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Category Archives: Cantonese

Is there still a place for Chinese dialects in Singapore?

With Chinese dialects slowly going obsolete among the younger generation, three youths fluent in their respective dialects share the importance of dialect in their lives.

Once ridiculed by her peers for speaking in dialect, Student Quek Ji Kiat loathed speaking Hakka and thought that it was uncool. “Back in primary school, my friends would laugh at me whenever I spoke in dialect, so I gradually started to resent using it,” the 19-year-old recounted. Today, Ji Kiat would consider her own command of Hakka at a native level. With Hakka being the main language spoken at home, the Chinese Studies student was exposed to the dialect at a fairly young age. However, Ji Kiat only started to appreciate dialect in her teens, when she noticed that both her parents and grandparents spoke Hakka on a regular basis, and were more comfortable communicating in dialect. Her rediscovery of dialect brought her closer to her family, especially her grandparents, who predominantly spoke Hakka.

But youths like Ji Kiat fluent in their own dialects are no longer a common sight these days. According to the General Household Survey conducted by the Department of Statistics in 2015, only 12.6% of households primarily speak dialect at home. This was a steady decrease from 15.8% in 2010, and 18.2% in 2005. Of the 12.6% of Singaporeans mainly conversing in dialect at home, only 3.4% were aged between 15 to 29. With the declining trend of young Singaporeans proficient in dialects, it leads to the question of whether dialects will still have a place in Singapore in the future.

20-year-old Lee Xuan Jin’s love for dialects came from the comprehension that rather than Mandarin, Hokkien was his true mother tongue. Just like Ji Kiat, he picked up Hokkien from his family, having lived with his paternal grandmother for a large part of his childhood. “Towards the end of primary school, I realized that the language my ancestors spoke in the past was not Mandarin, but rather Hokkien and Teochew.” For Xuan Jin, learning Hokkien was a way for him to connect with his cultural roots.

Using Peh-oe-ji, an old form of romanization used by the Christians in Taiwan, he started ‘Writing in Hokkien’, a Facebook page where he frequently posts flashcards of common Hokkien words. With this, he aims to ignite interest in the dialect and promote literacy in Hokkien among the younger Singaporeans. To him, knowing dialect is a crucial step to understanding his roots, and learn first-hand about his ancestral culture. “It also makes our dialect group something that is part of our identity, rather than just an indication on our birth certificates,” Xuan Jin strongly believes that youths today should actively embrace their dialect. “It’s 2019, shouldn’t we be welcoming of the idea of having not one, but multiple identities?” He maintains that the social prejudice against dialects is a contributing reason for the lack of usage among youths today, and with the increasing interest in dialects among youths such as himself, he hopes that change will be soon to come.

For Ski, having to pick up Cantonese when she moved to Hong Kong first opened her eyes to the difficulties that one faced while learning dialects, and a volunteering encounter inspired her to start her own initiative to bridge the difficulties between dialect learners and the language. She realized that many of the elderly at the old folk’s home she volunteered at spoke mainly dialects while most of the volunteers did not, which greatly hindered their communication. Today, Ski is one of the founders of LearnDialect.sg which offers dialect lessons to Singaporeans of all ages and hopes to keep these “dying” languages alive among the younger generation of Singaporeans.

Joey Teo’s knowledge of Hokkien was a gift that aided her in voluntary work. As an avid volunteer, the 19-year-old regularly worked with the elderly, most of whom were unable to speak both English and Mandarin. Although exposed to Hokkien since young, Joey never saw it as anything particularly useful until she started volunteering with old folks homes after completing her A-Levels. Knowing Hokkien allowed her to communicate more effectively with the elderly she works with. “They are more likely to open up to me just because I speak a dialect that they are comfortable with.” For this, Joey is incredibly grateful towards her parents, for emphasizing on the importance of dialect at home.

Contributed by Wong Shi Yun


Love what you are reading? We’ve got lots more to share during our Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese express workshops. Join us to pick up words and phrases for everyday use in Singapore. More importantly, you can help to keep these languages alive!


Have an interesting article to contribute? Get in touch with us now.

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Cantonese: COVID-19 and the Heightened Measures

Hi there! As the situation with COVID-19 worsens, many entities including the government, corporations and individuals have come together to battle against this virus. The latest round of measures announced by the Singapore government on 3rd April 2020 is deemed to be the strictest, ever since COVID-19 first appeared in Singapore. As such, we would like to update our dialect-speaking seniors on what has happened since our last video. In this way, they are kept informed of the current situation and can better understand how we play a part together.

Please share this video with anyone who may find it useful. Let’s overcome this battle together!

You can also view and share this video via our Facebook and Instagram.

English Subtitles

Hello! Covid-19, a type of coronavirus, has become a global pandemic.

As of 4th April 2020, there are about 1.1 million confirmed cases globally, with more than 60,000 deaths. In Singapore, there are more than 1000 confirmed cases with 6 deaths. To control the spread, the Singapore government has heightened measures that require everyone’s cooperation. Daily routines will be affected. For instance, you will see more people wearing masks on the streets. In addition, most shops will be closed but essential services and key economic sectors will remain functional. As such, you can still take public transport, go to the doctor and head to the banks. In addition, students and most people will be learning or working from home.

To remain vigilant during this critical period, please note that:

  1. You are strongly advised to stay home and avoid going out unnecessarily. By avoiding physical contact outside your home, the probability of contracting the coronavirus will be reduced.
  2. Always wear a mask when you head out. If you are healthy, please use a reusable mask. From 5th April 2020 to 12th April 2020. the government will be distributing a reusable mask per person. Kindly bring along your identification card for collection at a Community Centre or Residents’ Committee. However, if you are ill, use a surgical mask instead; the government distributed 4 masks per household previously. Do note that the surgical mask can only be used once.
  3. Food establishments will remain open only for takeaway or delivery. This means that you are not allowed to eat/dine-in and must consume your meals at home.
  4. Supermarkets will remain open for daily necessities and grocery needs, but please do not buy excessively. If you are a Singaporean aged 71 years and above this year, you have priority shopping privileges during the first operating hour at every NTUC outlet on Mondays. For outlets that operate 24 hours, the priority shopping hour will be on every Monday, from 7am to 8am. Similarly, you can also head to Giant and Cold Storage during the first hour of every outlet’s operating time, but on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, instead. For outlets that operate 24 hours, the priority shopping hour will be on every Tuesday and Wednesday, from 8am to 9am.
  5. Finally, please maintain good personal hygiene. In addition, staying healthy will strengthen your immunity and make you less susceptible to the virus. As such, please take good care of yourself. Remember to wash your hands frequently and for good measures’ sake, kindly maintain a safe distance from others of at least 4 metric rulers (approximately 1.2 metres)*.

Thank you.

*We used the metric ruler as a form of measurement, as we find that seniors in Singapore are more familiar with this system. The official guideline from Singapore’s Ministry of Health for safe distancing is 1 metre.


( 中文字幕 )2019冠状病毒疫情及新措施

您好!相信您已知最近有一种具有传染性的病毒。这种病毒英语叫做COVID-19, 也有人称它为Coronavirus。华语叫做2019冠状病毒,简称新冠病毒。

截至2020年4月4日, 由新冠病毒引起的疫情在全世界至今已确诊约一百十多万病例、死亡超过六万例。新加坡也有超过一千起确诊病例以及六人死亡。为了控制疫情的扩散,新加坡政府需要全国人民的合作。大家的生活习惯将有所改变,所以您会看到更多人戴上口罩。许多店铺也会暂时关闭,但是必要服务和行业会继续运作。所以, 您还是可以乘搭公共交通、看医生、去银行等。此外,学生和多数的工作人士将在家里上课及办公。

在这个非常时期,您要更加小心, 请您注意:

  1. 尽量呆在家里。只要不出门,不与他人接触,就能减少病毒传播的机率。
  2. 出门要戴口罩。如果您没生病,就应该戴上能重复使用的口罩。政府将于2020年4月5日至4月12日派发这种口罩。您可以携带身份证前往联络所或居委会领取。如果您生病但还需外出,请您戴上手术口罩。政府早前已经分发四个手术口罩给每户人家。这种口罩不能重复使用。
  1. 咖啡店、小贩中心和餐馆等将继续营业,但只允许外卖,禁止堂食。所以, 您还是能购买食物回家享用。
  2. 超市及菜市会继续营业,不过请您不要抢购囤积。每逢周一,今年71岁或以上的新加坡年长者能在NTUC营业时间的首个小时优先购物。但请注意,若该NTUC全日无休,优先购物时段则是周一早上7点至8点。此外,您也能在周二与周三到Giant 或Cold Storage优先购物。优先购物时段是Giant和Cold Storage营业时间的首个小时。 同样的,如果该Giant或Cold Storage全日无休,优先购物时段则是周二与周三,早上8点至9点。
  3. 最后,请您注意个人卫生。要懂得照顾自己,因为免疫力较强者比较不会受感染。记得勤洗手,并且为了安全起见,与其他人保持最少4尺* (约1.2米)的距离。

谢谢。           

*由于年长者大多以”尺”作为衡量数位,因此我们在视频里便以此为准。新加坡卫生部建议的安全距离为1米。


The voiceover is recorded by Mr. Chan Jun Hong.

