Over 2 years I’ve read thousands of forum posts on people’s experiences in learning languages and methods they’ve used to improve their spoken skills. Many people have given various suggestions which I’ve tried. The number one advice is to simply listen and imitate what you hear. Now this method not only doesn’t work for me, it actually hinders me.

Imitating new words without analysing its tones and romanization actually hinders my pronuncation. I tried once-upon-a-time to simply listen and copy, and ended up speaking some rubbish bastardised dribble that people can’t understand. What I thought I heard actually ends up being totally opposite to what the real tone and romanization were. Maybe I get it right then and there, but the next day I can’t remember how the words sounded like. If I proactively study a word I get better results, I’ll explain why…

EVERY word I learn goes through this process:

1) Learn words by Listening: Perhaps via watching Television, my wife telling me a new word, I ask how to say a new word.

2) Get its meaning: I hate people teaching me a new word in Cantonese. I honestly never remember or understand the explanations. Either the explanations contain 3-4 new words or the meaning isn’t clear for me which I will then never remember. I prefer direct Cantonese to English translations for every word! The times when there is no suitable English word, I prefer an English explanation. This is where it becomes tricky… many people have given me ridiculous English meanings which I needed to correct by using the Cantodict dictionary. I have learnt every word purely by doing a translation into English. This does not mean I think in English or translate everything I hear into English. Only new words I learn I prefer to be acquired via English as the meaning is much clearer and I remember far better. The other way is to provide a Cantonese synonym which I’ve already learnt and produces the same results.

3) Get the tones and Jyutping: I use the Cantodict dictionary in which I guess the 拼音 ping3 jam1 or have a native speaker type the characters which I then look up the correct tones and romanization. I’m also lucky because my wife knows all the tones in Cantonese and I can easily ask her what a particular word’s tone is.

4) Get a few pratical examples: I hate learning a word and then using it incorrectly, so I ask my wife or forum members to provide a few examples.

5) Use the words: I sometimes have sane conversations with myself to improve fluency of new words, but I also purposely throw in new words in every conversation where applicable so to build its automaticity. Then I’ll try them out with my wife or colleagues.

This is how I’ve learnt ~10,000 Cantonese words and I can think 100% in Cantonese! I hope this helps those that email me asking.

I sent an email to Steve Kaufmann mentioning how I enjoyed him speaking in different languages and then posting the podcasts onto his blog. I asked him if he could make more podcasts in different languages as he speaks 9 languages fluently. Steve continues to motivate me each day as the once impossible seems so obtainable.

It not only impresses me to hear him speaking in so many languages, but reminds me that my goals will one day be achieved with continued commitment.

You may hear Steve’s response below in multiple languages:

Download - 13:51min

I can’t wait until the day I can speak as fluent as Ho Kwok Wing. I seem to be speaking better day by day, though reaching Ho Kwok Wing’s level of fluency and vocabulary seem so unreachable.

I have come to realise that having a native-like accent and intonation would be unachievable. Even though we all possess different language abilities, I have always tried to compare my potential with Ho Kwok Wing. We both have a similar Australian accent when speaking English and started Cantonese as an adult.

I saw Ho Kwok Wing in Her Fatal Ways 4 (表姐,妳好嘢!) the other day on Cable-TV, and I was amazed that his fluency and pronunciation was the exact same 13 years ago as today.

I once asked Ho Kwok Wing in Whampoa Gardens how long it took him to speak Cantonese well. He indicated that he only needed 1 year in Hong Kong, though I don’t know what he thought speaking Cantonese well meant.

My motivation and inspiration come from the daily improvements I have already achieved, and the goal to speak as well as Ho Kwok Wing.

PART 1: 8:21min PART 2: 10:17min

For months now I have been in Hong Kong teaching English at the same time「騎牛搵馬 ke4 ngau4 wan2 maa5」. After being constantly rejected due to non-perfect Cantonese in dozens of interviews (including American MNC); I successfully secured a position with a MNC where English is valued more than Cantonese and the job duties match my existing experience and university qualifications. Unexpectantly, the money is the same as an expat’s salary.

