Friday, September 08, 2006


I promised a post on language a few weeks ago, and I'm finally getting around to it.

I had been learning Mandarin off-and-on on my own for years, but only really got serious about it a couple years ago. When I found I was to be the faculty visitor to Hong Kong in the Pepperdine Hong Kong program, I realized I should have studied Cantonese (the local language here). But I decided then to intensify my efforts in learning Mandarin, and learn a little Cantonese along the way.

The reasons were:
1. It would make it easier to keep the two separate, since anything I knew in Cantonese I would already know well in Mandarin.
2. It's much easier to find resources for learning Mandarin. In fact, some of the resources for learning Cantonese assume you have some Mandarin background.
3. The written language in all of China, including Hong Kong, is the same anyway, and often chooses Mandarin phraseology over Cantonese.

I started with characters, because some of it was already accessible to me since I knew Japanese which uses many of the same characters. There's "Reading and Writing Chinese" by McNaughton and Ying that I like. For pronunciation I got Pimsleur tapes, which I highly recommend. But for Cantonese they only have a level 1 course, which is enough to ask "where is Boundary street" but not enough to understand the answer you might get. I got a whole bunch of books, which was probably redundant, but I didn't know which were going to be most useful. At some point I got a tutor in Mandarin and later got a tutor in Cantonese--both Pepperdine students.

I would say that in Mandarin I can carry on conversations with someone if they speak slowly and are very patient with me, and stick with a range of topics where I know most of the vocabulary. In Cantonese I'm more at a phrasebook level. My goal before leaving LA was to have enough Cantonese that immersion would actually help. People say that immersion is the best way to learn the language, but that only applies if you know some of the language--otherwise, you waste a lot of time trying to get an ear for the phonemes. It all sounds like gibberish if you don't know anything about the language at all. But if you have some background, you'll be able to say, "Okay, I don't understand what was just said, but they just used a word I've been hearing a lot in this context. I'd better look it up."

Actually, in Hong Kong, most of my interactions are in English. All the administrative staff at Hong Kong Baptist University and at Kowloon International Baptist Church speak excellent English. The same goes for most of the HKBU students. Same for the hotel staff where I'm living. The main places where Cantonese is useful is in restaurants (including on-campus), some shops (even here, the staff knows enough English to talk about their products), bus drivers, and cleaning staff. And my conversations in those contexts are fairly limited.

Reading signs is a different matter: even if they have translations in English, I can still try to read the characters. I can read about 70% of the characters I see, which is sometimes enough to figure out what's going on, and sometimes not. Often the main concept is hidden in a character I don't know, which is to be expected since I know the more basic characters.

Sometimes I've had an opportunity to have Cantonese spoken to me, and most of the time I'm not ready for it. Often, I'll hear the first word, and two seconds later, have an "aha" moment where I remember what that word means. By that time, of course, they have said many other words which I wasn't paying attention to because I was trying to figure out the first word. So I have to ask them to repeat it. Which may lead them to try saying it in a very different way, or try to find someone who can translate for them into English.

In Taiwan, they speak Mandarin, and even there I had trouble, though somewhat less (since I know Mandarin better). Still, the next thing they tried was to speak to me in Japanese.

I mentioned in a previous post that I surmised they could recognize someone of Japanese ancestry very easily, and wondered if in Hong Kong this would be true (it's not). I was even slightly peeved that they assumed I would speak Japanese. I'm not sure why. Because I do, sort of. Michele Langford at Pepperdine, a French-American, got me thinking about this kind of assumption. For instance, speaking to a dark-looking person in a service industry in Spanish, which she sees as racist. And she's probably right, though I argued with her just to be a devil's advocate.

I wondered about this as everyone spoke to me in Japanese in Taipei, and sometimes I would say in Mandarin that I spoke English, or that I was American. Sometimes I would just reply in Japanese because it was easier that way. A few times they said something in Mandarin which I didn't understand, then said it in Japanese which I wasn't ready for so I still didn't understand ("would you like a bag for that").

Once at the hotel restaurant, I saw a couple, the man being white and with an American-looking easy-going swagger, and the woman who was partly outside my line of sight but who had dark hair. The wait staff spoke to them in Japanese. This got me thinking that maybe it wasn't racist on their part. They just spoke to everyone in Japanese. After all, Japanese-speaking tourists outnumbered English-speaking tourists (from overhearing their conversations anyway) by at least 5 to 1.

Then I realized I was making the same assumption that these folks were English-speaking. In fact, though I could barely hear them, it sounded like they were speaking Japanese. Why can't a white guy be Japanese? Or at least have Japanese as his main language?

There was also a time when I ordered something, and the response, "Yi bai ba", I didn't understand at first. Then she said, "108" which I realized then was the price. I know the numbers, but for whatever reason, I wasn't thinking numbers when she said it. It doesn't help that in Chinese, there are many homonyms, and a sentence often ends in "ba" for a very different reason (in making suggestions, for instance).

Another time I wanted to see the Presidential Palace and went to a guard and asked in Mandarin where the entrance for tourists was (it wasn't obvious). He said, "Jintian guanmen le". I asked in Mandarin, "where's that?" He explained in English that he had said "today it's closed". I actually knew that phrase, but I didn't recognize it because I was expecting a location.

More on this later. We're going to Macau to activate one of the students' visas. This time I have a camera!


At 10:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is there still a Japanese restaurant in the tower where you are living? At least there used to be and most of the servers there spoke some Japanese.

At 8:17 AM, Blogger Kevin Iga said...

There's the Wonderland Restaurant at the NTT house where I'm staying, which has two menus: a Taiwanese menu and a Japanese menu. No one there has tried talking to me in Japanese yet, and I haven't tried speaking Japanese to them. When in LA, I don't normally expect the servers in Japanese restaurants to speak Japanese. But in Hong Kong, apparently, Japanese is a fairly popular third or fourth language for people to pick up. Most of the International office staff knows a phrase or two in Japanese.

There is one student from Japan, and she was glad to meet me and speak a bit of Japanese with me, even though my Japanese language skills are in pretty poor shape nowadays. We met at an International Student function, where I was explaining to some students some features of Japanese, and which aspects native Chinese speakers would find easy or difficult. She was standing somewhat nearby and immediately picked up on the fact that Japanese words were flying by.


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