but they do not know what else to order except for fried rice, chop suey, and sweet and sour pork. So that’s when they say, “we finally meet someone – other than waiters and waitresses – who can speak to us and who can perhaps teach us a few words!”

Eugene

Yes, just to extend a little bit more on that, what Eric shared were very personal experiences, where life brings surprises to you when you know a different language. On a more international level, if you go to Chinatowns throughout the world – most of them in American cities or in Europe – they are usually populated by migrants from the Guangzhou region. So these people speak a lot of Cantonese. That is one big use of Cantonese on an international level. That’s just an additional sharing on my end. So yeah, learning Cantonese is no longer useful in today’s context? Well, it really depends, given how we like to travel nowadays. So yeah, learn Cantonese. It’s a good thing!

Apart from the serendipitous moments mentioned by Eric, I am of the view that Cantonese remains very much useful in today’s context, especially in the case of Singapore. To list one example, based on latest statistics from Singapore’s Department of Statistics, among all our trading partners, Hong Kong – which is known for its widespread use of Cantonese, is Singapore’s top destination in terms of net export for 2018. This means that we sell more to Hong Kong than they buy from Singapore and this difference is more than any other specific partner that we trade with. Historical trade statistics from the website of World Integrated Trade solution – a collaboration between World Bank, United Nations, World Trade Organization among many others – paint the same picture. In fact, Hong Kong has been Singapore’s top net exporter for close to 30 years! So you see, whether it is for economics or for travel, Cantonese remains useful. Once again, a myth debunked!

Learning Cantonese – Top Myth 5: Cantonese is exactly the same everywhere.

Eugene

Alright, so that’s the fourth myth and now we’ll look at the fifth myth, Cantonese is exactly the same everywhere. So is it really the same everywhere?

Eric

Oh, it’s wrong. It is not the same everywhere. You have Singapore style. You have Malaysian style – east Malaysian style and the west peninsula Malaysian style. Then you have the Vietnam style, like I had mentioned previously. Even in Guangzhou, you have different variations of Cantonese. There’s no exactly one single variant or type of Cantonese around.

Eugene

Well, in this case you’re saying that Cantonese is not exactly the same everywhere. Then the next question on my mind is, would it be very difficult to understand what a Malaysian Cantonese is speaking versus a Vietnamese Cantonese or a Hong Kong Cantonese? Would it be difficult for me to generally understand?

Eric

No, they all came from the same source. You are talking about people migrating out of Guangzhou in the last 300 years or so. This process is continuous. So for example, when these people migrated to Vietnam, they initially may still write letters. I mean, somehow they will maintain communication, albeit it will be difficult. But after one or two generations, or even within the generation of new migrants themselves, the dialect will start to change, mutate or evolve. It is a continuous export of the language to other parts of the world and the continuous evolution in different parts of the world.

However, because they are from the same source, no matter how much they evolve, someone from East Malaysia can communicate with a person in Hong Kong. Sharing a personal experience, I have many friends from different parts of Malaysia. My father, at one point, grew up in East Malaysia. He grew up in Sabah and I remember his Cantonese is not the same Cantonese as how we used it in Hong Kong. Subsequently, he moved from Sabah to Hong Kong, but basically we can understand each other. I have a lot of friends in university, who are from Malaysia and Singapore. We have no problem communicating with each other. And of course, we notice the differences and we will make fun of the differences.

For example, a group of us went to Chinatown Hong Kong restaurant. One of them ordered a cup of ice lemon water, dung laang seoi. But my Malaysian friend pronounced it a little bit differently and he sounded like he was speaking a bad word. So the whole group of us from Hong Kong laughed. He didn’t know why we were laughing, but we knew that he was not trying to say any bad words.

Eugene

That is really interesting! And yes, what Eric says – in terms of how Cantonese has evolved – is in line with a research conducted by T. D. Harya in 2016. These changes may be caused by the influences of other languages (e.g. Malay) or simply how we have localized the language in our everyday lives. So, you’ll find that Cantonese is not exactly the same everywhere.

Well, that goes to prove that Cantonese is not exactly the same everywhere. And that’s the last myth debunked.

But at the same time, even though it’s not the same everywhere, as long as you are a Cantonese speaker, it is largely mutually intelligible when you try and communicate with Cantonese speakers from other parts of the world. So not to worry, even though it’s not the same everywhere, if you learn it, you can still communicate with other Cantonese speakers internationally.

Okay! After hearing how Eric debunks the myths in learning Cantonese, I hope that you are even more motivated to pick up Cantonese now! Eric is from Hong Kong and I think he would be the perfect person to ask about the differences between Singapore and Hong Kong Cantonese. Don’t you think? So stay tuned for the next episode, as Eric will then share with us his unique perspectives. Once again, this is Eugene from LearnDialect.sg. We’ll talk soon!


Transcript has been edited for readability and clarity.


Our Philosophy for Learning Cantonese in Singapore

At LearnDialect.sg, we want to make learning Cantonese fun, easy and practical for daily conversations in Singapore. As such, rather than figuring out which of the 10 or more Cantonese romanization system to use (e.g. Jyutping, Yale or Cantonese Pinyin etc.), we encourage you to form your own phonics, so that you make an association with these Cantonese words in the quickest way possible. To illustrate, the romanization of the English word, “eat”, is “Sik” using Jyutping and “Sihk” using Yale. However, in our “Have You Eaten?” podcast transcript, you’ll find that we use “sek”, which we think relates to us better. That said, you may use other romanization (e.g “sake”, “xig”, etc), as long as it helps you to make sense of what you hear.