Listen to Podcast | Special Episode 1: Why You are Never too Old to Learn Cantonese
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Podcast Transcript | Special Episode 1: Why You are Never too Old to Learn Cantonese
Welcome to our Cantonese – How Do You Say Podcast. This is Eugene from LearnDialect.sg and we have something very special for you. The next 6 episodes will be a special series, where we have invited Eric Chau – a native Cantonese speaker – to share with us more on learning Cantonese. Here’s a quick summary of what’s upcoming, so that you know what to expect from our podcast:
Special Episode 5: Say It Like You Own It – Part 2: Asking a Date out; and last but not least,
There’s lots to cover, so let’s get going now!
Today we have a very special guest, Eric. So Eric, can you tell us a little bit more about yourself?
Hello everyone. My name is Eric Chau. I was born in Hong Kong and I grew up in Hong Kong. I finished my primary school and secondary school in Hong Kong. Then I spent a few years overseas – in Canada – to further my studies. When I was in Canada, I had an opportunity to work in a multicultural and multi-racial radio station, whereby I was one of the news broadcasters, broadcasting news in Cantonese. After graduating, I came to Singapore to work and live. And that’s it. That’s me.
Thank you, Eric. Can you share with us why you are so interested in Cantonese? Nowadays, in Singapore, not many people are focused on “dialects”, including Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese. What kept you interested in maintaining or improving your Cantonese proficiency?
Well, for one, I have two children. They are both teenagers. One thing I noticed is that when my mother wants to speak to them, they will only nod their heads. And then after coming home, they will tell me, “We didn’t understand what Mama was talking about. We had no choice but to nod our head in order not to be seen as rude.” So because of that, for the sake of old folks here, I have the responsibility – as a father – to teach my children to better understand the dialect. Although dialects seem to be dying in Singapore, we don’t forget that we still have a lot of old folks here who can only speak or relate in dialects. This is one of the major factors.
The other factor is that with the push of Mandarin by Mainland China, you can see that even in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, the young people are not speaking in dialects anymore. At home, at school, even with friends, they are all speaking or listening to Mandarin. I feel that we may be facing a possible, or a slight possibility of extinction of a dialect. So for me, I feel that it is important to save it as it has a few thousand years of culture and history.
If you are someone who has learnt Japanese or who has learnt Korean, you’ll realize that some of the vocabularies – when you pronounce them – sound like dialects. Some Cantonese words sound like Hokkien and Teochew. After much research, I found out that Cantonese, Teochew and Hokkien could trace their roots back to the official language in the middle part of China, which was at that time, the Tang dynasty. It was the cultural centre as well as the political centre of China. When Japan sent the envoys to China, they learnt all sorts of things. They learnt medicine, they will learn the language, and that’s when they imported the language into Japan. So in current Japanese language and Korean language, you can still find remnants of some vocabularies that sound like or that retain the original form in central China, which has evolved to become a dialect in Guangdong Province.
Do you mind sharing with us some of these examples?
The first thing that came to my mind was tofu.
In Japanese, it is tōfu.
Tōfu. And how do you say tofu in Cantonese?
Dau fu (豆腐).
Dau fu. Got it. Well, that was very interesting. Many people that I have spoken to are reluctant to learn Cantonese. They cite reasons like, “I’m too old to learn”. So not everybody is in the same situation as yourself, where you’re trying to breach the communication gap between your kids and your parents. So a lot of them just think, “Oh, I’m too old to learn,” or “Cantonese is no longer useful, especially in Singapore’s context”. How would you respond to them?
Nobody’s too old or too young to learn something. For example, my kids grew up learning a few languages as well as Cantonese. So for them, I will say it is quite a difficult situation. But amazingly, my elder one – who’s 17 – would speak to my mother-in-law in Mandarin at home. And in school, of course, he speaks Singlish. Can I say that? (Laughs) Then he comes back from school and we spend the whole day together. Now, how many hours can I speak to him? When I speak to him, he can speak English, Mandarin and Cantonese. But amazingly, sometimes when we’re talking, he was able to express himself using vocabulary that I wouldn’t have imagined him picking them up. I asked him, “how do you learn all these words or phrases? He asked me back, “what do you think?” So for young kids, okay, there’s no problem (in picking up new languages).
I have spoken to someone from Indonesia, an Indonesia helper. She was my immediate next door neighbour. There was one day when she came to work for my neighbour. She greeted me in Cantonese. And I was so amazed and I asked her in Cantonese, “how do you speak Cantonese?” And she replied in Cantonese, telling me that she worked in Hong Kong for a couple of years. Her environment encouraged her or forced her to learn. Although she was speaking with heavy Indonesian accent, I could understand every word she said. She could also equally understand every word I say. So it proves to say that people from different cultural backgrounds – with or without prior understanding of the Chinese language or whether he or she can write or read Chinese – are fully capable of learning. It depends on whether you want to learn or if you’re in the right environment to learn.
For older people, I have seen my mother-in-law learn Cantonese. She speaks Mandarin, Hokkien and Teochew. I mean, she is very nice. She learns Cantonese so that she can understand me when I talk to my children. So I think if you are willing to learn, you’re eager to learn and there’s no restriction as far as age is concerned.
So that’s insightful. What I’m hearing you say is that no matter your age, it’s not an excuse, even though you are a non-Mandarin speaker. Like what you had mentioned earlier on the domestic helper, because she was in Hong Kong for a period of time, she was put in an environment where she had to learn Cantonese. So even though she doesn’t have any Mandarin background, she’s able to pick it up.
She’s not the only one that I come across. I go back to Hong Kong regularly. On public transport, you can hear Filipino helpers speaking on the handphones with their employers. They are communicating fully in Cantonese, so there’re no English words involved. So, it is the environment. It is the will to survive in the environment that make it successful.
So, there’s no excuse not to learn Cantonese if you’re truly interested in Cantonese, right?
This is one of the myths about learning Cantonese – you’re too old to learn a new language.
So, this gives you a taste of what’s coming up in our next episode, where Eric will help us to debunk other myths when it comes to learning Cantonese. Stay tuned!
Transcript has been edited for readability and clarity.
The opinions expressed by the guest speaker in this podcast are his own and do not reflect the view of LearnDialect.sg.
Keen to learn more about Singapore Cantonese? Here’s the link to our interactive Cantonese Course for Beginners. While spots last!
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.