This interview still required me to speak about myself in Cantonese for a short-period to demonstrate my skill level. Though I don’t think this would have been a problem if I wasn’t able to speak it. Perhaps they wanted to see if I could fit in the team.

In the office, everyone speaks English to me 100% of the time and Cantonese to everyone else. I decided that if I use Cantonese and make a mistake, then its my problem. If I use English and they don’t understand, then its their problem. Even they know I can speak [so-so] Cantonese; one girl would take the opportunity to be my personal English translator even on basic Cantonese. I guess one day I will shock them when they realise how much I understood of their discussions.

Professionally speaking, I’m OK with it. I guess people are respecting me, and so I’m now finally happy.

The Cantonese have an idiom 入鄉隨俗 jap6 hoeng1 ceoi4 zuk6. Living in Hong Kong, I expect people to speak to me in Cantonese. When you are in Australia, I’m happy to speak to you in English. I came to Hong Kong with the mission to improve my Cantonese, everyday I wake up hoping that tomorrow I will speak that slightly bit better. When others don’t agree with my dreams of advanced fluency, we have a big problem. It costed me thousands of dollars to leave my comfortable life-style in Sydney to embark on my Cantonese dream.

I speak to my wife in (only) Cantonese and I live with my parents-in-law who only speak Cantonese. I only watch Cantonese TV and only speak English when I teach English to the locals at an English language school. Teaching English now means I cannot use 100% of every waking hour speaking Cantonese. So every minute in which I can speak Cantonese is valuable to me.

I go to McDonalds and do the talking (Cantonese), while I’m talking to the girl she looks at my wife and ignores me. If I’m talking to you, why would you look at my wife? Of course I understand what you are saying. Suddenly my blood pressure rises and I blast out in less than polite Cantonese.

The receptionists at my school keep arguing with me that they should have the right to speak English to me as I’m an English teacher. Every day I say the same thing over and over which still doesn’t sink into their brains 入鄉隨俗 jap6 hoeng1 ceoi4 zuk6. What makes me angry is when one of them purposely pretended not to understand any of my Cantonese when spoken to. I am paid to speak English and I don’t see any benefits by speaking English to the locals when I’m not teaching. Just to make me angry, some purposely speak even faster to me in Cantonese and then say in English “see you couldn’t understand me, I have to speak English”. These are the same receptionists who speak Cantonese to me when they are in desperate need of teachers, but speak English when they think I can be taken advantage of by teaching them free-of-charge. These receptionists have made fun of my Cantonese simply thinking no one could possibly want to learn Cantonese and be honestly serious about it! I have spent nearly 2000 hours learning Cantonese and was ridiculed and made fun of my accent or when I say something and my tones are wrong. They think that I shouldn’t be making mistakes at all after 1 year of study. These are not the sort of mistakes that one could mistake for a swear word or dirty word, but rather simple verb mistakes or incorrect grammar. In fact, I get lectured that Chinese is so easy because there is no grammar.

I teach English, I’m very tolerant of Hong Kong people consistently making errors, having incorrect intonation and poor vocabulary. I never make fun of my students speaking English. I asked some of my students if they would feel upset if I laughed at their English, and of course everyone said they would. Though these student’s couldn’t understand why I would be upset about people flattering or laughing at my Cantonese.

I once was lectured by an Indian who spoke fluent Cantonese on my pronunciation of a word 傳教士 cyun4 gaau3 si6 (Missionary). I was told not to speak unless I was sure on the tones. I might as well never speak because I’m bound to make mistakes.

Yes, you may think I’m rude. Simply being polite or kindly asking someone to stop speaking English does not get you anywhere. The people I have spoken to think its a joke that someone would learn Cantonese and will always revert to English if you give them the opportunity. When I see a migrant in Australia, I tailor my voice so they can understand both in speed and vocabulary. Isn’t it quite normal to speak slowly to a learner? However, Hong Kong people that I’ve met speak to me at full speed with advanced vocabulary all the time- I must constantly remind them I’m not native every 30 seconds.

