Harnessing your brain power to learn cantonese


Recently I have been taking a course on Coursera called Learning how to learn: Powerful mental tool to help you master tough subjects by Dr. Barbara Oakley and Dr. Terry Sejnowski, provided by McMaster University and the University of California San Diego. I think it will be wonderful to share some of these things I learned with you so you will also know the best ways to use your brain to learn Cantonese. First, know that these techniques I will be talking about are not exclusive to learning Cantonese. You can use these mental tools in almost anything in life, not even just learning, but your everyday life as well. The following are merely suggestions, I am in no way to say that your learning techniques are worse than the ones I am suggesting. But I think it will be beneficial to try these methods, and see how well it works for you. Some of these techniques I might have suggested in the previous episodes and some are brand new concepts, and the examples and analogies are a little all over the place, in terms of how they are not really under the same category. But I do hope you will find this episode useful.

In modern-day life, human beings’ attention span can be quite short. We are constantly trying to multitask because many things are happening in life. Even commercials on TV used to be 30 seconds to a minute, now on youtube, ads are given 4 seconds to get their message across before people click skip. Sometimes we forgot the importance of doing things one thing at a time. And that’s the first technique I want to introduce today, that is learning how to serial task instead of multitasking. I am not suggesting not multitask at all. In fact, it is quite impossible to not multitask, it is quite innate. We breathe and move around at the same time. We think and speak at the same time. Although what I am really suggesting is that when you want to do things well, try to focus on the tasks at hand. Have a plan. One of the things that Dr. Barbara Oakley talked about is to have a journal; write down the tasks you will need to complete for the next day in the evenings because that sets your mind to think about what you will need to do before you sleep. This method works really well for me because I personally love to check things off lists, making me feel like I am actually being productive. It is also very important to set an ending time for your to-dos, so you have an idea of when you will actually get to relax completely and when you need things done.

When you need to go through your list of to-dos, try to go through the things that you find most difficult or that you least want to do first. When we procrastinate, it’s usually because what you are doing is giving you some pain in your brain. After all, it’s something you aren’t comfortable or familiar with. Try to focus on the process of learning, instead of the product. In this Cantonese learning situation, the process, is say, spending 15-30 minutes going through the podcast and the product is you being fluent in Cantonese. So focus on the process of learning instead of being fluent in Cantonese. Because the product of being fluent in Cantonese is a long road, even if you have tremendous willpower, you might soon realize there is so much more to learn, your brain gets exhausted and pained just to even think about getting to that point. So don’t think about being fluent and talking like a Cantonese native, for now, focus on each lesson, and go through it. Every step you take is opening up more doors for you and it’s a beautiful thing to just learn something and improve yourself every day. As long as you enjoy the process, and slowly cultivate your interest, you won’t necessarily find the end product so hard to achieve. There is a saying in Chinese 寶劍鋒從磨礪出(Dummy PY: Bo Geem Fung Chong Moh Lai Tsut),梅花香自苦寒來 (Dummy PY: Mui Fa Heung Ji Fu Hon Loy),meaning that the best swords come from continuous sharpening, plum flowers bloom and smell great only in the harshest winter. I guess you can kind of get the meaning, basically it’s a metaphor saying that the best things come from continuous effort and training, we have to get through the tough and painful period before we can achieve great things. To not let yourself procrastinate, try to use the Pomodoro technique. The Pomodoro technique is like when you set yourself a timer, let’s say 20-25 minutes. In these 20-25 minutes, let’s say you want to study Cantonese, you can listen to my podcast or others’ podcasts, or read through the written material. Then take a break to reward yourself. The reward can be as small as giving yourself a couple of minutes to watch TV, play with your children or cat or dogs, whatever that makes you feel good. You might want to spend a little more time on materials you find difficult because when you simply go through the easier materials, you are tricking yourself to believe that you are already pretty good. Not saying you aren’t good enough, you are. But to push it to the next level, we will need to take that extra step. In the Analects, 論語,Confusius thinking, there is a saying “知之為知之 不知為不知 是知也。” (Dummy PY: Ji Ji Why Ji Ji, But Ji Why But Ji, See Ji Ya) that is basically saying know what you know, and know what you don’t know, that is learning in itself. The recognition of what you don’t know, and what might be difficult to you, is often what sets apart a good learner and an okay learner. This is what people call the illusion of competence in learning. When you think you know about the subject you are learning but in fact you are only fooling yourself. So how do we get around the illusion of competence in learning? I wonder, my listeners, do you usually relisten to my podcasts to familiarize yourself with the lessons? May I suggest that after each time you finish listening to an episode, try to recall the Cantonese words as much as possible. Test yourself. If you forgot some words, try to recall and solve by yourself first before relistening again. Once you found out what you forgot, spend some time remembering it. Recall and test what you have learned occasionally, it will strengthen the memory and the neuro-pathways you have created. This way, you won’t easily fall for the illusions of competence in learning. Make it a routine and habit of doing so, reward yourself if you did well, classical condition yourself. Believe in yourself, you can do it. You know when people say, sometimes you just need that one other person to believe in you for you to believe in yourself. Trust that I fully believe in you as well and you have no idea how grateful I am that you are here today learning how to learn Cantonese. You are my driving force as well. As long as one person out there is still listening, believing in me, I will continue teaching Cantonese. And I believe so much in you guys as well. Believe that 只要有恆心鐵柱磨成針 (Dummy PY: Ji Yiu Yao Heng Sum Teet Chu Moh Ching Jum),this is a very famous saying, meaning that as long as you have tenacity and perseverance, a metal rod can be turned into a needle. The story goes like a famous poet 李白 Li Bo who didn’t have a lot of perseverance, whenever he used to face anything he found difficult or challenging he would give up. One day he passed by an old lady, and the old lady was very focused, just rolling the metal rod on a piece of rock. He then asked her what she was doing, she told him she was making a needle for sewing. He was like, “That’s impossible. Your rod is so thick.” The old lady said to him “只要有恆心鐵柱磨成針 as long as you have tenacity and perseverance, a metal rod can be turned into a needle”. He finally understood what she meant. He learned that in order to succeed we must have perseverance and tenacity. He eventually became one of the most famous poets in Chinese history.

