Two expats master the Cantonese language

Gregory Rivers. Photo:

Gregory Rivers. Photo:

The Chinese language is notoriously complex. There are the tones, the accents, and not to mention the writing! China and Singapore use simplified Chinese characters, while Hong Kong and Taiwan still use traditional Chinese characters.

Then there are the different dialects. Mandarin is spoken in China, Taiwan, and Singapore.  Hong Kong and China’s southern Guangdong Province mainly speak Cantonese.

That being said, there’s few sadder sights than an expat who’s lived in Asia for years and still doesn’t speak the language of his adopted home. CNNgo profiled two Westerners who defy that stereotype in this article: How two gwailos learned to speak perfect Cantonese.

I give those two a lot of credit. I’ve studied Mandarin, and man, it’s hard! The first few months are just brutal, nothing makes sense.

Cantonese is supposed to be even more difficult. Mandarin has four tones, while Cantonese has nine tones! Cantonese is also an older dialect, so the Tang dynasty poems are said to sound better in Cantonese rather than Mandarin. The curses in Cantonese are very colorful, which is a nice bonus!

Have you ever studied an Asian language? How did it change your experience in Asia? Any tips and tricks for faster fluency? Please share in the comments.

Posted by | Comments (7)  | March 5, 2010
Category: Asia, Expat Life, Notes from the collective travel mind, Working Abroad

7 Responses to “Two expats master the Cantonese language”

  1. Matt Says:

    I studied Mandarin for just a few weeks and found it relatively straightforward at least in terms of grammar. Several years ago I attained a relatively high standard of Japanese while living there and this definitely helped with the reading and writing (and to some extent with the vocab). I’d like to pick the Mandarin back up so good luck to anyone that attempts it.

  2. Rebecca Travel-Writers-Exchange Says:

    Many people (including me) would like to study Mandarin. Speaking a foreign language makes it easier to communicate with the locals when you travel. It also gives you an appreciation for immigrants who come to America and learn English. It’s not as easy as we may think it is. Just like studying Mandarin may not be easy for us.

  3. AnnaTrouble Says:

    When I was a kid I went to school in HK and I remember crying in my Cantonese classes. Eventually I did learn to speak it with some degree of confidence. Writing, however, I would not touch. Now, after almost 18 years my speaking ability is very rusty, but I can still make myself understood. And I understand most things being said, which I remember freaked out some people on a bus in San Francisco when I started to laugh at their funny story (told in Cantonese).

    Now that I live in Japan, I have a whole new level of appreciation for how easy Japanese is (when compared to Cantonese).

  4. John Says:

    I am studying Italian and Japanese. Italian I have learned is really easy. Japanese not so much.

  5. Nicolaï Says:

    Studying Chinese now. Thing that helps: Having a native-speaker SO. This is about the best external resource (beyond motivation & strategy) you can have for learning languages in general.

    BTW, Mandarin and Cantonese are different languages, not dialects of the same language. For example, a French speaker can communicate in France, Québec, or West Africa, because people from those countries speak dialects of the same language. An American can go to New Zealand and have fluent conversations. However, a speaker of Mandarin cannot go to HK and converse with people in Cantonese, because it’s a different language. You can tune your ear to an accent or dialect, but you can’t do the same with another language.

    This misconception stems from when Chinese immigrants built the railroads in the West of the USA. They were mostly from the Cantonese speaking region, so Americans thought that Cantonese was Chinese.

    Also note that Chinese has 5 tones. People in PROC don’t recognize the short tone #5 (maybe just because it’s short?) but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Try speaking all words with tone 5 using tone 2. If tone 5 didn’t exist, no one would notice.

  6. Chris Says:

    I’ve been living in Taiwan for four years and my Chinese is far from perfect.

    I haven’t had any formal training but I’ve done quite a bit of home study/language exchange and I have tried to exposed myself to the language as much as possible but I still find tones a problem.

    I can hold a conversation but it’s usually goes better with people who don’t speak English or know very little. People who speak English have less patience.

    Learning Asian Language

    There’s a programme in Thailand that many people are excited about. You don’t speak until you are ready (about 800 hours for a Westerner), there are no books and no revision. The language is ‘showcased/presented’. They use two teachers (so you get dialogue and genuine language) and they use language that would be understood from the context, prompts and white board.

    It’s no shortcut but a lot of people believe in it and the speaking, when it happens is suppose to be very natural.

    Here’s a link to their frontpage