The video was created with the intention to reach as many Cantonese-speaking seniors in Singapore as possible. As such, we have chosen to use everyday Cantonese that most Singaporeans are used to. In a similar manner, we have also included English and Mandarin subtitles. We hope this helps to bridge the communication gap between our Cantonese-speaking seniors and our healthcare professionals, volunteers or simply anyone who is less fluent in Cantonese.


We’ve recorded this video in Hokkien & Teochew too:

Previously, we’ve also recorded a COVID-19 precautionary video in Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hainanese and Hakka:

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In Cantonese: COVID-19 and Precautions to Take

Hi there! As you all may know, there are many Cantonese-speaking seniors in Singapore who do not have a strong command of English or Mandarin. As such, this video in Singapore Cantonese highlights the precautions that they can take to protect themselves from contracting the COVID-19.

Please share this COVID-19 precautionary video with anyone who may find it useful. Let’s overcome this battle together!

You can also view and share this video via our Facebook and Instagram IGTV.

English Subtitles

Hello! You must have observed that many people are wearing masks recently.

This is because a new coronavirus – originated from Wuhan, China – is spreading around the globe.

The situation is a cause for concern, as effective vaccines and medicines have yet to be developed successfully.

As of 31st January 2020, there are about 10,000 confirmed cases globally with more than 200 deaths. There are also confirmed cases in Singapore.

Typical symptoms include cough, runny nose, fever and shortness of breath.

If you have just returned to Singapore, please monitor your health closely.

If you have cough, runny nose or fever within 2 weeks upon your return, please wear a mask. Seek medical attention promptly and do inform the clinic ahead of your visit.

Here are a few precautions that you can take:

  1. Avoid contact with animals, poultry and birds.
  2. Avoid consumption of raw or under-cooked meat.
  3. Avoid crowded places and people who are unwell.
  4. Observe good personal hygiene.
  5. Wash hands with soap, especially before meals and cooking as well as after using the toilet.
  6. Cover your mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing.
  7. See a doctor if you are unwell.

Thank you.


( 中文字幕 )新冠肺炎疫情以及预防措施

您好!相信您最近看到很多人都在戴口罩。

这是因为中国武汉出现不明原因肺炎病例,而这种新型冠状病毒具传染性。

现今无疫苗或特效药对病毒有效,所以目前情况相当严重, 引起各方关注。

截至2020年1月31日, 由新型冠状病毒引起的疫情至今已确诊约一万多病例、死亡超过两百例。新加坡也有确诊病例。

常见症状包括咳嗽、流鼻涕、发烧及气喘。

如果您刚从国外回返新加坡, 请密切留意自己的健康情况。

在回国的两个星期内, 若您有咳嗽、流鼻涕或是发烧的症状,请戴上口罩并及时求医。求医前请先致电诊所。

您可以采取的预防措施包括:

  1. 避免接触动物、家禽(如鸡、鸭)以及鸟类。
  2. 避免食用生肉或未完全煮熟的肉类。
  3. 避开人多的地方。尽量避免与身体不适的人近距离接触。
  4. 注意个人卫生。
  5. 用肥皂洗手,尤其是在:吃饭前;做饭前;上厕所后。
  6. 在咳嗽或打喷嚏时,请用纸巾捂住口鼻。
  7. 如果感到身体不适,应立即就医。

谢谢。


The voiceover is recorded by Mr. Chan Jun Hong.

The video was created with the intention to reach as many Cantonese-speaking seniors in Singapore as possible. As such, we have chosen to use everyday Cantonese that most Singaporeans are used to. In similar manner, we have also included English and Mandarin subtitles. We hope this helps to bridge the communication gap between our Cantonese-speaking seniors and our healthcare professionals, volunteers or simply anyone who is less fluent in Cantonese.


We’ve also recorded this COVID-19 precautionary video in Hokkien, Teochew, Hainanese and Hakka:

*The Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese and Hainanese videos were created before the formal name of COVID-19 was given. Previously, it was commonly known as Wuhan coronavirus.


COVID-19 Heightened Measures Videos (Circuit Breaker Period – April 2020)

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Cantonese: How Do You Say – Chinese New Year Greetings and Wishes

Listen to Podcast | Cantonese: How Do You Say – Chinese New Year Greetings and Wishes

Psst… You can find our How Do You Say Podcasts on Spotify too! Head to Spotify – LearnDialect.sg or search for LearnDialect.sg on Spotify.


New Words

EnglishCantoneseJyutpingOur Romanization
Body身体San1 tai2San tai
Healthy健康Gin6 hong1Gin hong
Congratulations恭喜Gung1 hei2Gung hei
To prosper发财Faat3 coi4Faat coi
Receive?Dau6Dau

Podcast Transcript | Cantonese: How Do You Say – Chinese New Year Greetings and Wishes

Welcome back to our Cantonese – How Do You Say Podcast. I’m Eugene from LearnDialect.sg and hope you are as excited as me about the Chinese New Year! As we welcome the Year of the Rat, I would like to share with you some Chinese New Year greetings in Cantonese that would come in handy for your festive celebrations.

新年快乐, 万事如意. This is a greeting that I covered in our How Do You Say – Happy New Year Podcast last year. For this year, we will talk about some well wishes for health and wealth.

The most common Chinese New Year well-wishes for health would be 身体健康. 身体 refers to our body while 健康 means “healthy”. Combining it together would simply mean a wish for a healthy body. This is an endearing Chinese New Year greeting, especially for seniors in the family.

Having addressed health, let’s talk about wealth. One of the favourite Chinese New Year greetings that Cantonese speakers use for wealth would be 恭喜发财. Let me break this down for you.

恭喜 means “congratulations” and you can use it in any occasions, including wedding, getting a promotion, etc. 发财 means “to prosper”. As such, during Chinese New Year, 恭喜发财 would be a great congratulatory phrase to wish someone great wealth and prosperity.

Last but not least, if you are still eligible for red packets and would like to be cheeky, you can always say 恭喜发财, 红包?来. The additional phrase requests for a red packet directly, so I would recommend for you to only say it to people whom you are really close with. It’s a tad direct but hey, your well wishes are still valid. That said, I am no longer eligible to use this phrase! In addition, do note that Cantonese speakers in Singapore tend to use 红包to represent a red packet while those in Hong Kong would use 利是.

Alright! We hope this post armed you with some cool Cantonese greetings for Chinese New Year. This is Eugene from LearnDialect.sg, and I would like to wish you 新年快乐, 万事如意, 恭喜发财, 身体健康. Cheers to a healthy and wealthy new year ahead.


Love what you are reading? We’ve got lots more to share during our Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese express workshops. Join us to pick up words and phrases for everyday use in Singapore. More importantly, you can help to keep these languages alive!


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.

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Special: Common Chinese Surnames in Singapore – Hokkien, Teochew or Cantonese?

Listen to Podcast | Special: Common Chinese Surnames in Singapore – Hokkien, Teochew or Cantonese?

Psst… You can find our How Do You Say Podcasts on Spotify too! Head to Spotify – LearnDialect.sg or search for LearnDialect.sg on Spotify.


Chinese Character Hokkien Teochew Cantonese
Lee Lee Lee
Lim Lim Lam/Lum
Tan Tan Chan
Wee/Oei/Ooi/Ng Ng Wong
Ong Heng Wong

Podcast Transcript | Special: Common Chinese Surnames in Singapore – Hokkien, Teochew or Cantonese?

Hello! I’m Eugene from LearnDialect.sg and thank you for tuning into our How Do You Say Podcast. Oh wait, did you notice that for the first time, we did not specify if this podcast is focused on Hokkien, Teochew or Cantonese? Well, that’s because, to conclude year 2019, we have a very special finale episode for you.

Now, have you ever wondered why the surnames or last names of Singaporean Chinese are spelt differently in English, even though the Chinese character used is the same? Through the English spelling of the surname, are you then able to make a good guess of someone’s dialect group?

So yes, today’s topic is about the common Chinese surnames in Singapore. Whether you are learning Hokkien, Teochew or Cantonese, we think that this post will be equally helpful. In fact, the aim of this episode is to help you make an educated guess of a person’s dialect group and more importantly, get a conversation going. It is a simple guide and by no means exhaustive as there are always exceptions, so let’s get going!

Why do we have different English spellings for the same Chinese surnames? In short, this is due to our unique ancestry as well as the pronunciation differences by each dialect group. To illustrate, we have identified some common Chinese surnames in Singapore. We will use these as examples to point out their similarities and differences across Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese.

First, we recognize that there are some surnames which are spelt the same in English across all three languages. For example, my surname in Chinese is pronounced as li (李) and spelt in English as L-E-E (Lee). This is a common way to spell, no matter whether you are a Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese or even Hakka, as per Singapore’s first prime minister, the late Mr. Lee Kuan Yew.

