Thursday, March 25, 2010

Gwong Dong Waa

Today, I started Cantonese lessons. I'd like to learn how to carry on a simple conversation with my future daughter-in-law's Chinese parents. But, after Lesson 1 of my Pimsleur Language Program, I've modified my goals—I'll be happy if I can manage a phrase or two.

I've always thought of myself as good with languages. I learned Spanish in secondary school and also took a year of French, then studied Portuguese in college. I had one great early advantage in learning Spanish. At the age of fourteen, I spent a month in El Salvador, living with a Salvadoran family my father knew through his work in the coffee business. Although most of the family members spoke English, the opportunity to hear Spanish spoken day in and day out had a dramatic effect on me. By the time I returned to school in the fall, I possessed a feel for the language that I'd lacked before.

When I was sixteen, I went to Mexico with the Experiment in International Living. My group traveled to Morelia, Michoacan, where I lived with a Mexican family. No one in my family spoke a word of English, so I was forced to use Spanish at all times. After a week of intense headaches, I began to feel comfortable conversing. By the time I returned home, I was almost fluent in the language.

Because Spanish is a romance language, it was easy to tackle other romance languages, like French, Portuguese, and Italian. A few years ago, before a trip to the Amalfi Coast, I worked my way through Pimsleur's Italian tapes and managed to speak serviceable Italian during my trip. Though Cantonese has no relation whatsoever to romance languages, when I decided to give it a try, I confidently anticipated I would learn quickly. However, I hadn't counted on the little matter of tone.

In Cantonese, aside from learning pronunciation and meaning, a student must master tone. Improper intonation can result in giving a completely different meaning to a word. Mistakes caused by incorrect tone can be innocuous, embarrassing, or capable of precipitating an international incident.

Very quickly, I noticed that the proper tones didn't come easily to me. I could usually hear the speaker's voice rising or falling, but when I repeated the word, my tone often came out wrong. Equally frustrating, the same words sounded tonally different to me when pronounced by one or the other of the two different speakers featured during the lesson. I've heard the phrase tone deaf. Could that be my problem?

I've only completed one lesson out of 30. Perhaps I'll get in the groove. Probably, though, only a long stay in China would help me climb the impossibly steep learning curve required to master Cantonese.

Note: Gwong Dong Waa is the phonetic spelling of the Cantonese words for "Cantonese."


  1. Great idea, Barbara. Mastery is a high bar to set, but I hope you stick with it at least for a while. --mark

  2. Keep us posted. ~bonnie