Category Archives: Chinese Language

American Cantonese

Growing up, I did not speak much Cantonese.  Mom thought it best for us to speak English fluently, and therefore took on the now-disproved belief that speaking multiple languages impedes learning. 

I still had some Chinese around me while growing up.  Mom would speak to her brother or sister in a mix of Cantonese and English.  Then there were some relatives who did not speak English, and therefore required me to speak in Chinese – like Granny, who speaks a dialect that is similar but not the same as Cantonese.  We also made regular weekly trips to Chinatown (the Manhattan one) to attend the torture that is Chinese School!

So given this “foundation,” though my Cantonese is weak, I am able to communicate decently in Hong Kong and also have been able to pick up a lot more while living here.  I’ve written before about my accent, but I’ve come to realize that not only do I sound funny, but the words I use can be a bit strange!

Cantonese is very much a living language no matter how much people think it will or should die, and that means that, like with English, there are lots of turns of phrases that come into fashion, and equally go out of fashion.  Since my family came to the United States decades ago, a lot of their vocabulary was in use in 1960s Hong Kong.  Since many other Chinese in New York also immigrated at that time, so were theirs!

And so in Chinatown, New York, there was a pocket of Cantonese speakers that sound as though they came straight out of the ’60s!

I’m sure that is all changing a lot more now that there have been some other bigger influxes of Chinese, including Mandarin speakers, but I have to admit that it is funny when I test my colleagues with my funny turns of phrases!

Just two small examples — the word for “insurance” is 保险 (apologies for the simplified characters, which are NOT characteristic of Hong Kong Cantonese!) – which sounds like “bo heem.”  But in NY, and other parts of the US, many Cantonese speakers still say “yin saw” — which is basically a Chinglishization of insurance.  However, it turns out very few people would use that word in Hong Kong today!

Then there’s the phrase “feed the tiger” or 喂老虎.  This means to feed the parking meter for some reason – but again, you will not hear this used in Hong Kong today either.

Finally, in the US, Chinese-Americans have developed their own words to suit them in their Western environment.  One day I asked a colleague to help me with reading a Chinese advertisement in a US Chinese newspaper about a company that hires helpers and day laborers, and got stuck at the words 啊米哥. He didn’t seem to know what it meant, and I kept reading it again and again in my mind – “ah mai gor, ah mai go….”

Then I got it — it was “amigo” – which is how Chinese in America call hispanics!

So I don’t just need to bear in mind that I have a funny accent in Chinese, but the words and phrases I use might really sound odd coming from someone born quite some time since they were last used commonly!


Cantonese in Canton

I always feel bad when non-Chinese speakers complain about Cantonese being an ugly language.  I really think any language can sound ugly, depending on who is speaking – and if the only Cantonese you tend to be exposed to is coming out of the mouths of less educated screaming types, shouting produce vendors, or shouting waiters (are we seeing a pattern here?) I can see why you would think it ugly.  Unfortunately, I rarely can persuade people who have made up their mind to hate Cantonese.

I recently learned that not only is the Cantonese spoken in Guangdong province (Canton) less “hard” versus the Hong Kongese, but it apparently has some variations I never heard of it!

The word “其实” (pardon the simplified characters – I don’t have a character writing pen on my computer yet) is pronounced (not using any official form of romantization here – just my own phoneticization) “kay suht” in HK Cantonese, but apparently in Guangzhou you might instead here “cha suht”! I never knew, since the only pronunciation I’ve ever come to known is the former. 

What’s interesting to me is that it is a tad more reminiscent of the Mandarin pronounciation, qishi (for non-pinyin readers, the q sounds like a ch).

I wonder what other differences in pronunciation there is between HK Cantonese and Canton Cantonese!


Working in HK: Is Chinese Necessary? (Part 1 of Many)

(Again behind by 4 posts today on my own writing challenge, but again, will not make that an excuse to give up.)

As I had mentioned previously, a number of readers have been asking me about required language skills while working as a lawyer in Hong Kong.  My opinions are based on a fairly limited experience, mind you, but from what I’ve learned in my 2+ years here, working at both a very new foreign firm, ang now a well-established UK-born firm, and from my job searches in between is that the answer to such a query can really vary.

Generally speaking, some is better than none!  Whether you’ve got Cantonese or Mandarin skills, you should try to identify whatever Chinese proficiency you have when applying for jobs.  And if you have any opportunity to improve your Chinese, do so!

But is it really necessary, as the title to this post posits? My quick and easy answer is a simple “No.”  There are plenty of lawyers all over Asia who have no Chinese language skills whatsoever,  doing all kinds of practices too.  But my “No” is limited and conditional in many senses.  But I think I will reserve that for one of my other many parts.

Frankly speaking, I don’t really use any Chinese in my job now.  I’ve been called upon to translate something on the spot during a hearing once, where no one else on my team knew Chinese.  I’ve used it on my own volition to get a better understanding of some news pieces we used in support of an argument in that same hearing, though I was having the pieces translated by others.  It also came in handy when I’d listen in on testimony given in Mandarin and Cantonese, and could see where the interpretor was inaccurate.  But did I officially have to know Chinese in any one of these single instances? No.

My firm is large enough and well supported enough that we have many other bilingual attorneys, secretaries, trainees and paralegals that help out, including our own full time in-house translators.  My boss, who is also my practice group’s head, can speak pretty good Cantonese, but otherwise doesn’t know Chinese, and he neither tested mine nor required it of me. 

So no – I do not need Chinese in my job, but I do use it, and I do find it helpful, and I do think that it was a bonus point on my resume when I was interviewing for this position.  So as the title of this post suggests, stay tuned for more musings on Chinese in the law practice in Hong Kong.

Cantonese: A Language to Love

I’ve received a few comments about Cantonese lately, and thought I’d do a few posts on the subject.  One was actually in response to my post about my first speech in Cantonese.  This poster wrote, “Chinese people don’t find Cantonese more charming. Certainly not I. We mostly find Cantonese loud and obnoxious, with more resemblance to Vietnamese than Mandarin in terms of tone and pitch. This would apply to my Korean and Japanese friends as well. They all see Cantonese as “inferior”.”

I felt defensive about the comment, being someone who speaks and enjoys Cantonese very much and personally have had very different experiences (as indicated by my post!).  Plus this was a first for me that Cantonese was considered “inferior” like Vietnamese!

And then I recently saw this posted on the CUHK CLC facebook page, which I found pretty interesting.  It’s a clip from the caller question section of an NPR program featuring learned linguist John McWhorter discussing “what is a language.”

In this clip, you will hear a caller talks about how Cantonese is quite different and even considerably more enjoyable (and this is from someone who understands both Mandarin and Cantonese).  McWhorter clarifies that Cantonese is not a dialect.

I completely agree with both sentiments.  Cantonese is in its own right a language and it really is a whole lot of fun.  I think those of us who speak multiple dialects may have a better appreciation of that. And I have met people who learned Cantonese, but not Mandarin, who also love their study.