I know my Cantonese is far from perfect, but I hope this time next year I will have reached some level where I can comfortably say I am proud of my achievement.

Steve Kaufmann who can speak 9 languages fluently is interviewed in both Mandarin and English about learning languages.

Part 1: 08:16min Part 2: 09:56min Part 3: 09:32min

Very informative interview (English part), however, I couldn’t understand any of the Mandarin.

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.

Listening to Cantonese over-and-over…

Cantonese is very tonal; the wrong tone can cause misunderstanding, even in context. It’s virtually impossible to remember words and tones through memorising a dictionary. So how can I learn massive amounts of vocabulary without sounding like a pitch-less opera singer? Speaking fluently requires memorisation of vocabulary and knowing how to say them correctly at the correct tone. In addition, one needs to learn how to use the words in a sentence structure. So far in my studies, I have forced 5000 or so words into my brain through massive listening of repeated audio in under 1 year.

My study regime is 90% listening and 10% speaking. However, I speak Cantonese without thinking in English, and my tones are mostly accurate. I constantly improve without being in a fully immersed environment. I do admit I cannot read any Chinese characters, but in my opinion the time spent in memorising 1 written character cannot possibly outweigh the benefits of learning 10 new words through listening. Especially Written Chinese doesn’t match with Oral Cantonese; it doesn’t help my goal of spoken fluency. I want to be able to use the language to communicate as soon as possible.

Using my iPod, I learn about 15-20 new words, phrases or idioms per day on average. I would begin each day by identifying definitions of each new word first before I listen for 1-2 hour to the same dialogue until it becomes assimilated and automatic. This is extremely beneficial in more complicated phrases, idioms or important words that you often like to say, but don’t listen to them enough in movies or conversations to remember correctly. I have a native speaker explain in Cantonese how to use each new word or phrase in context before I start my listening marathon. I regularly talk to myself in Cantonese with these new words and phrases to ensure when I need to converse to a native speaker, my words come off the tip off my tongue like in English.

DIALOGUE: - (58 seconds)
This MP3 was listened to over 150 times.

Listening to new dialogues each day has improved my intonations and listening comprehension for real-life usage. It has dramatically helped me recognise vocabulary and recall its meaning instantly. In addition to listening to dialogues, I listen for 2 hours each day to vocabulary lists (10-20 new words/phrases/idioms). Instead of making a dialogue, the words are simply spoken one after another. I feel this improves my vocabulary much quicker then a dialogue because the words are spoken more clearly, helping in correct tone recognition and pronunciation. As I have researched the meaning and usage of the words before listening, I find that listening only to specific vocabulary allows me to learn more words in a single hit.

zyun1 fong2 = an exclusive interview
min6 si5 = an interview (job)
fong2 man6 = interview (reporter)
zju3 caak3 = enrol
dang1 gei3 = register
gwaa3 hou6 = register (hospital)

I have learnt that you cannot say a word correctly, if you haven’t heard it properly to begin with. Using this method, I can speak naturally without thinking, my tones are very accurate, and my comprehension has improved. I remember when I was in Hong Kong briefly in June, I wanted to know how to say “recharge” as in top up my Octupus card. I thought I heard people say “zan3 zik1″, when in fact the correct pronunciation is “增值 / zang1 zik6″. This is an example where not hearing the word clearly or enough to begin with can cause problems later on.

My spoken fluency has dramatically improved through repetitive listening, and my recall of words has started to become effortless. I am only now starting to benefit from watching TVB Hong Kong series as a supplement to my studies.

Will I forget words? I sometimes forget new words learnt, however, I regularly revise already learnt material each day. The more often I listen to and revise words, they start becoming like English words: Perfect understanding of the meaning with no effort in recalling how to use and say them. I have a higher chance of remembering a word that I have heard 200 times, then someone who goes to a class and hears that word once every week.

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