Notwithstanding the above, Hokkien and Teochew belong to the same language group. So if you are a Cantonese, there is a high possibility that your English surname is spelt differently from your Hokkien or Teochew friends with the same Chinese surname. I can give you two examples here – 林 and 陈. 林 is pronounced in Cantonese as lum while in Hokkien and Teochew, it is pronounced as lim. As such, in English, Cantonese speakers will spell their surname as L-A-M or L-U-M, whereas Hokkiens and Teochews will spell it as L-I-M. Similarly, Cantonese pronounce the Chinese surname – 陈 – as chan (陳). Hokkiens and Teochews pronounced it as tan. Hence, can you guess what will be the English equivalent? Yes, Cantonese will spell it as C-H-A-N, while Hokkiens and Teochews will spell it as T-A-N. You get the drift now?

The next Chinese surname – 黄 – is an interesting one. It can either be different across Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese or similar between just Hokkien and Teochew. Here’s a quick hack for you! If the surname is spelt in English as W-E-E (Wee), O-E-I (Oei) or O-O-I (Ooi), the person will be of Hokkien descent. If it is spelt as N-G (Ng), then he or she may be a Hokkien or Teochew. In contrast, the Cantonese tend to spell it as W-O-N-G (Wong), a rather clear distinction from the rest.

Last but not least, 王 is one of the Chinese surnames that has a unique spelling across all 3 languages. Traditionally, 王 is spelt as O-N-G (Ong) by Hokkiens, H-E-N-G (Heng) by Teochews, and W-O-N-G (Wong) by the Cantonese.

Oh wait, did you notice that Cantonese spell both Chinese surnames 黄 and 王 as W-O-N-G in English? Again, this is because the pronunciation of these Chinese characters in Cantonese are similar – namely, wong.

So there you go! In this short How Do You Say Podcast, we have covered some common Chinese surnames in Singapore. We highlighted how some are spelt the same in English across Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese as well as how some surnames are spelt entirely different.

Here’s a tongue-in-cheek summary for you: Meet a Lee, ask him or her directly. Meet a Wee, Oei or Ooi, Hokkiens fit the name nicely. Meet a Wong, a Cantonese possibly won’t go wrong. But if you meet the rest, it’s time for an educated guess!

Well, did we cover your surname? If not, leave a comment and share with us your dialect group as well as your surname in both Chinese and in English. We love to find out more about different spellings across Chinese dialects in Singapore. My name is Eugene from LearnDialect.sg and hope to hear from you soon!


Love what you are reading? We’ve got lots more to share during our Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese express workshops. Join us to pick up words and phrases for everyday use in Singapore. More importantly, you can help to keep these languages alive!

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Special Episode 6: Giving Compliments in Cantonese – Say It Like You Own It (3)

Listen to Podcast | Special Episode 6: Giving Compliments in Cantonese

Psst… You can find our How Do You Say Podcasts on Spotify too! Head to Spotify – LearnDialect.sg or search for LearnDialect.sg on Spotify.


Podcast Transcript | Special Episode 6: Giving Compliments in Cantonese

Alright! This is Eugene from LearnDialect.sg and we are at our final episode of this special 6-part Cantonese – How Do You Say series. To recap, we spend the first half of the series dispelling common myths of learning Cantonese as well as investigating the differences between Singapore and Hong Kong Cantonese. For the second half, we had our “Say It Like You Own It” segments, where we help you to pick up some useful vocabulary, so that you can get to know a person better as well as ask a date out in Cantonese. Now, in this finale episode of “Say It Like You Own It”, we focus on what you can say during the date itself. For example, how do you dish out a compliment genuinely in Cantonese? What are some quick and easy conversational topics that you can have with your date?

Without further ado, let’s bring back our guest speaker, Eric Chau!

Eugene

What was the best compliment that you have received?

Eric

Nei deoi haai hou leng. (你對鞋好靚.)

Eugene

That means your shoes are really beautiful. You are a ‘shoes’ person, a fashion-conscious person?

Eric

I try to.

Eugene

What is your fashion choice based on?

Eric

Not t shirt, not collarless T shirt. I will dress appropriately to the occasion and dress according to my age. I can’t be wearing baggy pants at my age.

Eugene

Or maybe one day, you can try. Get into the new fashion.

Okay, so now on this part of the podcast, we’re going to combine the earlier sessions of our learning, i.e. questions and responses. In particular, we are exploring if there is a formal and/or casual way of complimenting a person. So the first compliment that we are going to say in Cantonese is, “you are beautiful or handsome”. Of course, this depends on whether you’re a girl or a guy. So Eric, how do you say “you are beautiful” to a lady?

Eric

Direct translation, you can say, nei hou leng (你好靓), but it may be suggestive. So a less suggestive way, or a less direct way to achieve this result will be something like, nei gam maan zeh gin saam hou leng (你今晚這件衫好靚).

Eugene

This means you’re complimenting on the clothes.

Eric

Right, rather than the person directly. So when you say, “nei hou leng”, it’s likely that you know the person a bit better and you are probably in love.

Eugene

So let’s say if you want to keep it to a more non-suggestive way, then you’ll comment on the clothes?

Eric

Yes, I think on the clothes.

Eugene

How do you say it in Cantonese again?

Eric

Nei gam maan zeh gin saam hou leng. (你今晚這件衫好靚.)

Eugene

Let’s say you’re close to the person, or you’re more comfortable with that person, you’ll say…

Eric

Nei gam maan hou leng. (你今晚好靓.)

But I still won’t say nei hou leng. For me, this is a personal style. Yeah, different people have different responses. Some people are more direct than me. For my upbringing, I will stick to complimenting your clothing.

Eugene

Yeah, so nei gam maan hou leng, which literally means “you tonight very beautiful”, or if you just want to say that “you are beautiful”, then you’ll say nei hou leng. That’s something for the guys to look out for, i.e., whether you want to be dropping subtle hints or not.

Eric

Yes, yes. You don’t want to be too direct and scare off the person.

Eugene

In the opposite direction, let’s say a girl is going to compliment a guy, how would they normally say it?

Eric

I usually get this comment from older women. Okay, that’s a joke. So literally, nei hou leng zai, nei hou ying zeon (你好靚仔, 你好英俊). But we don’t hear people saying this because it’s just literal translation. I can imagine this will only be said by a girl who is not close to the guy. If you know the guy very well, probably you won’t say this. So I will say that from an angle whereby the girl doesn’t know the guy very well, but she wants to know the guy a bit better, then she will just address the person as leng zai. It is quite neutral. The girl is not expressing her interest in any way and it’s up to the guy to interpret. So the girl can say, “Yeah, well, I don’t mean to say anything. Please don’t overthink.” So there’s an escape route for the girl.

Eugene

The ultimate question of, “what do women want?” A big topic for another time. So back to this, it’s up to the guy to interpret whether you’re in the friend zone or not. So how would a guy know if a girl is interested him? Action speaks louder than words, I guess?

Eric

You get more positive responses. When you ask the person out, you get favourable responses. You’ll get to sit closer too. Guys should know!

Eugene

Now we know who’s the master of dating. Okay, so maybe a bit on the good taste in clothes. If I want to compliment that you have good taste in clothes. How do I go about saying that?

Eric

Wa! Nei hou lek zoek saam. (哇! 你好叻著衫.)

Nei ze gin saam hou leng. (你這件衫好靚.)

Nei hai bin dou maai saam gaa? (你喺邊度買衫㗎?)

These are the subtle ways to compliment, rather than directly complimenting the person.

Eugene

Yes, rather than complimenting the looks of the person. And what would be a general response when a person gives a compliment that you’re beautiful or you’re handsome? Apart from giggles and laughter or saying thank you, is there any general kind of response that you expect?

Eric

Okay, probably that person will respond by saying, mm hai laa, yi gin saam zoek hou do ci gaa laa. (唔係啦, 依件衫著好多次㗎啦.)

Eugene

I would say, that’s a very humble response. The equivalent in Singlish would be, “no la, I’ve worn this shirt for many many times”. That’s a subtle response that most Cantonese typically would hold.

Eric

Right. I think in Singapore, what we say or what we respond, to a great extent, applies to Hong Kong. In terms of compliments, they are very often subtle.

Eugene

Next compliment: You have been very helpful.

Eric

Okay, I won’t directly translate them because you will sound very odd. However, I will say something like, “dor zeh nei bong mong (多謝你幫忙)”.

Eugene

Which means “thank you for helping”.

Eric

Or mm goi saai nei wor (唔该晒你哦). When you say it, you have to sound sincere.

Eugene

Right, what kind of response would you be expecting then?

Eric

I will imagine the person replying by saying,

Mm sai haak hei (唔使客氣).

Siu siu yi si zeh (小小意思啫).

Geoi sau zi lou zeh (舉手之勞啫).

Mou haak hei (冇客氣).

Eugene

So these are very humble responses. So earlier on Eric, you mentioned that one way to express thank you is dor zeh. The other way is mm goi. Are there any subtle differences in terms of how they are being used?

