Most That Study Cant Speak?

Mr Tall,
I have several questions to pose to you about the chinese language and teaching it to children and adults respectively
- Firstly what standard of proficientcy would you describe your personal levels of:

Spoken Cantonese
Reading Cantonese
Writing Cantonese (Grammar and traditional charater usage)

Spoken Mandarin
Reading Mandarin
Writing Mandarin (Modern characters)

You mentioned in one of your articles about raising children in HK that choosing the correct school for them can be hard, since if they do not reach a sufficient level of chinese by a young age, they will be unable to attain this later in life. You go on to state that many university students and adults that attempt to learn chinese mostly never reach a decent level of competance, with which I seriously beg to disagree.

How long does it take an infant to learn a language? Studies show that the first language learned always takes far longer to reach a proficient level in than the second, regardless of which one maintains a local accent. When a child learns a language, even after speaking it for up to 10 years they often lack the same vocabulary and grammatical skills as a foreign scholar who's 4 year university major is in that given language. The only thing that will be off is the accent. Given another couple of years in the foreign country, and if the student cares to, can shake the accent.
What has to be decided is whether the child is going to sound slightly western forever or slightly cantonese. Often both occur at the same time.

As for views on mixed race children, I sympathise with your worries about how they are viewed.


Hi Thundercat;

Thanks for your comments, and for the good questions.

First, my level of Chinese competence is low. I can't read or write anything, and I don't speak Mandarin at all. My Cantonese is right up there with Toddler Tall's -- I'm okay around the house, but a news report loses me within a few words.

Second, I think perhaps I've been a bit unclear in my statements about gaining competence in Chinese later in life. Of course it's possible to do so. Let me give you a good example. When I first came to HK, I taught English at a local university in a kind of 'teaching fellowship' post. My predecessor, who wasn't Chinese, and who hailed from the same university in the USA as I did, could read and write both ancient and contemporary Chinese, both traditional and simplified characters; fluently spoke Mandarin and Cantonese; and even knew the rudiments of Hakka and Haklo dialects. To say my linguistic abilities were a disappointment to my new colleagues would be understating things by several orders of magnitude! But then he had a PhD in Chinese linguistics. Learning Chinese was his life.

Also, what I perhaps didn't make clear enough is that it seems to be learning to *read and write* Chinese at a later age that's so onerous. Speaking and listening are easier. I've had several other colleagues who are 'ABCs', i.e. American-born Chinese; a combination of some exposure to Cantonese as youngsters, and a desire to learn about their ancestors' culture, had led them to be Chinese or Asian Studies majors in university. They all spoke at least reasonably good Mandarin, and most picked up Cantonese pretty effectively, too. But they struggled with reading and writing -- even though they'd studied Chinese all through university, they still spent lots of time reading even short newspaper articles, and they all complained about how the characters just drained out of their memories if they didn't keep working at reading regularly.

So my evidence is anecdotal, but my point I hope is legitimate: if you've got a child who has the chance to learn to read and write Chinese at a young age, it's a significant opportunity to give her. Yes, she may be able to cram Chinese in university or grad school, but then she'd have to devote herself to its study in a way that might well preclude the possibility of studying some other subject she'd be equally or more interested and gifted in.

Mr Tall

Re:Most That Study Cant Speak?

Mr Tall,

many thanks for your speedy reply to the posting.

"Also, what I perhaps didn't make clear enough is that it seems to be learning to *read and write* Chinese at a later age that's so onerous. Speaking and listening are easier."