What I am going to talk about next, might seem to be contradictory to what I have just said, but it is actually not. In Hong Kong, the education system is intense. We, as Hong Kongers, are trained from a young age to go at studying with full force, nonstop until you master certain things. Not saying this doesn’t work at all, but this method doesn’t necessarily allow the brain to relax. There are 2 modes of which our brain works. The first one is the focused mode, 集中狀態(Dummy PY: Jap Chong Jong Tie), 集中 (Dummy PY: Jap Chong) means focus, to break down the words, 集 means to concentrate, and 中 means centre, so together 集中 (Dummy PY: Jap Chong) means focus. 狀態 (Dummy PY: Jong Tie) means state. When we are in focus mode, we are trying to focus intensely on what we are trying to learn or understand. This one is quite easy. The second mode is called the diffused mode, 分散狀態 (Dummy PY: Fun San Jong Tie), 分散 (Dummy PY: Fun San) means disbursed, meaning not focused. In diffused mode, we are using a relaxed thinking style, let it be working out, exercising, or cooking or whatever you do that’s relaxing to you, the brain is helping you sort through what you have learned without you focusing or noticing. Why is it important to let our brains relax? When we are relaxing using the diffuse mode, you are letting the knowledge you have learned connect with your experience and memory. Since you are learning something new, sometimes, even though you are trying hard to drill the information in, it just won’t go in. Because your pre-existing knowledge doesn’t necessarily link to what you are learning directly. The neural pathways are not yet formed. So take a break. You might find it surprising that when you come back to look at the materials you are trying to learn again, it’s like suddenly the lightbulb lights up for you.