Eric

Using dor zeh normally refer to cases when you receive something physical, for example, a present. If you are receiving help or receiving a favour, then you can express “thank you” by saying mm goi.

Eugene

Sometimes it’s a bit in the grey area, but generally you can say dor zeh when it is more physical or tangible, whereas mm goi is used when there is a service rendered.

Next compliment: Your perspective is very refreshing.

Eric

Do you mean the way you’re thinking?

Eugene

Yes.

Eric

Nei geh lam faat zan hai hou dak bit. (你嘅諗法真係好特別.)

Eugene

So your way of thinking is unique or special.

So next compliment: You’re making a difference.

Eric

in what way?

Eugene

Maybe you’re contributing to society, you’re making a difference to people’s life, or whatever you’re doing makes a difference. Is there a way to generally say it in Cantonese?

Eric

Nei zou yi di sor yau geh yeh hai hou yau yi yi, hou zik dak yan dik zaan soeng. (你做依啲所有嘅嘢係好有意義, 好值得人的讚賞.)

Hou yau yi yi means meaningful.

hou zik dak yan dik zaan soeng means should be praised.

Eugene

Last but not least, next compliment: I’m proud of you.

Eric

Of course, direct translation will be yan nei wai wing (引你為榮), but no one will say this. You will only see in movies subtitles. I will say a more lively, more genuine reply will be something along the line of,

Nei zan hai hou yeh. (你真係好嘢).

Nei zan hai lek. (你真係叻).

Nei zan hai ging. (你真係勁).

Eugene

Which means you’re very good, right?

Eric

Right. Right. Ngor pui fuk nei (我佩服你).

Eugene

So I’m very respectful of you.

Generally, I’ll say this are the various forms of complimenting somebody. What about the responses for the third, fourth and the fifth compliment? What would the general response be? Would it be something like, “thank you for your compliment”?

Eric

No, I think definitely not. People in Hong Kong are usually very humble. They will not accept this kind of direct compliment. They will rather say,

Mm wui laa (唔会啦).

Mm hai aa (唔係啦).

Bin hui hai ze (邊会係啫).

Mou gam gong laa (冇咁講啦).

Eugene

Okay, so they take on a more humble approach and say, “no, it’s not me. It’s not like that”.

Alright, so I think these are the kind of responses that you can expect when you compliment somebody. But don’t take it to heart that they’re not happy because this is their culture where they are humble in their own unique ways. So these are some compliments that you can now use, especially when you’re going on a date with a person that you’re interested to carry on the conversation with. And that leads us to our last and final topic.

All right, Eric. We don’t see much people wearing slippers in Hong Kong as compared to Singapore. So why do you think that that’s the case? Putting the same question across to you – shoes or slippers, which would you choose?

Eric

Depending occasions but shoes we call it, haai (鞋). For slippers, we called it tor haai (拖鞋).

Eugene

Okay, so why do you think Singaporeans prefer slippers over shoes in Hong Kong then?

Eric

We are down-to-earth people.

Eugene

Nice, I love your answer! Okay so in this podcast, we will be using simple “this or that” questions to further facilitate conversation. So for example, earlier on, we post the question of shoes or slippers to Eric. These are very simple topics that you can keep in mind in order to carry on the conversation when you’re on a date and probably spur some interesting conversations or reactions to it.

I’ll be asking Eric more “this or that” questions and it will be a quick five second response. So Eric, money or fame?

Eric

Meng tung lei (名同利) [Money and fame]; Lei is money; Meng is fame.

Ngor gan… (我揀…) [I choose…]

Ngor zan hai mm zi dim gan (我真係唔知點揀). [I really don’t know how to choose.]

Eugene

So in Cantonese we generally flip it around we say – meng lei. So for Eric, his response is that he don’t know how to choose.

Eric

I’ll choose neither.

Eugene

Okay, ready for the next question? Warm or cold in terms of weather?

Eric

Warm is yit (熱); cold is dung (凍). I will choose warm, yit.

Eugene

All right, so clearly very suited for Singapore. Next question, early bird or night owl?

Eric

Hou zou hei san (好早起身) – early bird; ye gwai (夜鬼) – night owl. But the phrase – ye gwai – is a little bit towards the colloquial side. Probably you won’t use it in very formal setting.

You’ll either say:

Ngor hou zou hei san (我好早起身) – early bird; or

Ngor hou ci fan gaau (我好遲瞓覺) – night owl.

Eugene

Okay, so Eric, are you an early bird or night owl?

Eric

I am both actually. I spent very few hours sleeping.

Eugene

Wow. Okay, next question. Call or text?

Eric

Call – daa din waa (打電話);

Text – cyun dyun seon (傳短訊).

I prefer to text.

Eugene

You prefer to text. The last question, bus or taxi?

Eric

Bus – baa si (巴士); Taxi – dik si (的士).

I prefer baa si.

Eugene

You prefer baa si?

Eric

Right, I don’t have too much money to spend.

Eugene

Okay, so I’ll choose the bus as well only because I can take my time to view the surroundings. I’ll have the time to think on the bus because usually it’s slower versus taxi. It’s a good time to think about big questions in life.

I hope this series of podcasts have been useful for you to get to know someone and improve the fluency of your daily conversations in Cantonese. So if you want to learn more, stay tuned to our podcast or visit our website at LearnDialect.sg.

Alright, so with this, I’ll end the podcast series. Thank you so much, Eric. for your time. We are so happy to have you share with us your personal experiences. Your examples have been very interesting too.

Eric

Thank you. My pleasure.

Eugene

So… did you like this special series of our Cantonese – How Do You Say Podcast? We hope this gives you a taste of simple real-life Cantonese conversations. To make it easier for you to refer to the other 5 parts of the series, here is a quick summary:

Special Episode 1: Why You are Never too Old to Learn Cantonese

Special Episode 2: Debunking the Top Myths of Learning Cantonese

Special Episode 3: Differences between Singapore & Hong Kong Cantonese

Special Episode 4: Say It Like You Own It – Part 1: Getting to know someone in Cantonese

Special Episode 5: Say It Like You Own It – Part 2: Asking a Date out

Special Episode 6: Say It Like You Own It – Part 3: Giving Compliments & “This & That” Questions

Well, if you are keen to learn more Cantonese with us, please stay tuned to our next How Do You Say podcast. Alternatively, you can always sign up for our Cantonese workshops where we dive deeper into these vocabularies and sentence structures. Once again, thank you for listening. This is Eugene, from LearnDialect.sg.


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.

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Special Episode 5: Asking a Date out in Cantonese – Say It Like You Own It (2)

Listen to Podcast | Special Episode 5: Asking a Date out in Cantonese

Psst… You can find our How Do You Say Podcasts on Spotify too! Head to Spotify – LearnDialect.sg or search for LearnDialect.sg on Spotify.


Podcast Transcript | Special Episode 5: Asking a Date out in Cantonese

Hey there! Welcome back to this special series of Cantonese – How Do You Say Podcast. This is Eugene from LearnDialect.sg. So we are now in the “Say It Like You Own It” segment, where our guest speaker, Eric Chau, and myself focus on helping you sound like a true Cantonese, by learning how to ask some simple but useful Cantonese questions. The last episode was about getting to know someone, including asking about their occupation and hobbies. This week, we’ll focus on asking a date out!

Ready, let’s go!

Eugene

Previously, we were talking about getting to know someone better. And if you’re single, you may like to go on to the next step of asking a date out. What we’re going to talk next is something that you definitely wouldn’t want to miss out on, as we continue our chat with Eric. So Eric, what’s the sweetest thing that you’ve done for a girl?

Eric

“You know, I have been looking around, even when we are together. I look around at other girls, but you are still the best.”

Eugene

Okay, so that’s what you would say to your wife.

Eric

I did, when she caught me looking at other girls.

Eugene

What was her reaction?

Eric

Of course she didn’t believe me.

Eugene

So I guess before we are at the stage of asking someone out, we got to suss out the person’s likes or dislikes. At least, well, that’s what I would do. So in the next few questions that I will be asking in English, we’ll have Eric to help us to translate into Cantonese. Besides learning how to ask questions, we’ll also talk about typical or generic responses to these questions.

Okay, so the first question, what do you like to eat?

Eric

Nei zung yi sek di meh gaa? (你鍾意食啲咩㗎?)

Eugene

How would you expect somebody to respond to a question like that?

Eric

Typical responses will be something like,

Ngor zung yi heoi yum caa. (我鍾意去飲茶.)

Ngor zung yi sek sai caan. (我鍾意食西餐.)

Ngor zung yi sek yat bun yeh. (我鍾意食日本嘢.)

Ngor zung yi sek hon gwok yeh. (我鍾意食韓國嘢.)

Ngor zung yi sek yi daai lei yeh. (我鍾意食意大利嘢.)

Yeh (嘢) refers to the cuisine.

Eugene

Earlier on, you mentioned sai caan, which refers to Western food. Yi daai lei yeh is Italian cuisine.

Yam caa refers to Dim Sum. Yat bun yeh refers to Japanese cuisine. Hon gwok yeh refers to Korean cuisine.