I would say that this is partially correct, but also partially misleading. I think that speaking and listening at certain levels are actually far harder than reading and writing, however at a more advanced level the reading especially becomes harder becuase of the increased frequency of less commonly spoken words.
There are certainly many words for example in mandarin that are just not often spoken, but are often is the differential between what is termed "kou yu" (spoken chinese) and the rest.
As these written words simply are not often spoken, it becomes harder to remember how to read them outloud when they are seen, for example, in a newspaper. However...interestingly it remains relatively easy to recognise the character and assign a meaning to it.
(these are merely my personal findings...)

regards :)

more on learning Chinese

Via Simon's very helpful Asia by Blog feature (at [url][/url]), I came across this superb article by David Moser, an American student of Chinese:


Anyone who has the observational and expressive powers required for writing sentences like this one:

"One could say that Chinese is phonetic in the way that sex is aerobic: technically so, but in practical use not the most salient thing about it."

is surely worth reading! Seriously, this article presents the clearest and most systematic explanation of the challenges a westerner learning Chinese actually faces. And he does uphold some things my anecdotal evidence seemed to indicate, i.e. that most adult students of written Chinese do indeed struggle to read newspapers and popular novels even after years of dedicated study.

Learning Chinese

When it comes to learning Chinese, or any other language, the key is to set a REALISTIC goal. True that most locals may be able to speak, read, and write Chinese. But I doubt that they'd be able to compose any masterpieces using the Chinese language. The same applies to English speakers. You may be able to grasp the daily usage. But not everyone can write like Shakespeare or Oscar Wilde.

Unless you plan to get your Asian studies/Chinese literature PhD, I'd say forget the ancient text and focus on moderm Chinese. And when it comes to modern Chinese, here're the three major stages to tackle:

1. Spoken Cantonese:
This is the hardest. Though Chinese, even a Mandarin speaker may be having a hard time mastering this colorful yet tricky dialect. While some of you may find those expensive one-on-one tutoring helpful, the easiest way to achieve basic proficiency for daily shopping, dining out, flirting, etc., is through the dreadful karaoke or any Cantopo medium such as TV, movies, etc. Turn on the Nicam option of your TV and try to watch the Friends or ER reruns in Cantonese. You'll be surprised how many slangs you can pick up in just 30 min.

2. Written Cantonese/Mandarin:
This is one area where tutoring or formal lessons may be needed, but not essential per se. Again, it's all about expectation management. If your goal is just to be able to read street signs, the Chinese menu in a restaurant, or to skim the headlines in a Chinese newspaper, the cheapest way (and probably most effective way) is to buy those kindergarten Chinese vocab books available at all major bookstores. Thanks to the ultra-competitive education system in HK, most kids would have mastered daily written Chinese by the time they graduate from kindergarten. The beauty here is that most of these vocab books are graphics-heavy. You can easily guess what a vocab stands for just by looking at the meaning illustration. And ever notice how the words "chicken," "goose," and "duck" all look similar in Chinese? That's because they're all poultry and are Chinese characters that originated from pictorials. About 50% of present-day Chinese characters have similar pictorial origins, and the kindergarten books are often your best sources to learn about these characters.

3. Spoken Mandarin:
Spoken Mandarin is basically the same as written Chinese. So unless you have certain understanding of written Chinese, it's practically useless to learn the "pin yin" (phoenetics), which deals only with pronunciation but not meaning of words. It's getting more helpful to know Mandarin in HK. But unless you work in China quite often, don't get frustrated if your Mandarin is still limited to "nee how mah." This is already as good as any HKer's Mandarin.

On a side note, Fay Por is a native Cantonese/Mandarin speaker (Mum is Taiwanese) who can also write in Chinese. But having spent more than a decade in the US and seen my ABC friends in the Asian Studies program down the Chuck River struggling with their parents' native language, my advice to those who want to learn Chinese is, "Relax." You just won't be able to find the perfect book or the perfect tutor, let alone any useful guide on Chinese grammar or syntax. Sometimes it's just best to learn the tune by ear.

Hope this helps.

Learning Chinese as an adult & Written Cantonese

Here's my experience.

I am a so-so student of Chinese.

I am a European-American, raised speaking English. I studied 6 years of French and 4 years of Latin in high school.