It is important that you space out your studying periods rather than going through all of it at the same time. There is a saying in Chinese, maybe it is helpful for you to think about this, which is 小別勝新婚,大別生距離 (Dummy PY: Siu Bit Sing Sun Fun, Die Bit Sung Kui Lay)。The saying is describing how in a marriage, a little time apart is better than newly wedded, but a huge time apart, your distance will grow wider. This I think can be applied in thinking about the spaced repetition of your learning. You should space out your learning like the saying a little time apart, but not a huge time apart because then you might forget a lot of what you have learned. Studies have shown that we remember things better when we space out our learning instead of drilling everything in one or a couple of goes. I wonder if any studies have done the same about marriages and what the results are. It is just as important to sleep 訓教 (Dummy PY: Fun Gow) as your studying. When we are awake, we are constantly producing a lot of toxins, and it appears that when we are sleeping 訓教 (Dummy PY: Fun Gow), the brain is at a different state. When we are sleeping 訓教 (Dummy PY: Fun Gow), the brain helps us flush out those toxins that are in the brain so when we wake up, we can think clearer. So if you didn’t get a good night's sleep, like me sometimes, always not willing to sleep because I used to think sleeping is a waste of time but it really helps you clear your head the next day and be more productive. It appears that before you sleep if you are thinking about a certain thing, you are more likely to dream about it too. Isn’t that great? One of my recommendations would be to play something in Cantonese before you are about to fall asleep. Something soothing, because otherwise, it will defeat the purpose of wanting to sleep enough and falling asleep even.

Familiarize yourself with the subject you are attempting to learn as much as possible. Learning doesn’t have to be a chore. Say, for example, you can put labels around the house. For example, at the bathroom door you can put down 洗手間 (Dummy PY: Sai Sao Gan), literally means washing hands place, meaning the bathroom. Best if you can put down the pronunciation under it. So whenever you walk by, you see the label. Very soon you will be able to recognize these words without even thinking. Familiarize yourself with the Cantonese language as much as possible, allowing it to be a part of your life and embrace it. It can be as small as starting with a couple of phrases, like 咩話?(Dummy PY: Meh Wah?) literally means what language, but actually means what’s that? So you are trying to get someone to repeat, same as pardon me but not as polite. Or 好 (Dummy PY: Ho) meaning good or yes or ok, reversely 唔好 (Dummy PY: Um Ho) to mean no good, no or not ok. Try starting these short phrases with people around you or people who are also interested in learning the language. Once you grasp when or where is appropriate to use these phrases, you can slowly move on to familiarizing yourself with the more advanced phrases.