And presume if you’re going out on a date and then you have to ask for a table at the restaurant. So how would you ask for table for two people? Three is too much of a crowd!

Eric

Okay, the receptionist will ask you how many people do you have? The normal response will be, ngor dei yau loeng wai. (我哋有兩位.)

Eugene

This means there’s two of us. Are there any other forms of responses?

Eric

You can also say, ngor seoi yiu loeng gor yan geh toi. (我需要两個人嘅檯.)

Eugene

So literally it means, I need a table for two. All right, so we have covered the question of what you would like to eat. And you can try and observe whether it’s Italian, Japanese, Western cuisine or going simply for Dim Sum.

Next question, what is your favourite place to hang out in Singapore?

Eric

Tung soeng nei zung yi heoi bin dou waan gaa? (通常你鍾意去邊度玩㗎?)

Eugene

Okay, so where do you like to hang out in Singapore then, Eric?

Eric

That’s a very tough question. To be honest, I go to my children’s school most of the time. Supermarkets and city area are my favourite hangouts or rather, places that I must always go. But jokes aside, I normally like to visit small eateries. I like to go to historic places.

Eugene

So you visit the museums and a lot of different cafes.

Eric

Museums, not too often, because if you head there once or twice, it would be enough.

Normally on the weekends, we will try to look for something special for meals, not the typical shopping malls or chain restaurants.

Eugene

So what are some of the special areas that you’ve been to?

Eric

I like places such as Little India, Joo Chiat, Arab Street and Kampong Glam.

Eugene

There’s a lot of Turkish food, etc.

Eric

Yes, local food, Malay food and all that.

Eugene

So that’s where you get a day off from cooking.

Eric

Yes, or when they get sick of my cooking.

Eugene

Ok, you have to go to a supermarket a lot, I presume, to buy all the ingredients for cooking. Do we have a specific term for supermarket in Cantonese?

Eric

Ciu kap si coeng (超級市場).

Eugene

Because in Hokkien, we generally don’t have a phrase or word for it. We just say NTUC or Sheng Shiong or Giant. So that’s the difference, I guess, between Cantonese and Hokkien.

Okay. Earlier on, we covered certain responses to the question, “what do you like to eat?” So now, similarly, we will cover certain typical responses for the favourite places to hang out in Singapore.

Generally, I think for Singaporeans, one of our favourite places to hang out would be the restaurants. So how do we say “restaurants” in Cantonese?

Eric

Normally you can say caan teng (餐廳), but there are different categories. Caan teng may mean some place where you have to spend a bit more money. It can also refer to our caa caan teng (茶餐廳).

Eugene

So caa caan teng is something like our specialised coffee shops in Hong Kong.

Eric

I would say, low-end eateries and eateries – caa caan teng. And we have zau lau (酒樓), a restaurant.

Eugene

And let’s say we go for something that I like a lot – watching movies! So we will go to the cinema. How do we say cinemas in Cantonese?

Eric

Heoi tai hei (去睇戲).

Eugene

Which means going to the movies?

Eric

Right.

Eugene

If you’re more of an outdoors person, you may like to go to the beach. How do we say “beach” in Cantonese?

Eric

Hoi bin (海邊) or saa taan (沙灘).

Eugene

So these are some typical responses to the favourite place to hang out. Now we know where to find Eric in Singapore too – Arab Street, Joo Chiat and Little India.

What is your favourite hobby then?

Eric

I collect coins. I study coins – specific period of history, specific country, specific materials.

Eugene

Wow. So you go really in-depth into it.

Eric

Yes, I will try to spend my free time looking at different coins and studying their history.

Eugene

Well, what are some of the interesting stories or the rarest coin that you have in your collection?

Eric

Okay, we all know what’s happening in Hong Kong recently. It struck my interest to get some of the special coins from Hong Kong. The latest acquisition was 0.1 cent Hong Kong coin. It is the lowest denomination ever issued in Hong Kong. It was issued between 1863 to 1866. The diameter is only 15 mm. So it’s pretty small.

Eugene

Okay, with a face value of 0.10 cents, how much is it worth today?

Eric

In today’s value, you can probably buy a couple of sweets or a pack of sweets. It is hard to imagine what you can buy with such a small coin.

Eugene

I mean, if you look from a value perspective, it is probably a few hundred times today, considering that for only 0.10 cents, you’ll get a pack of sweets. That’s like $1 today!

Eric

Oh, yes, I think so. Yes, easily.

Eugene

So how do you say, “what is your favourite hobby” in Cantonese?

Eric

Nei yau meh si hou aa? (你有咩嗜好呀?)

Eugene

Now we’ll cover certain typical responses. Let’s start with a hobby that Eric likes a lot – cooking.

Eric

Ju yeh (煮嘢).

Eugene

So ju yeh means cooking. And if you are a sporty person, you’d like to play sports

Eric

Zou wan dung (做運動).

Eugene

Last but not least, karaoke! I think this is many people’s favourite pastime. We are not out in the sun. There’s aircon and you can sing your heart out.

Eric

Coeng K (唱K).

Eugene

So these are the three big hobbies. Again, if there are any others that springs to mind, let us know!

Next question, what would your perfect day be like? How do you say that in Cantonese?

Eric

Nei sum muk zung zeoi lei soeng geh yat yat hai dim yoeng dou gwo gaa? (你心目中最理想嘅一日係點樣度過㗎?)

Eugene

For you, what would be a perfect day then? When the kids start to cook and wash the dishes for you?

Eric

No, no, I am just a regular guy. I’m happy with every single day. Every single day is a perfect day.

Eugene

Yeah, but wouldn’t it be better if your wife and kids starts to cook for you or start to do the dishes?

Eric

Then what do I do?

Eugene

Collect coins!

Eric

No no!

Eugene

Eric is a very humble guy. So he rather do the house chores and the dishes, so that his family can rest! Once again, how do we say, “what would your perfect day be like” in Cantonese?

Eric

Nei sum muk zung zeoi lei soeng geh yat yat hai dim yoeng dou gwo gaa? (你心目中最理想嘅一日係點樣度過㗎?)

Eugene

And finally, the big question once you get to know someone better, especially when you think that the person is a potential date, you start to ask, “Can I ask you out? And I’m going to bring you to…” Help me say this in Cantonese, Eric.

Eric

Okay, we won’t use a direct translation of “Can I ask you out?” The most likely scenario will be,

Nei haa gor lai baai dak mm dak hang aa? (你下個禮拜得唔得行呀?)

And if you are a guy, and you talk to a girl, somehow they have some instinct. They’ll know what you mean.

Eugene

Okay, now, I would like to conclude this portion of asking a date out by going through the five questions again, and some typical responses. I’ll say it in English and Eric will help to translate it into Cantonese. So first of all, what do you like to eat?

Eric

Nei zung yi sek di meh gaa? (你鍾意食啲咩㗎?)

Eugene

Okay, and if it’s Japanese?

Eric

Ngor zung yi sek yat bun caan. (我鍾意食日本餐.)

Eugene

Italian?

Eric

Ngor zung yi sek yi daai lei yeh. (我鍾意食意大利嘢.)

Eugene

Any other kind of random response?

Eric

Ngor mat dou zung yi. (我乜都鍾意.)

Eugene

This means, I like everything.

Eric

This is a very dangerous answer.

Eugene

What is your favourite place to hang out in Singapore?

Eric

Nei hai san gaa bo zung yi heoi di meh dei fong? 你喺新加坡鍾意去啲咩地方?

Eugene

If I like to go to restaurants, it will be…

Eric

Ngor zung yi heoi caan teng (我鍾意去餐廳).

Eugene

Movies?

Eric

Ngor zung yi heoi tai hei. (我鍾意去睇戲.)

Eugene

And finally, the beach?

Eric

Ngor zung yi heoi hoi bin (我鍾意去海邊) or saa taan (沙灘).

Eugene

Number three, what is your favourite hobby?

Eric

Nei yau di meh si hou gaa? (你有啲咩嗜好㗎?)

Eugene

If I like to cook?

Eric

Ngor zung yi paang yam. (我鍾意烹飪.)

Eugene

So paang yam would be more formal, right?

Eric

Yes.

Eugene

Okay. Ju yeh (煮嘢) will be more informal. If I like to do sports?

Eric

Zou wan dung (做運動).

Eugene.

And finally, singing our hearts out at the karaoke?

Eric

Coeng K (唱K).

Eugene

Alright! Question number four, what would your perfect day be like?

Eric

Nei sum muk zung zeoi lei soeng geh yat yat hai dim yoeng dou gwo gaa? (你心目中最理想嘅一日係點樣度過㗎?)

Eugene

Okay. And finally, the big question of, “Can I ask you out and I’m going to bring you to…”

Eric

Nei haa gor lai baai dak mm dak hang aa? Ngor soeng daai nei heoi… (你下個禮拜得唔得行呀? 我想帶你去…)

Eugene

And that’s for the couple to decide where to go for themselves!

