Friday, July 01, 2011


I might have mentioned that one of my chief sources of Cantonese learning is a radio programme that is a talk-back lifeline. It has been nourishing me lingually for almost a year now. I stumbled on it while listening to the radio (on my cellphone), headphones plugged in, walking back from my regular late night suppers. Once I realised that my foundation was good enough to pick up words and ideas from just exposure to Cantonese I quickly started listening to channels I randomly found. Some frequencies were more to my ears' pleasure, and particularly the drama of talkback on Ziu Gwonggwan Sangming Yitsin (赵广军生命热线). The stories were twisted and quaint. The hosts could be patient and clear; they could be sharp and devastating. Each call in, each text message read out was a little tale of mystery to my nascent Cantonese listening sklls. At first I was catching the general theme and thieving particular repeated words that I'd check at home. Soon my listening vocabulary covered a huge range of themes from family, love, life to career.
It is through repetition that language is learnt and the stories through life are often thematic and similar at their hearts. But ironically it was the most repetitive of language that was the hardest to crack. The programme as it begins and restarts from breaks had a recording with a man saying clearly several sentences with background music. These isolated wise sentences were some of the hardest for me to grasp. They were stripped of context and words that I had often learnt already in Mandarin in passing but were not familiar enough for me to guess. Others were of a deeper meaning so that even though I might have the language knowledge to know every single word, I wouldn't necessary think it was likely because it might seem meaningless unless I trusted my listening to take it one more step of thought.
One of the more fascinating was the phrase in the title of this blog, "mut yau tin'yin dik deui'cho, ziyau bityin dik yan'gwo" ("There is no inherent right and wrong, just inevitable (cause and) effect.") I might translate the last bit to "inevitable consequences". It apparently comes from a poem, or that's what I thought I heard when someone called in to ask. It is a very interesting aphorism and maybe a good reflection of the philosophy of the programme. There are no inherent right and wrong, is a phrase that would make a lot of people argue. But that is missing its true strength. Whenever we are in a dispute or trouble, we see more sharply the rights and wrongs of others and sometimes even ourselves. Seeing that the weight of error ways (more) heavily on others often causes others to abdicate responsibility. He did it! And with so many calls you hear exactly that: parents are unfair; husband is abusive; the boss is biased; my son doesn't listen to me. So how can I change them to see that they're doing wrong? In fact when others have done us wrong, we can feel like we need to get our pound of flesh, because it needs to be extracted, right?
But that's when the second half of the phrase kicks in, all actions when applied to situations will cause changes that will either be adverse or beneficial, or perhaps even neutral. If we are going to enable someone to do something to improve the situation, it often pays to take the right and the wrong out of the consideration and see where different actions will take us. What actions we can take. What can you do? Bothering to list the rights and wrongs (especially when it is from one side of the story, which is the only one you have access to) hardly will give anyone any more than sympathy. But what do we really want? "So why are you calling in?" or "What do you want to achieve?" is usually a question ten minutes into a call.
I'm quite proud of my listening now. I can listen and enjoy the stories. Sometimes I can understand smoothly enough to not realise that it was Cantonese that I was listening to (which is peculiar but a good peculiar). This though is the result of what is crucial to a learner, to understand how they learn. Listening was the sustenance to my Mandarin for the long time that I was in New Zealand without Chinese classes. Japanese radio online was what got me to pass the Japanese test I did in 2005. And now armed with an iPod (thanks, Brenda), archived radio programmes, and live broadcast I can have an hour's worth of exposure. And with my teaching skills I know how best to use this exposure to generate real improvements to listening skill.