It is also very important in language learning, to understand the context behind the words. That is when you truly understand something when your newly learned material meets the context and your own experience. To those of you who have been listening to my podcast for a while, I am sure you are to a certain extent understand what I am saying. For example, this is a common joke in Hong Kong children growing up, 伯伯淥十粒魚蛋/ 八百六十粒魚蛋 (Dummy PY: Bat bak Look Sap Lup Yu Dan), divide it between ten people, how many 魚蛋 (Dummy PY: Yu Dan) fish ball will each get? 魚蛋 (Dummy PY: Yu Dan) means fish ball, the type of Hong Kong food that I talked about remember? The sentence 伯伯淥十粒魚蛋/ 八百六十粒魚蛋 (Dummy PY: Bat bak Lok Sap Lup Yu Dan) without knowing the context and the written words, just from listening can be interpreted in several ways. The first way is 伯伯淥十粒魚蛋(Dummy PY: Bak bak Lok Sap Lup Yu Dan) can mean an old uncle is cooking 10 fish balls, 伯伯 (Dummy PY: Bak Bak) means old man or uncle, 淥 (Dummy PY: Look) means quickly boil, 十粒魚蛋 (Dummy PY: Sap Lup Yu Dan) means ten fish balls. So with this interpretation without knowing the context, that the old men quickly boils 10 fish balls, divided between 10 people, then each person will indeed only get 1 fish ball. But in the second interpretation without context, 八百六十粒魚蛋 (Dummy PY: Bat bak Look Sap Lup Yu Dan) can mean eight hundred sixty fishballs, back to the numbers episode, I introduce the ways to learn Cantonese numbers, if you didn’t listen to that episode, please refer back to the episode on Cantonese numbers. So 八 (Dummy PY: Bat) means eight, 百 (Dummy PY: Bak) means hundred, 六十 (Dummy PY: Look Sap) means sixty, meaning if we have eight hundred and sixty fish balls, divide it between 10 people, then each will get 86 fish balls. When kids ask you that question, for sure it’s a trick question. Because you are not given the context, no matter what answer you give will be wrong. Even the third interpretation can be 伯伯六十粒魚蛋(Dummy PY: Bak bak Lok Sap Lup Yu Dan) old men with 60 fish balls as well. Since they are all homophones, it is quite hard to tell what they actually mean. So hence I am saying, that to learn the language, other than all the other technical stuff like vocab, grammar, etc, the context is super important. The context will help you bridge the gap of the understanding of the language to a better extent. Finally, the last technique I am going to talk about is using some memorization techniques. One of the most effective ways to remember something is to visualize what you are trying to remember. The more strange the imagery is the better you can remember. What we are trying to achieve here, is to first when you learn a new word let’s say in Cantonese, they are just random sounds to you, so you might want to use your own tongue, the language you already know to bridge the gap. For example, in french "how are you?" is, “Comment allez vous?”. It sounds a lot like in Cantonese, 今晚打老虎 (Dummy PY: Gum Man Da Lo Fu), 今晚 means tonight, 打 means to hit, 老虎 means tiger. So with french “comment allez vous?” you can imagine greeting a person the first time, they are saying how are you but tonight when you are meeting them they are also hitting a tiger. This way of using the Cantonese to memorize the french phrase of how are you can be found in the movie which stars Steven Chow, a famous HK actor, called God of Gamblers III: Back to Shanghai, in Cantonese 賭俠2之上海灘賭聖, where they mentioned this. So it’s quite funny, people who speak Cantonese who watched this movie will know at least one phrase in French. Even my dad. Or another example, which is the turnip cake that I talked about in the last episode, Turnip cake 蘿蔔糕 (Dummy PY: Lo Bak Go) you can remember the word as a person with a turnip cake backpack on their lower back trying to go somewhere. Something like that. Maybe some people think this technique is a little difficult because perhaps they think they are not very imaginative. But that’s untrue, we all have this ability to imagine. When you are reading or listening to someone telling a story, you are imagining it happening in your head, like you have a theatre playing the movie in your mind’s eye. We all have this ability to visualize and imagine. You can use English, or whatever language you are comfortable with, and try and form some sort of imagery to remember these words. I actually didn’t realize when I was growing up I was unintentionally doing so when learning English. I would be putting down Chinese words to guide me in the English word pronunciations.

At the end of the day, it is about finding a method to learn that is best for you. Test out these techniques that I am suggesting today, find out what works for you and what doesn’t, because everyone is different. There isn’t necessarily one correct way of learning Cantonese or learning anything, but there are ways that are more suitable for you. I often think about this as losing weight, some people’s bodies are more prone to weight loss with the Keto diet, or the vegan diet or the Atkins diet or the Paleo diet, some need to exercise to lose weight, some people don’t really. It all depends on the individual and what works best for you. I hope you can take away something today, test it out and let me know what works and what doesn’t. I know these techniques really work for me. If you are interested in learning more about how to learn, the course “Learning how to learn: powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects” is on Coursera, it is free unless you want to get your certificate. That’s it for today. Next week, we will be looking more at grammar, connective words in Cantonese.


Confucius, & Soothill, W. E. (2011). The Analects. Bridgewater, NJ: Distributed by Paw Prints/Baker & Taylor.

God of Gamblers III: Back to Shanghai (1991). Wins Entertainment Sarnico. Written and directed by Wong Jing.

Horsley, K. (2016). Unlimited memory: How to use advanced learning strategies to learn faster, remember more and be more productive. Place of publication not identified: TCK Publishing.

Makin, S. (Nov. 2019) Deep Sleep Gives Your Brain a Deep Clean: Slow-wave activity during dreamless slumber helps wash out neural detritus. Retrieved from: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/deep-sleep-gives-your-brain-a-deep-clean1/#:~:text=Why%20sleep%20has%20restorative%E2%80%94or,is%20hugely%20improved%20during%20sleep.

Oakley, B. & Sejnowski, T. (2020) Learning how to learn: Powerful Mental Tools to help you master tough subjects [Lecture notes]. Retrieved from: https://www.coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn/home/info