Hi there! Once again, this is Eugene from LearnDialect.sg. So for this podcast, we have explored various ways of asking a date out. We’ve also provided some common responses in Cantonese. Do you have any other questions that you think are good to understand your potential date better? If so, do let us know by leaving a comment!

Finally, stay tuned for the final episode of this special Cantonese – How Do You Say Podcast series, where you’ll learn how to give compliments as well as be given some further ideas on the topics that you can talk with your date!


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.

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Special Episode 4: Getting to Know Someone in Cantonese – Say It Like You Own It (1)

Listen to Podcast | Special Episode 4: Getting to Know Someone in Cantonese

Psst… You can find our How Do You Say Podcasts on Spotify too! Head to Spotify – LearnDialect.sg or search for LearnDialect.sg on Spotify.


Podcast Transcript | Special Episode 4: Getting to Know Someone in Cantonese

Hey there! Welcome back to this special series of Cantonese – How Do You Say Podcast. This is Eugene from LearnDialect.sg. So for the past 3 episodes, we’ve focused on the myths of learning Cantonese as well as the differences between Singapore and Hong Kong Cantonese. So now, for the next 3 episodes, our guest speaker – Eric Chau – and I are going to get practical and help you speak Cantonese like you’ve already owned it! We’ll focus on learning how to ask some simple but useful Cantonese questions, and then highlight to you if there are any differences between a formal and casual way of asking. Here’s a quick run-down:

Episode 4: Say It Like You Own It (1): Getting to Know Someone in Cantonese

Episode 5: Say It Like You Own It (2): Asking a Date out

Episode 6: Say It Like You Own It (3): Giving Compliments & “This & That” Questions

Ready for this “Say It Like You Own It” series? Let’s go!

Eugene

How do you sound like a true Cantonese? Did you know that there’s a difference between formal Cantonese and casual Cantonese? For example, if you had followed our podcast, you’ll know that “how are you” can be formally said as nei hou mou (你好冇) versus dim aa (點呀), which is the informal style. Today we’re happy to continue this conversation with Eric and learn how to speak Cantonese like we own it, in the context of day-to-day situations. So Eric, what makes you happy? What makes you laugh the most?

Eric

Doing things that I like to do, including watching a good show and reading memes. Nowadays, my children always show me memes. This is a good source of laughter during a boring day or hectic day.

Eugene

Quick and simple!

Eric

Yes, right to the point. If you were to ask me how I would say “what makes you happy in Cantonese?”, I will probably say, yau di mat yeh hai leng dou nei hou hoi sum gaa? (有啲乜嘢係令到你好開心㗎?)

Eugene

So yau di mat ye means “what things”; hai ling dou nei means “make you” and hou hoi sam means “happy”. And that’s how we ask the question in Cantonese. Moving on, Eric, in an earlier podcast, you’re saying that at some point in time you were trading. So currently, what do you do for living?

Eric

I am doing translation full time. So I’m a translator and I have my company.

Eugene

So that explains why you learn so many different languages.

Eric

Oh yes, it is very important.

Eugene

Japanese, Korean, German, etc. It’s really, really amazing! So again, how do we ask somebody what they do for a living in Cantonese? Is there a formal and informal way?

Eric

Informal way – nei zou di meh gaa? (你做啲咩㗎?)

Formal way – nei zou sin hong gaa? (你做擅行㗎?)

Eugene

So that’s both the formal and informal way.

Okay, so do you work from home? Or do you have to travel to work every day?

Eric

I work from home most of the time unless I need to go to the client’s office to pay them a visit.

Eugene

So that means the moment you open your eyes, you’re in an office environment.

Eric

Yes, yes.

Eugene

Okay, so let’s talk a bit about getting to office. I think a lot of people who are working have to report to office. How do we say – in Cantonese – the different modes of transport? For example, buses, trains, taxi? That’s one portion, i.e., to identify the mode of transport. The other portion, how do I ask for directions. Let’s say if I’m in Hong Kong today, how do I ask for directions in Cantonese?

Eric

For modes of transport:

Bus – baa si (巴士); Mini-bus – siu baa (小巴); MTR – dei tit (地鐵); Taxi – dik si (的士). By the way, if someone in Singapore is calling a taxi in Cantonese, most likely, the person will just say dak si (得士), dak si.

Eugene

Okay and let’s say if I were to ask for directions then?

Eric

For directions:

Go straight – zek hang (直行); Turn right – jun yau (轉右); Turn left –jun zor (轉左); Turn back – hang faan jun tau (行返轉頭); Two blocks down – hoeng cin hang dor loeng gor gaai hau (向前行多兩個街口).

Loeng go gaai tau means “2 intersections” or “2 blocks away”.

Eugene

And how do I go from A to B?

Eric

Yau A heoi dou B (由A去到B).

Eugene

Yau A heoi dou B. Then do I say dim hang (點行)?

Eric

Ceng mun dim yoeng hang aa? (請問點樣行呀?)

Eugene

Ah, so that’s the more polite way of asking!

Eric

Right. I mean, if you just ask a person, “dim yoeng hang (點樣行)?”, you would sound like you are giving a command.

Eugene

So bear in mind, always say “ceng mun dim yoeng hang aa?”

Now we’ve covered how to get around. Earlier on we’re talking about our daily occupation, our jobs. Eric is a translator. So how do you say the job of a translator in Cantonese then?

Eric

It is called faan yik yun (翻譯員). Faan yik yun refers to the translator. Faan yik is the job of doing translation.

Eugene

I see. Many of our participants are nurses, occupational therapists, bankers, and of course, students. How do we translate all these terms into Cantonese then? So let’s start with nurses.

Eric
Nurse – wu si (護士); Occupational therapist – mat lei zi liu si (物理治療師).

Eugene

How about a banker?

Eric

We will not call it ngan hong gaa (銀行家). Banker is a very general term. Everybody can call himself a banker sometimes and it is very hard to differentiate whether he is high-ranking or low-ranking. But generally, in a more formal setting, in formal introduction or in a conference, they will introduce someone as ngan hong gaa. This means that the person is working in this bank and has a certain number of years of experience. This is for a very formal introduction.

Casually, we will say this person hai ngan hong zou gung (係銀行做工). Hai ngan hong zou gung can imply a very junior staff or up to mid management. But if he is talking about someone who is a very senior person, perhaps the person will be introduced hai ngan hong zou dou gou kap (係銀行做到高級).

Eugene

So gou kap means high ranking.

Eric

Yeah. Or ngan hong gou kap hang zeng yan yun (銀行高級行政人員).

Eugene

Okay understood. How about a lawyer then?

Eric

Leot si (律師).

Eugene

Okay. And last but not least, student?

Eric

Keoi hai yat gor hok saang (佢係一個學生).

Another way to say it will be keoi hai faan gan hok (佢係返緊學). It can refer to 2 things. One is to describe this person as a student or two, literally, he is in school now.

Eugene

So when you mentioned keoi, it is referring to “he” or “she”. Is that right?

Eric

Yes, it can be either he or she. Unisexual.

Eugene

Keoi hai means “he or she is”; yat gor hok saang means “a student”. In this case, keoi hai yat gor hok saang means “he or she is a student”.

We cover some of the generic occupations. So if you have any occupation that springs to mind, do let us know as well!

So personally, Eric, do you like to cook?

Eric

Oh, I love to cook. I like eating and I have very picky family members at home. They are not happy with only Cantonese cuisine, they like to sample everything under the sun. So I plan the dinner menu and I will cook something different every day.

Eugene

So what’s the best dish that you cook?

Eric

I learnt it from YouTube – I can cook Korean bibimbap. Okay. No complaint from them. There is this Korean dish called galbi-tang – oxtail soup. I can cook a little bit of Western dishes – Greek, Italian or just Western.

Eugene

How do you ask if you like to cook in Cantonese then?

Eric

Nei zung mm zung yi ju faan gaa? (你鐘唔鐘意煮饭㗎?)

You can say it in a formal way, but I don’t really hear people saying it commonly. Anyway, for this programme, I can share – Nei zung mm zung yi paang yam gaa? (你鐘唔鍾意烹飪㗎?)

Eugene

That’s really really formal.

Eric

Right and remember, you’ll end a question with a particle – gaa.

Eugene

Okay. So when we cook we usually have to go to the market. So how do we say “market” in Cantonese?

Eric

Gaai si (街市). It literally means a market in the street. But nowadays, most of those wet markets, or markets by the roadside, have moved to shopping complexes or their dedicated buildings, with the lower floor being used for a market, and the upper floor used for a hawker centre. However, we generally still call it gaai si.

Or for those that are already located inside the building, we called it yau goi gaai si (有蓋街市).

Eugene

So do Singapore Cantonese use more of gaai si or?

Eric

It’s a mix of everything. I often hear people saying baa sat in Singapore, even Cantonese. Cantonese spoken here is mixed with different elements, different dialects and different languages.

Eugene

Yeah. So I think that’s one aspect of how Cantonese is not all the same throughout the world. And just for your information, baa sat is taken or we learnt the word from the Malay language – pasar – which refer to the market. Alright, next question. Do you have a pet?