I started studying Chinese (Mandarin) at university when I was 19. It was an intensive course, 2 hours a day, 5 days a week (not including homework).. We learned speaking, listening, reading, and writing. We were expected to recognize both simplified and traditional characters, and be able to write traditional characters. By the end of the first year, we (in theory) knew the 1000 most common characters...

It does take up your life. One time I found myself studying my characters during the "Break" at a Grateful Dead concert.

Then I took a summer course, to prepare for 2nd year. Same thing in the second year - 2 hours a day, 5 days a week. Third year, we were allowed to have only 2 hours a day, three times a week. At this point we were reading short stories VERY slowly.

I was not an excellent student, merely got Bs. I used to fantasize about the sleep teaching methods in "Brave New World" or thought "wouldn't it be nice if I could inject the characters intravenously..." (nowadays, in the computer age, I fantasize about USB ports into my brain...).

After I graduated I went to Taiwan and found out that I hadn't really learned much, for example, about how to call for a job interview :) I picked it up, and a lot more. After about a year I can say I was confidently conversational in Mandarin.

Fast forwad 4 years and I was living in Hong Kong. I took a Cantonese course. Cantonese is harder w/ the 8 tones. I was working full-time so had much less time to study.

I learned the numbers, basic verbs, and niceties. I can chat w/ my neighbors about the weather and go shopping. I "massage" my Mandarin into Cantonese. I have come to understand more, so I also sometimes do the "can you speak Mandarin" thing. If they say "Ngo sik teng", then I will speak in Mandarin and they reply in Cantonese and we make do that way.

I still speak broken Cantonese to my m-i-l on the phone. My 8 year-old daughter corrects my Cantonese pronunciation.

Even worse, now when I speak Mandarin, some Cantonese comes out.

Linguistic ability is like any ability. Some people are incredibly talented musically and have an easy time mastering several instruments. Other folks have to work hard to become reasonably competent on the piano in childhood and if then asked to learn to fiddle as an adult, would have an even more difficult time, and reach a lower level of competence.


Don't forget that written Cantonese often contains constructions and words that are not standard in Putonghua.

For example: "Yau-Mou" (有冇) instead of the more standard "You meiyou" or "Ng Ji" (唔知) instead of "buzhidao",.

Or, "Ngo Dou hai" (我都係) instead of "wo ye shi"...

I have learned a lot more about Cantonese by reading some Chinese language web-boards.

I have to say, that the longer I stay in HK, the better my Cantonese becomes, although the increments of improvement are SMALL.

Great posts!

Thanks very very much to Fay Por and skmama for their excellent posts! Your experiences really shed some light on the joys and trials of learning Chinese.

Fay Por, it's interesting to hear you say that you found the spoken Cantonese the hardest, i.e. tougher than learning to read/write -- even though you're a native speaker! When I say that learning to speak is easier, maybe it's a product of my own limited perspective, or simply of me having long ago decided I'd be content with not getting all the nuances of rapidly spoken colloquial Cantonese.

Also, your point about using kids' books is excellent. I have found that I've started picking up a word or two of Mandarin lately because my two-year-old daughter's been using one of those 'magic books' that says words out loud when you point to a picture with a special pen. A powerful teaching tool it is!

Skmama, I bow to your dedication to learning the wah. It's exactly the kind of commitment I've conveniently excused myself from making. You will likely go down in history as the only person ever high on pictograms at a Dead concert!

Your point about a small minority of people who just 'pick it up' with much less effort than the rest of us is also well-taken. I agree completely that it's a gift, much like perfect pitch in music, and I really wish I had it!

Both of you have also pointed out a key strategy in learning Chinese: managing expectations. I've found this really hard at points. When I was in grad school years ago, I learned to read German in two months. I started out not knowing a word, and within days I could read and write sentences. Within weeks, paragraphs. By the end of the course, I could tackle an academic journal article, and read it, using a dictionary, in maybe three or four times as long as it would have taken me to read it in English. (I've now forgotten it all, unfortunately!) That is simply not going to happen with Chinese. In learning Chinese, you have to be happy -- and build on -- those small increments!