learning Cantonese?!

Discussions on the Cantonese language.

learning Cantonese?!

Post by curious »

I'd like to know the reason why non-Cantonese (especially, of NON-CHINESE DESCENT) so keen on learning Cantonese. Do you guys really "need" it? Or, just for fun?

Anyway, welcome to the world of Cantonese!!! :)


Re: learning Cantonese?!

Post by rathpy »

My wife's family speak Cantonese. Her siblings all speak English to each other of course, but around the dinner table Cantonese is mostly spoken when their parents are present (although the parents also speak passable English). For years I have been saying to myself I should learn Chinese and get in on the conversation, but never made a serious move. Well, we now have a daughter who is nine months old, and we want her to grow up with the benefit of knowing a second language. Of course I now have a bigger incentive because I don't want to be left out of conversation between my own daughter and wife! So it's learn Cantonese or bust. I always wanted to learn a second language anyway, so it's good to have a firm reason. It's fun also (except for all the headaches working out pronunciation, and dialect variances). I'm attempting to read and write the language too, as well as speak it. My wife's family is illiterate in Chinese so they can't help me too much with that. I hope that it might be a good gift if I could teach my daughter to read and write. I have to have focus on expanding my verbal vocabulary at the moment though, because she is starting to understand what we say and tries to copy.



Re: learning Cantonese?!

Post by K »

Good for you 'rathpy'! Great of you to to want to learn the language not only for your own interest, but especially for your daughter's sake. I'm sure she will appreciate it down the road. It will help her keep contact with her Chinese heritage.

Learning languages is always a beneficial thing. It helps us understand other people. Not just what they're saying, but it helps us understand cultures and certain perspectives that are different than our own.

Continue with your preserverence and good luck!

Posts: 134
Joined: Thu Feb 03, 2005 3:53 pm

Re: learning Cantonese?!

Post by Mark »

Rapthy: be careful that the linguistic environment for your daughter makes it nessecary for her to speak and understand both English and Cantonese fluently, because if it is not expected of her she may become half-fluent in each (this happened with English and Tagalog to a friend of mine, it's not a pleasant experience)


Re: learning Cantonese?!

Post by rathpy »

Regarding teaching a child in a multi-lingual family, I am concerned about the confusion that my daughter might have, and how it will turn out. I don’t think English will suffer in the medium-term because of the predominance around her, i.e. T.V. and her parent’s conversation. For Cantonese, at the moment we generally only use certain instructions and concepts limited to my beginner vocabulary, eg. sit, stand, nappy, kick ball, fall down, full, clever, eat, etc. For her to progress beyond just ‘buzz’ words I think that I would need to be reasonably fluent myself, and for her to hear her parents conversing in Cantonese, and not just her mother sometimes, otherwise English will just win out.

I get the impression that kids can sometimes adapt more easily than adults though. My wife for instance, used Cantonese and Pidgeon English as her first languages then just learned English when she went to primary school. (I’m jealous)

Some of the concepts we will be trying to use are:

- Progress our (my) speaking of Cantonese beyond baby talk. She should hear us having conversations. And I will try to speak as much Cantonese to her as I can, because I think she will still get enough English.

- Try not to mix English and Cantonese

- Encourage and expect her to speak both languages – although this could be difficult at first (poor little thing).

Thanks. Your comments welcome.


Thomas Chan

Re: learning Cantonese?!

Post by Thomas Chan »

rathpy wrote:
> - Encourage and expect her to speak both languages ?although
> this could be difficult at first (poor little thing).

This is definitely an area where some effort has to be spent. For a
child growing up in an English-dominated environment, you'll have to
provide opportunities and reason for her to use Cantonese. Otherwise,
she'll conclude that English is sufficient for dealiing with family and non-
family; after all, both parents do speak English, and one fluently--why
bother learning to speak Cantonese?--isn't it redundant? Some children
love and adjust easily to the non-dominant background (She might like
learning Cantonese and other parts of Chinese culture) while others may
ignore/reject it as irrelevant to their identity (I'm
American/British/Australian/etc). This applies just as much for foreign-born
Chinese. I've often met people who chose the latter path, and then
developed an interest later when the choice window of learning a language
as a pre-adult had already passed.

Thomas Chan

James Campbell

Re: learning Cantonese?!

Post by James Campbell »

Dear Rathpy,

When my wife and I have children, we're going to end up in a similar situation as yours but probably even with a couple more languages. I've researched this topic, and I suggest a book to you to read before you develop a system altogether. At her age, it's best that she makes a face<>language connection. The person that uses a particular language with her should maintain that consistency always with her. If you are not completely fluent, then I suggest you do not do this. It could also confuse her into thinking that Cantonese speakers have western faces which is not the norm. Although my Mandarin is good, when I have children I will use English with them as much as possible. They will learn Mandarin from their mother. Even the language my wife and I use between us (we also speak German) is important and should be consistent in front of the children. I anticipate that my children will spend time growing up in Europe so they will probably end up going to school and playing outside in a different language.