Eric

I have two love birds.

Eugene

2 love birds? Why love birds though?

Eric

They are siblings, and you must be thinking, where are the “parents”? Well, the father flew into our house. We adopted him, as we couldn’t find the owner. Then we bought a companion. We didn’t know that one is a male and the other is a female. So now, we have happy problems. The happy problems grow bigger and bigger because they are giving birth one batch after another. So we ended up giving away most of them. We now keep two siblings and we ensured that they are males.

Eugene

So no more happy problems.

Eric

No more happy problems, but we only have the noisy problem.

Eugene

The noisy problem! Okay, so how do we say, “do you have a pet” in Cantonese?

Eric

Nei yau mou yoeng cung mat gaa? (你有冇養寵物㗎?)

Eugene

Nei yau mou yoeng cung mat gaa? So there’s no difference between a formal and informal version, I guess.

Eric

I don’t think there is any difference.

Eugene

On pets, the general common pets in Singapore would be dogs, cats and birds. So how do we say “dog” in Cantonese?

Eric

Gau (狗).

Eugene

Cat?

Eric

Maau (貓).

Eugene

Okay and birds?

Eric

Zoek (雀).

Eugene

Okay, so these are the three common pets in Singapore. For our listeners who are thinking of having pets, please beware of happy problems. But well, if you want to have happy problems, then yes, remember to have opposite gender animals.

Okay, last but not least, what can you spend all day talking about?

Eric

Politics.

Eugene

Politics. Wow.

Eric

To talk about it all day will be, yes, politics. That’s one as well as my children, my work, and where to go for a nice holiday. These are most commonly talked throughout the day.

Eugene

Okay, so politics, children, work and where to go for holiday. So how do we say “politics” in Cantonese then?

Eric

Zeng zi (政治). Nei zung mm zung yi gong zeng zi gaa? (你鐘唔鍾意講政治㗎?)

Eugene

And then about the kids?

Eric

Gong sai lou zai gor yeh (講细佬仔嗰嘢).

Eugene

Okay, and about work?

Eric

Taam kap gung zok (談及工作).

Eugene

Last but not least, the happy one, travelling!

Eric

Heoi bin dou waan? Nei zung yi heoi bin dou leoi hang? (去邊度玩? 你鍾意去邊度旅行?)

Or nei daa xun heoi bin dou leoi hang? (你打算去邊度旅行?)

Eugene

daa xun means “plan” and “zung yi heoi bin dou” means “you like to go where”. And the question, “what can you spend all day talking about?” – how do we say this in Cantonese?

Eric

Nei peng si yau meh ju yiu waa tai? (你平時有咩主要話題?)

Eugene

As a conclusion of this session, let’s recap the seven questions on getting to know someone, which we’ve talked about with Eric earlier on. I’ll say the English version and then Eric will translate it into Cantonese.

So number one, what makes you the happiest?

Eric

Yau di mat yeh hai leng dou nei hou hoi sum gaa? (有啲乜嘢係令到你好開心㗎?)

Eugene

Okay, number two, what do you do for a living?

Eric

Nei zou sin hong gaa? (你做擅行㗎?)

Eugene

Okay. How do you get to work?

Eric

Nei cor meh ceh faan gung gaa? (你坐咩車返工㗎?)

Eugene

Certain occupations?

Eric

Nurse – wu si (護士);

Occupational therapist – mat lei zi liu si (物理治療師);

Student – hok saang (學生).

Eugene

Number five. Do you like to cook?

Eric

Nei zung mm zung yi ju yeh gaa? (你鐘唔鐘意煮嘢㗎?)

Eugene

Okay, number six, do you have a pet?

Eric

Nei yau mou yoeng cung mat gaa? (你有冇養寵物㗎?)

Eugene

Okay, last but not least, what can you spend all day talking about?

Eric

Nei peng si zeoi zung yi gong di meh waa tai gaa? (你平時最鐘意講啲咩話題㗎?)

Eugene

Okay, that more or less concludes the initial stages of getting to know someone.

Hey, how are you keeping up with your journey in learning Cantonese? In this episode, you’ll find that there are formal and casual ways of conversing in Cantonese. For example, when we touched on the question of “What do you do for a living?” or asking if one likes to cook. Then there are also topics including – do you have a pet and what makes you the happiest – which we covered that showed no major differences between the formal and informal version. As Eric and myself were concluding this episode, you may then also realize that there are multiple ways to express the same question or idea, for example “What can you spend all day talking about?”.

Well, just in case you are getting overwhelmed at this point, I just want to share that there’s nothing to worry about though. Personally, I think that’s the fun of learning languages! If I may share with you a tip, it’ll be to start learning the expression you are most comfortable with, be it due to your style of speaking, or perhaps, just picking the phrase that is easier to pronounce. Once you build up a wider base of vocabulary, you can then progress to the different ways of asking questions. I really hope our podcast helps you in one way or another. Keep practicing and stay tuned for the next episode of this special series. Eric and I have lots more to share!


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.

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Special Episode 3: Differences between Singapore & Hong Kong Cantonese

Listen to Podcast | Special Episode 3: Differences between Singapore & Hong Kong Cantonese

Psst… You can find our How Do You Say Podcasts on Spotify too! Head to Spotify – LearnDialect.sg or search for LearnDialect.sg on Spotify.


Podcast Transcript | Special Episode 3: Differences between Singapore & Hong Kong Cantonese

Hello! This is Eugene from LearnDialect.sg, bringing you the 3rd episode of our special series of Cantonese – How Do You Say Podcast. Well, do you travel frequently to Hong Kong? Have you noticed that the Cantonese used in Hong Kong and Singapore may be different? Now, our guest speaker, Eric Chau, is from Hong Kong, but he has been living in Singapore for many years. So I thought he is the best person to ask about the differences between the Singapore & Hong Kong Cantonese. I learnt lots from him, so you shouldn’t miss this out too!

Eugene

All right Eric, we were talking about the myths of learning Cantonese previously. So we debunked the myth that Cantonese is exactly the same everywhere. And given that you have experience with both Singapore and Hong Kong Cantonese, I have some questions that I really like your help in answering. Specifically, how do you learn Cantonese when you were growing up in Hong Kong? Any tips?

Eric

Well, firstly, it is 24-7 Cantonese, almost! When you wake up in the morning, you will hear your parents talking in Cantonese. When you go to school, your school friends and your school teachers will all be talking in Cantonese. Even when you read your textbook for a Chinese subject, the Chinese characters are pronounced in Cantonese. So that’s basically how we learn it. When you go home from school, you switched on TV and you’ll get Cantonese programs. Not only TVB dramas, but even for cartoons like Popeye and Ultraman. Yes, Ultraman is in Cantonese, so you see them fighting and shouting in Cantonese. At night, of course, you have the news and movies. These are English movies dubbed in Cantonese. Everything is Cantonese – 24-7.

Eugene

Thereafter when you move to Singapore, did you notice a difference between Singapore and Hong Kong Cantonese? Are there any funny or interesting conversations or miscommunications due to all these differences?

Eric

There were a few occasions when I misunderstood my son. I asked him, “have you finished your homework?” You know, to parents, homework is a big thing. But to the children, it is a different thing. So he replied to me – zou zor (做咗) – in Cantonese, which I should have been more appreciative because at least he was trying. I could understand him, but as I was in a rush, I just wanted to make sure he had done his homework. I became irritated when I heard him saying zou zor, because zou zor is a very curt reply that you use when you are irritated or impatient. So he was reprimanded by me. But after sitting and cooling down, I felt that there was nothing wrong with what he was saying. Zou zor in Mandarin is zuo le (做了). I know for him, he was literally translating his Mandarin into Cantonese, substituting the sentence structures, words and characters into Cantonese. Nothing wrong with that. I mean, to him, it is really nothing wrong. It is logical for him, but for me as a listener, because I grew up with different culture. I will take it as you are not being patient with me. So I realized that I reprimanded him unnecessarily.

Eugene

So how would you expect somebody to respond in a polite manner?

Eric

Zou zor le (做咗了). And I often realized that in Hong Kong Cantonese, you will end a sentence with a word which is not exactly meaningful. Zou zor le, sek zor le (食咗了), tak mei aa (得未呀)? For example, tak mei ah and tak mei can say something about the frame of mind of the person speaking. For example, tak mei can indicate the person getting a little bit impatient, annoyed or is about to explode. Tak mei ah is more mild. It may still mean that the person is getting frustrated with you, or he is not really frustrated with you. Yeah, so the last word, the last particle – this is the tricky part in Cantonese.

Eugene

So I think to relate to our Singapore listeners, it’s more like our Singlish. There’s a difference between leh, lor, la, laa… those subtle differences would make a difference to what we are trying to convey in a sentence.

Eric

Yes, exactly, especially if you grew up learning Mandarin, and you try to substitute the pronunciation word for word. For example, if you just say zuo le (做了), chi le ( 吃了), but substitute them with Cantonese pronunciation, it can end up as a misunderstanding.

Eugene

Okay, so that’s something for us to take note of.

