The eternal battle [Me vs Cantonese]


This isn’t horror or sci fi but

I’ve always been interested in languages and

the idea of including them in sci fi/horror more often, mostly cos I’ve rarely seen them done well

e.g. most characters are like Hoshi or Uhura from New Star Trek who are already fluent, which to me takes the interesting part out of it, as if you really wanted to write a decent horror story about a vampire and that vampire is from Hungary then wouldn’t it be creepier if that vampire didn’t speak English

but some kind of old Hungarian

and if the characters are visiting a village in Hungary then what better way to isolate them than having all the villagers speak only Hungarian

no English speakers at all.

Why don’t many films try this?

Why set a sci-fi horror movie in Russia if you’re gonna have all your Russian characters speaking English, even to each other?

It makes no sense.

The Devil called Cantonese

For the last two years I’ve had one Cantonese lesson a week and that’s it.

One lesson about 90 minutes long, nothing else, except sometimes when my adrenaline’s up I’ll watch old HK movies on youtube and ask my wife, what did he say, what did she say, what did they say, over and over until she gives up and finds a version with subtitles.

But mostly, each week, before 2016, I’d do no other study or practise and then turn up for the next lesson forgetting all the words I’d learnt the previous week.

My teacher, or exchange [we speak some English, but mostly she’s happy to use Cantonese, which is the complete opposite to the ‘war of attrition’ exchanges I had when I lived in Japan], had to tell me the word for ‘usually’ about twenty times because I didn’t use it at any other time in my life.

To me, a lot of Cantonese words sound the same. They have one or two syllables and, because of the tones, they often are the same word pronunciation wise.

That’s why it’s tough to remember them

though if I actually used them more than once a week, it might help.

Other times, I can remember the word, but not the tone, which means I can never really be sure if I’ve said the right thing.

E.g. the words for ‘princess’ and ‘stupid pig’ seem the same to me, so I never try to use either because I don’t want to get punched in the face.

In a similar way, I never used to say the word for ‘know’ because it sounded like the word for ‘eat’.

I never said ‘try’ because it sounds like ‘shit’.

I still struggle to say ‘slow’ as it sounds like 5 other words, one of them being the name of my wife’s sister.

I’m a little better at it now, but

if you don’t know the tones in Cantonese then this is always gonna be the main problem you have.  It’s the thing that puts it in Group 4 of the world’s hardest languages to learn, I think, cos actually the grammar in Cantonese is pretty easy.

e.g. no tense changes or conjugation trickery, you just need to add some counter/measure words sometimes [far as I know].

Anyone who’s studied Cantonese who isn’t from China or Thailand or other countries with tonal languages will probably tell you the same thing.

Yup, the tones will kill you, and kill your confidence to open your mouth in the first place, and the only way I can overcome it is just to remember I’m a foreigner so they don’t expect me to know any words at all cos 90% of all foreigners I’ve met in Hong Kong can’t speak any Cantonese, and the 10% of people that can are usually Indians or Filipinos or Mormons.

[Note: in Japan, it was around 70% of foreigners I knew that couldn’t speak any Japanese, 27% who gave it a shot, and 3% who kept going long enough to become fluent.]

One of the very few foreigners on TVB is an ex-mormon guy, and apparently he learnt the language within a year. The sole Indian actor on TVB has a similar story [without the Mormon part]. Well, actually I just googled him and he’s actually from Hong Kong, but he’ll be waiting a while before TVB gives an Indian Hong Konger a decent-sized role.

It is possible, like Benny Lewis says, to pick up a language to intermediate level in 3 months if you use it every day, so the only factor stopping you is how much time you have in your day and how tired you are after work.

It is tough when you’re at beginner level to work up the energy to try and speak a language that you can barely make a sentence in, but I’ve found over the last year or so, if you can find someone who lets you speak, as well as speaking back to you in Cantonese, then it can get easier fairly quickly.

Once you reach lower intermediate, it’s not really an issue – you have enough vocab/grammar to say something on most topics [even if it’s just ‘I don’t know’ or child-like stuff on tough subjects like politics e.g. ‘the government has many bad guys, I don’t like them.’] and ask questions about anything you don’t understand.

Though you might get lazy and stop forcing yourself to use difficult sentence structures.


Weirdly, a lot of foreigners seem to speak Mandarin, probably cos it only has 4 tones and is easier to pronounce for English speakers.

My ex-flatmate and a lot of my students have told me to quit wasting time on Cantonese and focus on Mandarin. I think they see it as a practical issue – one day I might want to work on the Mainland and if that happens, Cantonese would be useless, unless I’m in Guangdong.

I try to tell them that I’m not interested in moving to the Mainland, but they don’t seem to believe me.

I also tell them that my mother-in-law only speaks Cantonese so if I want to talk to her I’ve got no choice but to learn; they usually laugh and say, just ignore her, or get your wife to translate.

