Wednesday, April 21, 2010


I'm amidst an obsession. I can't stop listening to Cantonese, wanting to hear Cantonese or learning every scrap of Cantonese vocabulary. My ears seize passing words and suck their vital essences, for future reference of course. Bizarrely, or not so bizarrely, my ears are quite intuitively seizing the language. It is quite possible that my Mandarin brain has finally connected the dots and has united the language engine of Mandarin with the Cantonese vocabulary and knowledge that I've been diligently gathering for 14 years. I'll immediately recognise unknown words as cognates in Mandarin and understand the gist of what is being said. Natural phrases spoken rapid and naturally are hooked in by my senses and sensed by my brain: I know what is being said without knowing why I'm understanding it. It may be that I'm learning the language as a Mandarin speaker rather than as an English one. Or maybe I'm enjoying the best of both worlds. A friend noted: I don't have the same inaccuracies as a person not from the province, I can pronounce and "hear" the sounds that don't exist in Mandarin with the tones that don't exist in English.
One odd side-effect is that when I switch back to Mandarin, at first it is completely alien, and the a complete relief and flowing into my intellect without any problem with understanding. The problem with switching between languages has always been a problem for me, and to be honest it probably helps that I stay in one language. Chinese students have always integrated English with Chinese, so it is not hard to understand how they have no issue switching; or, for that matter, have such trouble dis-integrating their English from the pernicious influence of their mother tongue.
Cantonese is a dialect of Chinese relatively uninfluenced by the races that took the Imperial throne in the north. According to one of my early lecturers Mandarin was simplified because the Mongols, who took Beijing as their capital for less than 100 years, couldn't get their tongues around end-sounds. Perhaps the Manchus, who ruled the last dynasty of Imperial China before it became a Republic, also aided in the reduction of tones down to the mere four (or five if you count the neutral tone) that exist in modern Mandarin. Cantonese has six tones, or nine if you count the three represented by end-sound words. End-sound words are those where you almost aspirate a sound, but don't. Say "sick" aloud for example: we say SIK-kuh. The kuh sound is the air released from our throats. In Cantonese, and many other Chinese dialects, the air is not released. It is held. In this, it is similar to ancient Chinese: ancient poetry sounds better in dialects such as Hokkien and Cantonese simply because they are less adulterated, the similarity is greater, than Mandarin.
But that history is not an issue. The only issue for me is that I'm in Canton, the beat of this land is Cantonese and I'm finally starting to dance to its beat.


Saturday, April 10, 2010

In defence and attack

It is a line that I've heard many times since I came here but it really does hit a nerve: "Your Chinese is fine; why would you need to learn more Chinese?" It isn't the inquiry itself that is grating but the tone: bewilderment. I struggle not to shriek when I hear such, isn't it a good thing that one seeks to improve one's self as a natural desire? Shouldn't only the opposite, the desire not to learn, be the really bewildering thing?
Interestingly, the query has been asked of me twice in the last week, both in different ways: the first, inappropriately, by a language teacher, and secondly by a colleague. The colleague actually went about it the best by enriching the initial question with follow up questions and statements that validated it: "But surely you come to a point when you should be happy with what you've learnt." Perhaps, we all do reach a point when we, for any field, cease inquiry, cease to ensure that progress has been made. It is a point; however, I'm lusting after Chinese language. And being in China makes this all the more irresistable.
On Monday, I went to karaoke with some of the office staff and a couple of teachers. The some of the office staff were knocked back by the fact that I can actually speak Chinese well; they hardly knew this because in the office I refuse to speak Chinese except when inquiring about Chinese words I hear or see. This adherence to a professional principle, to never speak Chinese to students or usual staff, has probably hindered my progress. But I refuse to bend. Most of the students I teach on a regular basis have intuited that I have an unknown level of Chinese, but the staff were mostly in the dark. I sang a complete song in Cantonese for the first time. It'd caught my ear while listening to a collection and then I could only channel my past frustrations through full throated renditions of its plantive lyrics. One of the desk girls came over and proposed singing along with me for a few other Cantonese songs to which I agreed: I struggled immensely, not having practiced to the same extent as my chosen song.
Today, I have class with my new teacher and I've overprepared myself in all honesty. I met her through a colleague and then after thinking through how I'd best learn, presented on paper what I thought would be a good system of study. She approved of it so thus I'm facing another phase for my learning: having a teacher. This might be cruel wording: my school does, in fact, offer us a teacher; but she is untrained and of the wrong temperament to be a teacher of any strong impact. We do learn words and have a Chinese environment for an hour before she disappears again for another week.
Outside of class, I'm finally using more Chinese too with a regular dinner companion, a local, who not only doesn't mind me using Mandarin but occasionally fires a few Cantonese phrases at me to keep my awake. It all gives me hope that I might actually have some hope of tidying up my Chinese.
It is hard not to think about language when you are an English teacher. Even when I conduct our placement tests I am absorbing language from the pure beginners, who ask me whether I can speak Chinese in Chinese in an interview to determine their English proficiency. There are also the echoes of questions I ask: I ask English and a perfect translation of it is emitted in Mandarin or Cantonese as the interviewee considers how best to answer. Sometimes it is a bizarre mixture of both:
"What movies do you like?"
"Gongfu movies," the reply comes.
"What kind of movies are they?" I ask even knowing Gongfu is the Chinese word from which we get Kungfu.
"Do you know Chinese Gongfu?" they ask.
"No, what is that?" I deny and ask.
The student looks to the ceiling considering how to explain for a moment; after that moment passes and still no explanation comes I thought I'd better help.
"Do you mean Kungfu?"
"No." Oh dear, are you sure?
"Do you mean fighting movies?"
The student pauses: "Maybe,"  looking not sure where I was coming from.
"Do you mean kungfu movies?" I ask again, with a kungfu pose.
"Yes. Maybe."
And maybe many rascally shtudents can't help but speak Chinese on school grounds, which to me is galling: Don't you want to learn English?  Wouldn't you rather keep this as a haven of English than pollute it with the ease of your mother tongue? The answer is yes, since for most people, English is an obligation to be accepted, and hopefully avoided. Probably since I have such a strong discipline about not using Chinese myself on school grounds it generates a rather blinding impulse to eliminate all those who dare enjoy the luxury of speaking in Chinese. In Taiwan, I barely spoke English in the language building and was better for it, after all. One student, though speaking "English", adds Cantonese sentence endings to everything: "Really aaaarr?" and thus drives me nuts. I'd be concentrating on an explanation for another student when the "laaaaaar" from afar hits my tympanum with such a thud that all thought and speech comes to a crashing halt forcing me to stride up to the student and beg her to show some restraint.
Language is a nourishing liquid that surrounds this school of fish; it is what we oblivously swim in regardless of where we are. Let's all enjoy the crashing waves or the smooth waters of lakes.