Wednesday, July 23, 2014

How I'm Learning Cantonese

I’ve been posting about things I’ve been learning, but recently someone suggested that I talk about how I’m actually learning Cantonese.  So it's a bit long, but a rundown of my Cantonese learning history.

My first forays into Cantonese were a bit half-hearted, I’m embarrassed to say.  The first year that I lived here I didn’t do much studying at all.  My friends or coworkers might teach me a word here or there, but it was all very hap-hazard.  I carried a little notebook around so I could write down new words, and I wrote them just like I thought they sounded.  At that point I hadn’t learned much about tones, so I just wrote high, medium, low, or rising lines to remind myself of the sound.  But even then, it really wasn’t exact, and I often forgot what my own lines were supposed to represent.  

I was so young and innocent (ignorant?) then

And after moving back to the US, I forgot most of the words I had learned, excluding the few I used as a secret code at the cafe I worked at.  I would say sai1 sau2 gaan1, bathroom (or literally, wash hand room), to my coworkers, alerting them of my imminent dash to the little girls room.  Soon, it caught on, and all of my coworkers started saying it.  Even my boss, who for some unknown reason seemed to hold a grudge against the phrase, eventually cracked and used it.  The other two frequently used words were leng3 zai2 and leng3 leoi5/2, handsome guy and pretty girl.  One of my coworkers especially liked to say “leng3 leoi2” to tell me to let him take the register when a fetching young lady approached.

After I had decided to move back to Hong Kong, I started my study in earnest.  I loved watching Carlos Douh videos, a Canadian guy who makes Canto slang videos. I also started watching a lot of polyglot videos that really inspired me.  Polyglots are people who can speak many languages, and they have a thriving community of bloggers and vloggers. I was inspired by some polyglots like Benny Lewis and Moses McCormick (whose favorite language is Cantonese!) and many others to jump into language learning.  

One of the biggest things I took away from them was to "just speak" to people, even if I was nervous and if I felt like my ability was low. Since I was still in Alaska, I didn't have many (any?) Canto speakers to speak with, but I was able to practice my extremely rusty college Spanish. Although I'd forgotten most of my grammar and a lot of vocab, I was still able to have fun conversations with people. Those interactions really built my speaking confidence, which helped me out when I made my triumphant return to Hong Kong.

I'm trying to practice, but my tongue is frozen!

Also while still in Alaska, I started studying a really old version of Teach Yourself: Cantonese from the library. It is quite thorough, but I didn't totally trust it. When I would text a friend, trying to get some practice with the words I learned, he told me that only his grandmother would use some of the words. So a little outdated.

After visiting one of my friends in California, a Canto speaker, I realized that my tones needed some serious work. At that point I kind of knew what they were in general, but I didn't have a very good grasp of them. My friend often had trouble understanding me because of my bad tones, so I decided to sit down and work that out. I found this wonderful website that does tone drills. I would do the basic tone drills at least five times a day for a few months until I felt like I really knew them. I found that after that, people understood me MUCH better than before!

Of course this was also before I fully realized that Cantonese has a written and a spoken language. Ah, blissful ignorance. Well, it was blissful until I realized that I'd been studying words from a website for several weeks that were only written Cantonese! No one would ever say those words! Aaahhhhh. Certainly frustrating. Most of my time in Alaska was trial and error, but at least it was a start. I still consistently run into those problems, as even now people will sometimes tell me the written word instead of the spoken (why?!?!?!?) but I'm more wary now.

After arriving on the island of milk tea, I was eager to start practicing. I've been in Hong Kong for nine months, and I'm still as eager to practice speaking as ever. I try to talk to as many people as possible: my security guards, people in my building's elevator, clerks at 7-11, ladies handing out flyers, etc. And of course I also try to talk to my ever so patient friends and coworkers. I've also joined a language exchange meet-up group so that I can have consistent practice every week. It's great to be able to ask questions and just talk with someone to help me.

I'll do it for you, Bruce.

I also started taking an ISS (International Social Service) Cantonese class. It meets for three hours Sunday afternoon. That can be a little brutal, especially on gorgeous days, but it's worth it. My teacher puts on a tough front to keep us from skipping, but he is really funny and dedicated to teaching us. He's great about mixing vocabulary, practice and drilling, as well as throwing in cultural information for fun. I'm in the intermediate class now (although I wouldn't say I'm actually intermediate level), but unfortunately there aren't enough students to offer an advanced class. I'll have to wait until December. But maybe that's actually good for me, since I can take some time to really go over my notes and try to memorize everything before starting the next class.

Yeah, memorization. Not too long ago, I bit the bullet and downloaded the Anki mobile app ($25USD!). I waited for a long time because of the price, but now I'm so glad that I have it. It's basically a spaced-repetition flashcard app that let's you study anywhere using your phone. I've been working on inputting my notes from class and from the language exchange, and it's a lengthy process. Slowly but surely! This also really helps me with the study challenge my sister and I cooked up. Now I can study anywhere! On the MTR, in between lessons at work, waiting for an ATM, anywhere! I think now I will be the study champion.

Finally, I also think that surrounding myself in Canto really helps. I think watching movies and tv shows are really important in language learning. I've been a little lazy recently, but for quite awhile I was watching at least one movie a week. I really need to get back into it, since I feel like i make a lot of connections that way. I usually watch long movies using English subtitles. I often rewind and listen again if I read something that I know but I didn't hear it. Or if I see it on the subtitle and think it's a useful word, I might pause the movie to look it up in Cantodict and then watch it again to try to catch it. I also like to watch Youtube videos without English subtitles They're shorter, so it's better for my attention span, since my level is still pretty low. I'd really like to start watching some Canto reality shows, so if you have any recommendations (and links to watch them), let me know!