Me: But that’s embarrassing…living in a place for so long and still needing your wife to translate.

Student: Doesn’t matter.

Me: But I can just learn…

Student: No one learns Cantonese, it’s not useful. And it’s too hard for foreigners.

Me: But…

Student: Just speak English, people will understand you.

Me: Grrr…

Hong Kong is quite weird about this. It’s the complete opposite of countries like France, where you’re a] expected to speak French, and b] criticised for speaking French badly.

Actually, that’s more like the France of twenty years ago as the last time I went there people replied to me in English and didn’t seem pissed off about it. I guess they’ve mellowed a bit over the years, though technically they’re right, if you live in a country, you should learn that language. If you’re just a tourist, it’s forgivable not to know any

though for me it’s not cos

I studied French for 8 years at school so

a few questions and simple answers shouldn’t

be too much of a stretch.

Anyway, the point was, Hong Kong people, along with Japanese people, are too forgiving when it comes to people living there not knowing their language or not even trying to know their language.

2016 in Cantonese

Three weeks ago, my exchange teacher lost her job, which was bad news for her, but good news for me as it meant we could now do 3 lessons a week while she looks for a new one.

I can also now remember the word for ‘how’s the job search going?’ as I ask her every lesson and even an idiot like me can remember something if I repeat it enough times.

That’s what language is, basically, repetition.


Two weeks ago I watched the first five minutes of the old ATV series ‘My date with a Vampire.’

Gurng see

Gurng see

Gurng see

The narrator must’ve said this word 10 times in the prologue so I looked online to check if it was vampire or not, and I was right, it was.

I think this is the first word I’ve ever guessed the meaning of in Cantonese.

Though the title ‘My Date with a Vampire’ probably gave me a clue.

I haven’t watched any more of that series since then because a] I’m lazy, and b] I’m writing a thing called ‘Dracula 2’ so most of my energy is being fed into that.

Don’t wanna dwell on writing method too much but

when I write a new story, I have to feed myself ingredients that are half-related to what I’m doing, but not an exact parallel.

E.g. I refuse to read the original ‘Dracula’ before writing Dracula 2

Instead I’ve been reading/watching the following:

The Book and the Sword – Chinese Martial Arts Fiction by a very prolific HK writer, English name = Louis Cha

Vlad the Impaler bio

Modern History of Hungary

Famous swordsmen of Japan

Hungarian language book


Animated Hungarian folk tales on youtube

Old Vincent Price films

Basically, I just throw them into my brain and see what comes out when I write. Other writers do specific research on a subject, but my characters are usually amateurs, as are most people I’ve met in my life, so I write them as they are, with knowledge that might be wrong, or knowledge that they’ve just read in a book from the library called ‘Modern History of Hungary’.

In Dracula 2, one of the main characters lived in Japan and speaks Japanese to a lower intermediate level, just like me, therefore he’ll say things wrong a lot of the time, and to me that’s both more realistic to people I know and easier to write cos the Japanese I make him say doesn’t need to be accurate.

Again, I can’t remember a single film right now that had this kind of character and I have no idea why.

Dinner with the in-laws

Every month or so my wife and I head back to Lai King to have dinner with her family, and every month I listen to her mum speak and wonder whether it’s rude or not to just say ‘slow down, you’re speaking too fast’.

Actually, I did tell her once ‘you speak very fast’ and she just laughed…then continued like a Cantonese machine gun [held by Vince Vaughn].

Basically, my mother-in-law can’t speak any English except for ‘hello’ and ‘vegetable’, which is great as it gives me a chance to practise, but then whenever I ask a question and she answers it becomes not so great as I get lost after the first few words.

There’s never an isolated question or answer, it’s always followed up immediately by about seven more lines.

Though recently I’ve been getting a little better, I think

I can understand the basics and sometimes reply fast enough to stop her before she builds up a head of steam

but sometimes the steam is pre-built and I just have to turn to my wife and say ‘what?’

Sometimes it leads to comedy, like the time in Taiwan when she said to me, ‘your Cantonese has had some improvement recently’

and I said ‘sorry, I don’t understand.’

[My wife translated for me, that’s how I know].

Also in Taiwan, in the mountain area near the middle of the island, we looked at a mountain together and she decided it was time to tell me about the sloped-farming methods they used in order to effectively grow crops.

I understood the word ‘mountain’ and ‘farm’ and nodded at the rest.

Small steps, I guess.


Next month, I’ll be going to Guangzhou to meet my wife’s relatives, and with three lessons a week for the next 3 weeks, I’m confident I can get to intermediate by then, or at least to a level decent enough to prevent me calling my wife’s aunt a stupid pig.

Or a princess.

I’m not sure which one is worse.

Actually, I’ll just stick to basic questions and then pretend to understand their answers. Hopefully they won’t talk about sloped farming though

I should probably check what the farms near Guangzhou look like

just in case.


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