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Tag: Cantonese

Since moving back to the US, I’ve been living in the San Francisco Chinatown. It’s been interesting in a lot of ways. In some ways it’s very familiar to me both from my US and my Chinese experiences, but in others it’s still a little bit alien.

Traditional Characters

One welcome feature is that everything is in traditional Chinese characters, and sometimes English, too. Even after my 20 months or so in Beijing, I still read traditional characters with more ease than the PRC simplified forms. After all, I did live in Taiwan for most my 20’s.


Unfortunately for me, “Chinese” doesn’t mean Mandarin here. It means Cantonese. Every single one of my neighbors speaks Cantonese fluently and, as far as I know, natively. That isn’t to say that Mandarin isn’t useful. It is! None of my neighbors has ever said anything more than, “yeah”, “hello”, or “okay” to me in English. About 1/3 of them can speak enough Mandarin to chat with a bit. Shopkeepers are a bit better. I’d say half can speak at least so-so English, and probably 90% can also speak Mandarin.

Sadly I’ve spent only a total of 10 days in HK, and I only know about 50-100 words. Basically I can tell people, “Hi, my name’s 小馬. Can you speak Mandarin? No? Uh ah, uh where’s Waverly street? Thanks. bye-bye!”. It was useful once or twice when I first showed up, but I’m not learning any more and I don’t think this is a good place to learn since it’s such it’s in America and I’m not Chinese-looking. I may get a subscription for Pop-up Cantonese and listen to podcasts at some point, but it’s not a priority.

…Hong Kong?

Based on the prevalence of the odd combination of Traditional Characters and Cantonese, I kept asking myself, “Why doesn’t this feel like Hong Kong?”

It’s kind of hard for me to explain, but it really doesn’t feel like Hong Kong. It’s super hilly and it’s full of tourists, but it feels less free-wheeling. There are a lot of restaurants, but no alleys full of food stands. Also, people in Hong Kong struck me as very short and very fashionable. I haven’t really seen either of those trends here. Not that many people seem to smoke or drink here, either.

Also it’s way cheaper to live here! This area has the cheapest rents I’ve seen in any safe area of SF.

The weather

It’s really not what I had in mind when thinking of “Summer in California”. It’s fairly warm in the day, though not as warm as anywhere else I’ve ever lived, and it’s cold at night. Even wearing long pants and a fleece jacket, it’s a bit chilly when walking home from tech events.

It was a bit easier than with Southern Min, but it really wasn’t that easy for me to find Cantonese learning materials. I found online dictionaries, but none with audio. There are some very basic youtube videos, but only a few. I emailed a few people with blogs that mentioned learning Cantonese, but nobody had any suggestions of use.

My friend David did tell me of one podcast to help people learn Cantonese, but unfortunately I didn’t know about it until I’d already left Hong Kong. Other than that, the only resources I know of are Pimsleur and the FSI course.

Trying Pimsleur Cantonese in Hong Kong

Over the past few years, I’ve heard a number of really positive reviews of Pimsleur language learning programs. Some of my friends have even lent me their Mandarin or Japanese packages. At the time it was hard for me to see the point. I had already learned the vocabulary being introduced, half the audio was English, and it seemed kind of weird. I filed Pimsleur under “stuff that works for people not like me” and put it out of my mind.

Then, not too long ago, I had a chance to see the results first hand. My friend Ben made some Japanese acquaintances and decided to give Pimsleur a shot, largely due to the recommendation of another friend. I saw him the next day, he told me he’d worked through an hour or two and then proceeded to ask me in Japanese, where I was from and if I could speak English! The thing that really impressed me was his pronunciation. To my ears at least, it sounded even better than his Chinese pronunciation! Considering he’d spent years living in Taiwan and using Chinese daily for work, that impressed the heck out of me. Afterwords, I thought a bit more about it. Pimsleur is essentially a spaced-repetition listening and mimicking program.

Arrival in Hong Kong

Before getting to Hong Kong, I’d only worked through the first three hours of Pimsleur Cantonese, but I did find quite a few chances to use what I knew. Furthermore, people in the airport answered my Cantonese in full-speed Cantonese I couldn’t understand! That’s usually a sign that your accent isn’t too far off. Obviously, it’s not ideal for communication in any given moment, but fortunately I knew how to say “My Cantonese isn’t that good” in Cantonese and switch to Mandarin. It’s not much, but even such minor successes gave were very, very motivating!

Over the next couple of days, I continued with the Pimsleur and also found I was picking up a lot of vocabulary from hearing people’s replies. Individually any given reply may not have made sense the first dozen times I heard it, but it did sink in with repetition. I don’t know how much help being a Mandarin speaker and a (poor) Taiwanese speaker gave me, but there were definitely a lot of things that sounded really similar.

After Hong Kong

By the time I left, I was able to order simple drinks, order a value meal at KFC (yay!) and talk to people a little. It wasn’t a lot, but for only spending a single week in Hong Kong, it was far, far better than I had expected. Despite my small vocabulary, locals were shocked with my canned Pimsleur sentences. One didn’t even believe that I was a tourist and not a longer-term resident! The best ego boost I got was after leaving HK, when I was chatting with a guy from Guangzhou. He said (in Mandarin), “Your Cantonese accent… it sounds like a Hong Konger.” I had been certain he was going to say laowai! I guess Pimsleur must have hired their staff from HK, not Guangzhou.

I have no illusions about the level of my Cantonese (low-beginner), but it was the fastest start I’ve ever gotten with a new language. If anything, this experience has reinforced to me just how much pronunciation matters. Especially for a clearly foreign-looking person in Asia, your pronunciation has a huge impact on how much real language input you get and how much of a hassle it is to get it. Back when I first started studying Chinese in Taiwan, I encountered numerous people who steadfastly insisted on using English with me all the time, often even it made for more difficult communication. After improving past a certain point, I almost entirely stopped running into those people. This was more correlated with improving my accent and losing some of the mainland curled R sounds than it was with vocabulary gains. Similarly, I’ve heard numerous people complain that getting HK people to speak in Cantonese is like pulling teeth if you’re a westerner, but I didn’t experience it at all. Instead, it was me asking them to switch to another language because I couldn’t understand them.

If I ever decide to learn Thai or Korean, I’ll probably start with Pimsleur.