When I'm cleaning, I like to listen to podcasts like Naked Cantonese (no new episodes but over 200 to work through) and CantoneseClass101 (you can find it on iTunes). I also listen to random ones from RTHK. And of course I eavesdrop everywhere I go. So be careful what you say around me! Who knows? I might understand!

Oh, I forgot the other important part, talking to myself! I often try to think in Cantonese. If I'm walking down the street, I will try to talk to myself about what is happening around me. I'll comment on a lady's hairstyle in my head, only to realize that I don't know what hairstyle is. On good days, I will immediately look up how to say "hairstyle." On bad days, I will forget.

Some days, I study. Other days, I just drink Hello Kitty beer.

It's a process for sure, and I'm very far from fluency, but I'm having fun and learning a lot. And that's what counts in language learning!

I've tried to link most of the resources here, but if you have any other questions about anything, just drop me a comment!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

My HK July 4th

Mei5 Gwok3, Sang1 Yat6 Faai3 Lok6!  Happy Birthday, America!

I've always enjoyed July 4th.  I love the swimming, the outdoor games, the watermelon, the grilling, the fireworks.  And of course having the day off is always nice.  I've had a few memorable celebrations in my life.

One year I was working at my city's public pool (I was a cashier, not a life-guard, for the curious).  Every July 4th was a free day, so it was madness.  Kids were running everywhere, cannon-balling into the water, screaming at each other, wolfing down dripping popsicles.  We had vats of rubber ducks to give out as prizes for the water games lifeguards were trying to run.  I manned the door with a marker, only letting people in when others vacated the area.  It was as close to a bouncer as I've ever gotten.

Another year I was working as a camp counselor.  We had taken all the kids into the little nearby mountain town for the festivities.  There was a lot of hacky-sack and arm-wrestling going on.  I was a bit envious of the non-counselor staff-members.  They were able to join the townspeople in dancing while those of us shepherding herds of kids were relegated to a field.  Still, while lying in the grass with dozens fo teens watching fireworks light up the black sky, I was happy.

Now that I'm in Hong Kong, I feel like I like July 4th even more.  It's not as easy to celebrate.  I still have to go to work, there's no fireworks, and most people don't even know about it.  So take it on myself to celebrate.

Although I had to work on Friday, July 4th, I decided to dress properly for the occasion.  I had already told my students and coworkers that I'd be wearing red, white and blue, but when I surveyed my closet the night before I realized that I didn't actually have anything to wear!  I dashed down to Maple (a cheap clothing chain) to find a blue and white scarf and then to Bonjour to pick up some appropriately-colored nail polish.  American-attire acquired.

On the day of the 4th, I went around all day practicing my newest phrase: Mei5 Gwok3 dok6 laap6 yut6 faai3 lok6!  Happy American Independence Day!  Now most people didn't quite get that one.  Several friends told me I should say Mei5 Gwok3 gok6 heng3 (America's National Day) instead, but I wanted to say it exactly.  So I compromised by first saying Independence Day, and when they looked confused I would explain that it was our national day.  Seriously, I was practicing it all day.  Of course I said it to all my coworkers.  I said it to my security guards.  I said it to my friends.  I said it to the guy who works at the hardware store on my way to work.  I said it to the lady handing out flyers.  I think everyone who saw me that day should know what day it is.  And I definitely won't be forgetting that phrase anytime soon.

After work, I headed over to a friends to prepare a celebratory dinner.  We figured that breakfast-for-dinner would be a good choice.  He did most of the cooking while I chopped things.  When our other friends arrived, we ate and then played games.  Fun times!

Very traditional.  :)

The next day was Saturday!  I usually have to work on Saturday, but I took off just to celebrate Independence Day.  I was SO happy to be heading to a beach on Lamma Island instead of working. It was a beautiful day!  Well, maybe a bit more hot than I would like, but at least the sky was blue.  

The only way to get to Lamma is by ferry.  I was afraid that I would be late, but got there just in time!  Unfortunately, two of our friends were not so lucky since they had gotten stuck in a traffic jam.  They got there minutes after the gate closed and watched us pull away.  Sad!  They had to wait for another ferry and then hike even longer to meet us.  After we arrived, we hiked about fifteen or twenty minutes to get to the beach.  The sand was hot and the air was hot and I was tired from carrying two big bottles of honey-green tea (my substitute for lemonade).  

The trail to the beach

I rushed into the water, trying to find some relief from the heat.  Unfortunately, the water was also pretty warm, but better than burning sand.  I also found that if I swam out a bit further the water was cooler. I kept finding cool patches and trying to tread water there, but then the coolness would dissipate, and the cycle would start again.  A few of us swam out to the floating dock, and three of us managed to cut ourselves on the barnacles.  We joked that the slowest would get picked off by sharks on the way back.  But don't worry, we still have all our limbs.

After swimming for awhile, it was chow time.  One guy brought the meat (very nice meat!), and the rest of us brought sides like chips or plates.  I had wanted to bring watermelon, but decided that with the heat and hike it would be too troublesome, so I settled on grapes.  And those heavy (but delicious) honey green teas.  

Burgers and chicken. Brats, not pictured.

After eating (too much), it was game time again.  We played a fun game called Masquerade (I think).  It's kind of like a mix between Mafia and Go-Fish.  Kind of.

Let's play!

After the game, it was about time to go.  We packed everything up and headed out to catch our ferry.  The sun was going down on a beautiful day.  The only thing missing was fireworks!

Goodbye, Lamma!