Eric

Oh yeah, I have something to add. When I first moved here, I saw a lot of differences. But over the years, I think I have assimilated to the extent that sometimes when I have friends coming from Hong Kong, I have to pause and figure out how I should talk to them appropriately, so that they can understand me. For example, at one point of time, I was doing some trading. The traders like to speak to me in their Singapore-style Cantonese. There were a few occasions when I replied them in Hong Kong Cantonese and they corrected me. For example, certain share was trading at $1.20 cents and they asked me to help them buy at that price. Yat kau yi (一摳二) – $1.20 – is used in Singapore and Canada, but the word – kau – is actually derived from, if I’m not wrong, Hokkien.

Eugene

I think I know what you’re talking about, Kau as in Kor (箍) in Hokkien.

Eric

Yes, that’s right. In Hokkien, it’s zit kor nng kak (一箍两角). But for me, I say it as gor yi (個二). And they thought I was talking about gok yi (角二). Gok means 10-cents. So the person is understood as 12 cents, right? Yat gor yi (一個二). But to me, gor yi means $1.20 cents in Hong Kong.

Eugene

Yeah. So yat go. Go.

Eric

Yes, Yat go. Gor yi. So I immediately corrected myself and followed their style. Friends from Hong Kong, when you visit Singapore, be careful with what you’re saying, so that you don’t create misunderstanding.

Eugene

So a very big difference, especially if you’re trading between 12 cents and $1.20 cents – 10 times difference. So apart from this kau yi and gor yi, what are some of the slangs that locals in Singapore and Hong Kong use differently?

Eric

Okay, one such difference came to mind instantly. Many years ago, I hanged out with a friend. We were playing card games. Then someone was cheating and one of my friends shouted, “nei waan cau (你玩臭)”. To me, the phrase – waan cau – is not normally in my vocabulary. Waan cau in Hong Kong means you’re being tricked, you’re being trashed, you are being fooled, big time.

Eugene

Just to clarify in our local terms, waan cau in English it means to play dirty. In Mandarin it means wan chou (玩臭). So I guess Eric’s friend who said nei waan cau means “you’re play dirty”. That’s probably a Singapore Cantonese trying to express his displeasure with the other party, who’s trying to cheat during the card game. Is that right, Eric?

Eric

Yes, exactly.

Eugene

Let’s say in Hong Kong, if you want to accuse somebody of playing cheat, how would you say it then?

Eric

Nei ceot cin (你出千) or nei gaan maau (你姦猫). Now, this is exactly how you will say it in Hong Kong.

Eugene

So it’s either nei ceot cin or nei gaan maau.

Eric

More frequently, it’ll be called gaan maau.

Eugene

Versus the Singapore version of nei waan cau?

Eric

Yes, yes.

Eugene

I think the conclusion essentially is that in Singapore’s context, when you try to say that somebody is cheating in a poker game or a game of cards, then you say nei waan cau. But in Hong Kong’s context, if somebody is accusing somebody else of cheating, they will say nei gaan maau or nei ceot cin. So that would be some of the slangs that is used differently between Singapore and Hong Kong. So upon listening, are you able to tell whether a Cantonese speaker is from Hong Kong, Malaysia, Vietnam or Singapore?

Eric

Okay, Hong Kong, definitely and there’s no doubt about it. Between Singapore and Malaysia, the differences are very mild. We have to listen a bit more to figure it out. But generally, I will say that people in Malaysia, even the young people (i.e. people in the 20s), are quite proficient in Cantonese. So when someone is speaking Cantonese and he/she is a young person, more or less, you may think he/she is from Malaysia. Yeah, another difference between Singapore and Malaysian Cantonese is that when Malaysians speak Cantonese, somehow they speak like they are speaking Malay. I’m not too sure whether it is influenced by the usage of Malay in their everyday language. But I believe so, as it sounds a bit like Malay. For Singapore Cantonese, I will say that the way they speak Cantonese is influenced by other dialects – by Hokkien or Teochew. I’m not saying that those from Malaysia are not influenced by Chinese dialects, but somehow you can tell that they have some kind of Malay influence.

Eugene

Okay, I’ve read online before, for example, that they tend to mix Malay words inside. So for example, when they say “everything”, as in “how much is everything?”…

Eric

Oh yes, they say sou ma (semua in Malay). Yes, that’s a very big difference between Singapore Cantonese and Malaysian Cantonese.

Eugene

Let’s say the Malaysians uses sou ma. What’s the Singaporean equivalent?

Eric

I have heard people saying cyun bou (全部), but the older generation may express it as sou ma. Okay, the same as roti: the older generation of Singaporeans will called bread as roti, more often than younger people. So this is something I observed frequently in Malaysia – roti, or lok gaai maai roti (落街買roti).

Then they always like to use the word, liu (撩). Nei heoi bin dou liu? (你去邊度撩)?

Eugene

What does liu means?

Eric

Liu is actually waan (玩). Nei heoi bin dou waan (你去邊度玩)? Where are you going to enjoy yourself or play?

Eugene

So liu will be used by Malaysians. Is that what you’re saying?

Eric

They are used in Singapore and Malaysia. But increasingly, as the percentage of Singaporeans speaking dialect is decreasing, you don’t hear it so often. So when someone is to use the word – liu – there’s a higher tendency that the person is from Malaysia.

Eugene

Okay, and then how do the Hong Kong people say it then?

Eric

Nei heoi bin dou waan (你去邊度玩)?

Eugene

Well, Cantonese has so many variations. Now, to learn Cantonese, what do you think are some of the more challenging tones? We’ve talked about either 6, 9, or 12 tones and you personally think that it should be 9 tones. So what do you think are some of the more challenging tones to pronounce for Singaporeans who are just beginning to learn Cantonese?

Eric

Okay, so there are a few words, in particular, which I have seen Malaysians or Singaporeans having difficulty in pronouncing accurately. First word is koeng (強), strong. The most famous vocab will be siu koeng (小強), the cockroach.

I have listened to so many people in Singapore and Malaysia – they pronounce it as siu keong. So it is a very strong indication that it is heavily influenced by dialect. Because in Hokkien and if I’m correct, keong is pronounced as kiang. So you have a very strong qi tone at the front.

And the phrase, gan zoeng (緊張). You’ll realise that the zoeng and the keong, I pronounced it quite similarly. In Singapore and Malaysia, I hear people pronouncing it as gan cheong. Cheong. So cheong is stretched. This is similar to how they pronounced koeng- keong.

Another example would be the word, crab. Crab in Cantonese is haai (蟹). And my Singapore friends pronounce it in such a way that I must correct them in order to avoid any kind of confusion when they go to Hong Kong. Okay, right and I do not want to say it here okay. *laughs*

Eugene

We’ve got to share this! I think a lot of our listeners will also be going to Hong Kong quite a bit, so it’s for their benefit. I have a feeling that is going towards a body part. *laughs* So let’s just share so that everybody can learn from it. So in Singapore, crab will be pronounced as haai, is that right?

Eric

No, in Hong Kong, it is pronounced haai. But people in Singapore can end up pronouncing it as… are you sure you want me to say it?

Eugene

Yes, please. We are all ears.

Eric

Hai (閪). And for the person who listened to you, who is not aware of where you’re coming from, he can interpret it as an insult. This refers to a body part and is used commonly as a vulgar language. Nowadays in Hong Kong, you’ve got to be careful of what you are saying and who you are talking to. Imagine you talk to a mata and then you ought to be careful. Oh yes, mata is one word, which can tell you are either from this part of the world (i.e. Singapore) or from Hong Kong.

Eugene

Yes, in our case, mata means policemen. In Hong Kong they use ging caat (警察).

Eric

Ging caat. Yes, I see.

Eugene

Alright, so just remember to pronounce ‘crab’ correctly. It will be haai.

Eric

Don’t say it in a high pitch tone.

Eugene

Don’t say with a high pitch tone. So keep it to the haai tone. Okay, so that would be some of the things to look out for in the pronunciations, in terms of the consonants, vowels as well as the tones.

All right, that’s very good. Thank you, Eric, for sharing with us all these wonderful experiences – how to differentiate the Cantonese used in Singapore and other countries; differences or the importance of pronouncing certain tones correctly, so that you don’t get misunderstood for swearing; or when you’re asking for crab in Hong Kong.

So how is it going? We are at the halfway mark of this special 6-part series of our Cantonese – How Do You Say Podcast. For the next 3 episodes, be prepared to… Say It Like You Own It! Yes, we are going to help you sound like a pro when you speak Cantonese. You’ll learn to ask some really neat Cantonese questions to get to know someone or even asking someone out for a date. Stay with us. This is Eugene from LearnDialect.sg and we’ll speak again in the next episode!


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.

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Special Episode 2: Learning Cantonese – Top Myths Debunked!

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

Psst… You can find our How Do You Say Podcasts on Spotify too! Head to Spotify – LearnDialect.sg or search for LearnDialect.sg on Spotify.


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… Yi… 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 mm hou yuk (唔好郁). 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 leng seoi (冻檸水). 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.

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.

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