The book I mentioned is "growing up with two languages A Practical Guide" by Una Cunningham-Andersson and Staffan Andersson published in '99 by Routledge with reprint in 2001, ISBN 041521257 paperback. There are plenty of Chinese/English examples from couples in the book. It will also lead you to groups where you can get to know others who are in exactly the same situation as yourself. I'm not involved with this yet, but will be in the future so I have done some reading about it.

Since my wife and I use various languages on different occasions, our children are going to have to adapt to a very multilingual environment. We mainly live in Taiwan/China and will spend increasingly more time in Europe every year. Besides the Mandarin, Taiwanese, Shanghaiese, English, and German we share, my wife also speaks French, and I also speak Italian and Russian. Sometimes we use Taiwanese outside when we talk with people we don't know. We use Shanghaiese/Mandarin with her family. We use mostly Mandarin/English with each other. She uses French on occasions with people she knows, and I use Italian or Russian on other occasions with people I know. Since we know people who speak other languages, if our children ever meet or witness our conversations with these people, it should be kept consistent in that we always use the same language with these people. My children should make a language<>face connection with Andrej knowing that we speak Russian with this person. With Paolo it would always be Italian. And so on and so forth. These friends then become what Chinese children call 'uncles' and they should be able to maintain that language connection with these various uncles. I would not expect my children to learn all those languages, but they would at least be exposed and learn a lot from the experiences. I would expect them to learn well the languages of the family, Mandarin/English/Shanghaiese and at least one European language. Unfortunately, our European language skills are not so strong anymore due to lack of use, and we hope to spend more time in Europe refreshing by the time we have children.

I have met mixed families with an American father who speaks perfect Chinese. Result: children have just as tough a time learning English as any other Chinese child. Father can help, but since it has been established that he speaks Chinese with the family, the child will struggle with his language no matter how much English he starts to use later on--the child will most likely refuse to adapt because kids just don't like changes like that, and you really can't force them (they might just go psycho). You should find the opposite true in America where a Chinese parent who uses English in the family would have a hard time getting his children to speak Chinese.

What I consider quite important is children's literature. Make sure you have an abundant supply of not only English books, but also Chinese books at home (bilingual texts if possible) and read the stories to the children. Even if you're not fluent in the language but have a good hold of it and strong pronunciation, then you can read an endless number of stories and your children will learn a lot: not just language, but culture, history, you name it... The stories need to be lively so it also requires a good command of it, in order to bring the language to life for the child.

Language<>face that I have described above is one of the best ways to keep children from mixing languages up. The book goes into more detail where the authors' children accidentally replace words they don't know in English with Swedish words. The important thing is not to confuse the child even more by saying they are wrong, because they aren't wrong, but just emphasize the correct English word in the English sentence (it helps if the parent who speaks that language does the correction--well actually that will always be true if you use the language<>face technique). Children use wrong grammar (I goed...) and we still know what they mean, or they might confuse grammar between similar languages (ich geh-ed or ich gehte instead of ich habe ... gegangen). To correct them we can also teach them manners by using phrases like "please say 'I went', bitte sag "ich habe gegangen". Or "what you want to say is "I went" and so on. If this becomes quite routine, the children will repeat it correctly and learn quicker. And children need a lot of routine for them to learn good habits. I even read a story of Taiwanese descended ABCs using English -ing endings when speaking Taiwanese with their parents--it sort of becomes a pidgin, adding a feature to a language that lacks what another has.

The last thing you have to consider is travel and schooling. Many children know second languages at home, but only passively and may not even speak them. Children need to spend some time, perhaps a summer, every or every other year, in the country where the language they use at home is used. They will realize it's a whole living and breathing language with millions of users and they will definitely regain active use, including a large expansion in vocabulary and application. It will give them great incentive to use it and understand its importance.

Best of luck to you in your endeavours,



Re: learning Cantonese?!

Post by rathpy »

Just a quick word to say thanks ... I've read all the comments a number of times and am digesting your ideas.


Lisa C

Re: learning Cantonese?!

Post by Lisa C »


I've been reading the above post with interest since I'm a first generation ABC with 2 boys. Luckily I'm the oldest so I absorbed more of the language than my sister. Actually my mom said I never actually formally learned English but kind of absorbed b/c my mom didn't speak English when I was born, but all my cousins did. I grew up in Houston, so there wasn't much incentive really to speak Chinese although I always did with my parents and I had an interest in it. We also speak a dialect instead of Cantonese so it's not taught in schools and there are no tapes etc. available. I'm still in the process of learning Cantonese by immersion (friends all spoke Cantonese as does my husband) and I get my tones and pronounciation confused sometimes with my dialect.

