I guess I’m lucky to live with a native Cantonese person; my learning of Cantonese has improved extremely fast. Since starting my Cantonese studies, I have learnt and can recognise hundreds of fixed grammatical patterns. These are so important because they are frequently used in communication. These grammar structures remain fixed, while you are able to substitute different words to convey the appropriate meaning within context.

Perhaps for some people they are able to automatically understand the definitions of all conjunctions, but for me I struggle to understand their meanings in English. Some conjunctions like “so, but, because” are extremely basic and I was able to learn them from listening. However, words like “even though, even if, even when and although” have slightly different meanings. When I speak in English, my brain is able to automatically select the correct conjunction in real-time without thinking. I don’t know why I chose “even when” instead of “even if”, but I am able to consistently identify the correct one to use instantly. It is extremely important to choose the correct word, as it will cause misunderstanding of the sentence meaning. When I speak in Cantonese I ONLY think in Cantonese. I don’t retreat into English, think of the sentence and do translations like some of my foreign friends do when they speak in English. So before learning a new conjunction in Cantonese, I think you should know what some of the more difficult ones mean first in English, in order to learn how to use them correctly.

Speaking Cantonese all day helps improve fluency, but sometimes it doesn’t help in expanding your actual proficiency of the language. When I speak Cantonese, I always use familiar grammatical patterns so not to hesitate in my speech; however, sometimes you cannot get your meaning across effectively or accurately without using a particular pattern.

The following MP3 was made by my wife to teach me the following Cantonese pattern:
“除非 ceoi4 fei1…否則 fau2 zak1…” which means in English “unless …, ……………” (eg. Unless you do your homework everyday, you won’t get any pocket money).

除非 ceoi4 fei1 = unless
否則 fau2 zak1 = otherwise

When I learnt this pattern, I ignored why Cantonese people use “否則 fau2 zak1″ in the sentence. I simply learnt the pattern as a whole, and didn’t question why I need to say “否則 fau2 zak1″. Also, I never debated its purpose by saying to my wife “in english you can’t say otherwise after unless in the same sentence”. Another pattern I can quickly think of is “雖然 seoi1 jin4 …, 但係 daan6 hai6 ……” meaning in English “Although …, ……………”. I ignored the reason why “但係 daan6 hai6 = but” is required, and simply memorised the pattern.

After 15 minutes of repetitve listening to the same MP3, the pattern became permanently burnt into my brain. I can now automatically say the structure without thinking when I speak.