Speaking with your ears

Excel in listening and speaking

Cantonese is one of the most difficult languages to master, perhaps you have an idea of how crazy this language can get. One of the reasons being that Cantonese has 9 tones (Where Mandarin only has 4, so yes, Mandarin speakers also have lots of work to do to master Cantonese). That is why Cantonese, similar to Mandarin, is considered a tonal language. That means that there are many words that have the same sounds but the tones are the determiners of what the words actually mean. You might think Cantonese is Cantonese, other than having to annoyingly follow the nine tones, can there even be an incorrect pronunciation or an accent? Oh for sure! Any Hong Konger can tell most of the time if you are not local, even if you have spoken Cantonese your entire life. There is such a thing as the Hong Kong Cantonese accent.

Naturally for most people in hopes to learn a language and perfect their pronunciation, one must listen to the supposedly most “correct” accent or pronunciation, of course it is best to go on the PingYin websites online to cross reference in order to learn all the tones and the PingYin. Unfortunately, you might bump into many issues if you did that. Not saying it is wrong to know the accurate pronunciations, it’s just the fact that once you visit Hong Kong or any other places that Cantonese people reside, you will realize they all speak slightly differently. You can tell they are speaking Cantonese but you have no idea what they are saying. The reasons being that many Hong Kongese sounds are lazy sounds, meaning they don’t fully pronounce properly what the words are supposed to sound like. Another reason is that Hong Kong is an international hub where many people, whether they are from China, outside of China, live. Their pronunciations will be affected by their first language and the regional dialects. For Cantonese learners, the Cantonese language might sound a lot like music to them. I am going to talk about this a little later, how knowing music can help with Cantonese learning.

Interestingly, I would like to propose otherwise. On the contrary, if you want to practice your Cantonese/ HongKongese pronunciation to perfection, you must listen to as many Cantonese accents as possible. Through listening to inaccurate/ slightly-off pronunciation, you will realize what accurate pronunciation is supposed to sound like. Isn’t that a strange thing?

Interesting stories about Cantonese pronunciations:

Our good friend in Hong Kong is an eighth generation Hong Konger (That’s crazy because I am only the third gen). He speaks Cantonese, English, Hindi and Mandarin, yet his Cantonese is slightly accented. You can find examples of Cantonese spoken by people from different countries here. Once we were at a restaurant and he was getting the bill. To ask for the bill in Hong Kongese is 埋單 (paying off the bill), the server then responded “We don’t sell eggs here.” What went wrong? The server was likely to have heard 買蛋 (buying eggs) They have the same PingYin, yet different tones.

When my hubby and I was getting married, we decided to have our wedding pictures done in Guangzhou. During one of the taxi rides, the taxi driver speaking in Cantonese told us that people from Guangzhou love to come to Hong Kong to buy 瀨粉 (a type of rice noodles, often served with duck meat or goose meat), at the time I was very confused. I didn’t know or think 瀨粉 was a popular thing in Hong Kong. I didn’t even eat 瀨粉 that often. He kept going on about babies and how 瀨粉 is good for babies’ health. As the taxi driver kept talking, I was starting to realize he was not talking about 瀨粉 at all. Eventually around 10 minutes later, I realized he was talking about 奶粉 (milk powder) for the babies. Only then had I realized we had been talking about completely different things.

**Mainland Chinese buying milk powder from other places outside of Chinese because of the tainted milk powder incident.

Click here to read more about 2004 tainted milk powder

Listen to the words above, can you hear the differences of the two sets of words? If you can, good for you, can you try repeating the words now and see if you have gotten the pronunciation and the tones down? If you can’t hear the differences, it is an indicator that you are likely to say it incorrectly as well. The key is this, the reason that you cannot pronounce certain words accurately, is not because of your inner mouth structure. It’s not about the output, it’s about the input! Because you cannot hear the differences in these sounds, (Not your fault! You didn’t have the Cantonese language in your repertoire, you can certainly acquire them) hence you won’t be able to pronounce it right, because you don’t know what the “correct” and “accurate” pronunciations sound like.

That is why I mentioned music! The reasonings behind not pronouncing words right and not getting the tones and beat right when you sing are similar. You might have heard people say that they can’t sing because they are tone deaf, or that you might have known people that felt that they sing fairly well but actually they sound terrible. It’s the exact same principle! They can’t sing the song the way it is supposed to because they are unable to hear the sounds accurately. In that case, most of the time these people can’t tell that they are off on their tones or sounds. Try plugging your headphones in and sing a song you are unfamiliar with and record yourself. You will for sure laugh at your own recording. Point proven, your ears, your listening is the actual key to speaking a language! These subtle differences in tones might be hard for you to spot, because the 9 tones in Cantonese were not really registered in your repertoire. Pay close attention when you listen to Cantonese people speak, their tones and how they change when combined with other words, slowly you might start understanding a lot of the Cantonese jokes! Many Cantonese jokes are a play on words that are homophones!