My sons speak Cantonese as a first language as I refuse to have a conversation with them in English, although I read to them in English and translate some of the harder words. They're 5 and 2 1/2 and have learned a lot of English from kids at the sitters and pre-school. From experience, I know how easy it is to learn languages at this age and am not concerned that they learn English b/c they'll be going to English based schools. We also live in San Francisco so there are many opportunities to speak Cantonese, have Cantonese speaking sitters, and Cantonese school. Many of their friends don't speak Cantonese at home though and even though the preschool is 1/2 day English and 1/2 Chinese I notice the kids all communicate in English so we're more insistent on speaking Cantonese at home. The oldest has a tendency to speak using English grammar at times and needs correcting, but I think his Cantonese is pretty good. Actually he corrects my pronounciation at times. We also don't let them mix in English with Chinese. If they speak English it has to be a complete sentence.

I think the primary language spoken b/w the parents is a big influence on the kids. Since you're not that fluent yet, perhaps your wife could in the process of teaching your daughter teach you the basic at the same time. You seem to already have a pretty good grasp on grammar etc. it's probably just a need to practice. Even if you're not perfect yet your daughter will understand you. Having tapes, books, movies etc. in Cantonese also help a lot. They'll understand that they're not alone speaking Cantonese in an English dominated world. A lot familiar movies are out in Cantonese, Winnie the Pooh, pretty much all the Disney animation movies etc. and their are lots of read along stories as well.

Good luck! It's fun and interesting being a parent but more so I think when you're trying to parent in more than 1 language.


Re: learning Cantonese?!

Post by Sunset »

I am a white guy and learnt chinese so I could get a HK boyfriend.


Re: learning Cantonese?!

Post by 余俊 »


Posts: 2
Joined: Thu Feb 03, 2005 3:53 pm

Re: learning Cantonese?!

Post by Jay »

I have read all the responses posted to your question and they are all fascinating. My reason is that China and Chinese culture, people, etc. really interest me. I have been studying Mandarin for about one year through tapes, listening to a Chinese language radio station and watching Chinese movies that have become ever more popular in the U.S. I am doing pretty good so far. However, Cantonese is far more widely spoken here in New York City than Mandarin. I would eventually like to be fluent in both, that would be a great accomplishment. I recently purchased some Cantonese tapes. I love the shocked look on a Cantonese speakers face when i even use just a couple of words. My dream is to walk into a Chinese restaurant and speak only whatever Chinese is being spoken.
Hope any of this made sense. Its just fun to speak Chinese! They are great people.

susan howard

Re: learning Cantonese?!

Post by susan howard »

Can you tell me why Hong Kong Chinese are so protective of their Cantonese language? Many try to discourage people from learning it.


Re: learning Cantonese?!

Post by Gardenia »

I know exactly what you mean and I have to say after learning cantonese for so long I come to only one conclusion-a kind of stereotyping of non-chinese boredering on racsim. It seems every Cantonese speaker is convinced only Chinese should speak Chinese and Westerners (no matter what part of europe they are from) speak English. When people act surprised at my chinese ability I simply adopt a blank look and say : "Well, you speak english". I have seen westerners and Indians born and bred in Hong Kong, speak perfect chinese only to have shop assistants and whoever still try to use broken english with them. Wake up!

Posts: 43
Joined: Thu Feb 03, 2005 3:53 pm

Re: Protective

Post by Helmut »

Ha ha, this reminds me of one of Larry Feign's early cartoons. A Westerner buys something in HK. The Westerner tries to be nice and talk Cantonese to the shop assistant. The shop assistant tries to be nice and talks English. Both insist. They both end up being very angry that the other did not appreciate his efforts: "Jerk!! Can't he see I'm speaking Cantonese." and "Jerk!! Can't he see I'm speaking English."

I have never seen any other place, where English as a foreign language is so important for your value as an employee, as is the case in HK. We should really excuse a shop assistant, if he is afraid of being seen as speaking insufficient English, may be while his boss is watching the scene.

Still I have to say that the response to my efforts to speak Cantonese to Hongkongers was mostly positive. That includes shop assistants. And rarely someone tried to discourage me from learning it.

And even if they do, there is an obvious explanation. Hongkongers see their language as a mere dialect of standard Chinese. When they write, they write standard Chinese and not Cantonese and writing real Cantonese is considered as low style. Songs are sung in standard Chinese even though with Cantonese pronounciation, because "singing real Cantonese does not sound elegant". And this is true already for children songs and fairy tales, so you can bet that this is deeply rooted in their mind. If someone has so low an opinion of his own language, he will feel that he is really doing a favour to the foreigner by trying to discourage him to learn that stuff.

I think "protective" is a misunderstanding.