Gonna learn the Wah?

Gonna learn the Wah? If you're newly arrived in HK, you may be wondering whether or not to learn Chinese. Unless you have a large amount of free time on your hands, you probably won't be able to learn to read and write, but you can certainly pick up the spoken language.

However, it can be frustrating, especially if you already have the experience of learning a second European language. English is my first language, and I enjoyed learning French at school. There are many similarities that you can spot between the languages, and it doesn't take long before you can read simple French, e.g. you can read children's books and later have a go at reading magazines.

Chinese words and grammar are completely different from Latin languages, so you'll have to start from scratch as though you were a newborn baby. You've probably already heard that Chinese is also different in that it is a tonal language, so the same word pronounced using different tones gives it different meanings. As can be expected, it is easy for a learner to make mistakes with the tones, giving their sentences the wrong meaning. A lot of Chinese jokes are based on intentionally mixing up the tones in this way, but for foreigners it is usually unintentional, and occasionally very embarrassing ! (Mr Tall has a story to tell about that).

But, stick at it, and you'll be well rewarded, especially if you plan to stay in HK for longer than a basic 18- or 24-month contract. If you only speak English you'll move through HK isolated in your own bubble. If you're able to speak a little Chinese, you'll find that local people appreciate it, and you'll find HK a much more friendly place.

One exception -- your appearance makes a big difference. If you split expats into those who look Chinese, and those who don't, the A/B/CBCs generally have a harder time of it. When your spoken Chinese is 95% correct, there are still plenty of people ready to find fault with the few mistakes you'll make. We gweilos get an easier time of it, and if we get 5% right, we're generally rewarded with "Wah, you speak Chinese!".

On the flip side, if you look Chinese, people will speak Chinese to you whether you want them to or not, and you'll generally learn faster. To some people, a gweilo face means English must be spoken. This can lead to odd competitions (especially in Taxis!), with the gweilo determinedly speaking Chinese, while the Chinese person is out to prove the fluency of their English. For gweilos, it also means the office is often not the best place to practice your Chinese, as colleagues are more likely to want to speak English.

Overall, I recommend you take the plunge and try learning it. Be prepared that at times it will be frustrating, and that you may well take 9-12 months before you can have a stumbling conversation, but keep at it and you'll get there in the end. I started learning at the YMCA, so you might want to take a look at their classes. As well as learning the language, you'll also meet a bunch of other people that have recently arrived, so it's a great way to make new friends.

You can try the YMCA's website, or you can visit them in Tsim Sha Tsui.


Struggling to learn Chinese?

Science is working on a good excuse for you - blame it on your genes!

A recent article describes research underway at the University of Edinburgh, investigating links between genes and language among different human populations. So far they have only found one strong correlation.

It indicates that populations that use tonal languages (such as Cantonese and Putonghua) share one version of a certain pair of genes. Populations that use non-tonal languages (eg the European languages) have a different version of that pair.

So the next time your language teacher is giving you a hard time over your muddled tones, you might want to direct them to this article and ask for their sympathy.


found a good teacher

I recently accidently took a cantonese course (I thought it would be a culture course but it was cantonese) - I'm already committed to learning Mandarin, so I didn't continue, but I found the teacher (a norwegian lady of all things) to be excellent.  You can check out www.happyjellyfish.com

Choosing which language to learn

Here's a different approach. This linguist does a 1-hour check on a prospective new language to see how difficult it will be to learn. Too difficult? He moves on to another.

The rules are a bit different if you're living overseas though. Yes it would be easier for me to have continued learning French instead of starting on Cantonese. But, not many local taxi drivers speak French!


Who makes the best Cantonese teacher?

"A cross-dressing Norwegian woman" probably wasn't the first answer you thought of, but check out the video below. It's from the same teacher gweipo mentions above, and gave me a chuckle or two. You can see a full list of her videos here.

Cecilie Gamst Berg - the nutty Norwegian

I've had the pleasure of sitting nearby to her in Pacific Coffee whilst she was conducting a private lesson and have to admit she is very good. Is it rude to evesdrop?

She also has a bunch of Naked Cantonese podcasts from RTHK with (the totally useless) Sarah Passmore.

On a side note, I did just try to navigate to the HappJellyfish site and google warned me it contained some malware. So sounds like her server has been infiltrated :-o