So I spent the last 6 days in Mainland China for a holiday. It wasn’t the complete culture shock being that road rules seem to not exist or sales assistants follow you everywhere you go that made me feel uncomfortable, it was that the so-called local language seemed to not exist.

廣州 - gwong2 zau1 - Guangzhou (the Capital of Cantonese) left me rather disappointed. It seemed that the majority are non-Cantonese people and simply refused to learn. You speak Cantonese, and you get replied back in Mandarin or extremely accented Cantonese. Not like Hong Kong where people know Cantonese but want to practice English, when I speak Cantonese they simply cannot speak it and continue in Mandarin until I stop them and they grab another person to help me in Cantonese. I get replies like “How is it possible that you know Cantonese and not Mandarin?”

When I actually found a local (seemed like 1 in 10 people), I was immediately elevated to “GOD” status. They loved me speaking Cantonese and treated me like a native Cantonese speaker.

On the other hand, 潮汕 - ciu4 saan3 - Chao Shan, being (潮州 - ciu4 zau1 - Chaozhou) and (汕頭 - saan3 tau4 - Shantou), two major Guangdong cities were both very limited in Cantonese. Some would reply in super broken Cantonese or Mandarin. Most people can understand Cantonese but can’t speak it well. If I spoke in Cantonese, then I couldn’t understand their Mandarin. Though shops would normally have a sales person who could speak Cantonese quite well and were happy to use Cantonese but with a heavier accent than mine.

In Guangdong, there is a vast amount of Cantonese resources. All Hong Kong television stations are available, and the Mainland even have many Cantonese TV and radio channels of their own. Though in Guangzhou, it still confuses me how people could learn to understand the language perfectly but couldn’t be bothered to open their mouths to speak Cantonese after 20 years of living there. I even saw many situations where one person spoke Cantonese and the other replied back in Mandarin. Seemed to be very popular in Guangzhou for people to speak their native language and receive replies in another.

This has not deterred me from learning Cantonese, or distracted me to take up Mandarin. On my return to Hong Kong and sharing my experience, my colleagues insisted that I should start learning Mandarin to be able to communicate with Mainland Chinese. However, many of them couldn’t speak Mandarin themselves, showing simply a double standards point-of-view on Chinese language.

I’m so sick of the learn Mandarin talk that I’ve listed why I shouldn’t learn it (pardon any ignorance):

1) No environment - Everyone including my family only speak Cantonese all the time.
2) I’m not interested in going to Shenzhen every weekend to practice Mandarin.
3) I’m not interested to learn Mandarin for short trips to China every year.
4) I’m not really interested in doing business in China (which it seems to be many people’s motivation).
5) Actually only 53% of Chinese people in China can speak Mandarin (source). So the exaggerated myth that 1.3 billion speakers cannot be as valued as wide spread languages like Spanish or French.

RTHKI managed to get on the RTHK English Channel regarding the pleasures and pains of learning Cantonese. The program name is “Same Same But Different Between English and Cantonese”, and specifically “Learning Cantonese”.

I admit I was super nervous and neither my English nor Cantonese was at its best, and sounded quite broken to my ears for both my native and target language.

I was also quite pressured to instantly think of something to say and subconsciously know that many people would hear my mistakes. I think I speak better when I’m calm and relaxed, as this time my heart was beating super fast like at a job interview.

I found an old recording that I made 1.5 years ago. Let’s see how much I’ve improved -

March 2006 (3 months study)


It appears my accent has not improved, but I think I sound a little bit better in comparison to the first recording. I hope I won’t plateau as time goes on.

After 1 year and 8 months of study, this is how my Cantonese sounds like in an impromptu speech. This was not scripted and the words just came freely from my brain without translations. So its all automatic so I’m bound to make some obvious mistakes.

For example, I said 不嬲 bat1 lau1, but should have said (經常 ging1 soeng4 / 成日 seng4 jat6). Also I used 觀點與角度 gun1 dim2 jyu5 gok3 dou6 incorrectly, but I knew these simple mistakes would definitely show when nervously recording.

When I first started learning, I only had to say a few words and get “praised”. Now I get criticised for bad accent and tone mistakes.

I really hope you can understand what I am saying, any comments?

Download - 00:58min

I used to think that if I spoke quickly I would sound more fluent. As shocked as I was, I recorded my voice and couldn’t understand 1 word I said. As soon as I slowed down making clear sounds for each character I sounded much better, but still sounded like a “gwai lou”.

When I speak English, I tend to join words together so that 3 or so words are slurred into 1 word. I wasn’t even aware I did the same thing in Cantonese until I listened to myself.

When I’m speaking, it sounds awesome. From my own ears my Cantonese sounds like a native and I felt quite happy with my accent, intonations and fluency.

After listening to myself via the computer, I simply sounded like an Australian English speaker talking gibberish. My accent was so foreign from Hong Kong people’s and I spoke at 5 or so different speeds in the 1 single sentence.

It amazes me that I can converse with people for hours and they manage to understand 99% of what I’m saying, though I can’t understand myself when I listen to it. I was going to upload myself speaking some Cantonese but now feel totally ashamed.

Completely depressed.

From my experience, its quite acceptable that Asians speak English or other European languages with each other, however, to the typical Chinese it would seem quite funny or even ridiculous that that 2 Caucasians speak to each other using only Cantonese in social or day-to-day contexts.

I hope that one day it will be considered normal when 2 white guys speak Chinese to each other in Hong Kong, just like its normal that 2 Asians speak English to each other in Australia.

One or both could easily be non-English speaking, but from my observations the following is likely to happen if such a situation actually took place in Hong Kong:

1) the average person would look twice;
2) point and/or stare;
3) make comments such as “why don’t you speak English? You are both gweilos”

Video: 1:47min

MerlionI recently spent 1 week in Singapore for work. However, to my surprise the taxi drivers were all excited to practice their Cantonese with me. For the first time since studying, I was much more fluent in Cantonese than my Chinese counterpart. Respecting the local people I began my conversations in English, but found the drivers wanted to speak only Cantonese to me.

Overall, Singapore isn’t even a good environment to speak Mandarin as nearly every Chinese family spoke English to each other. I met up with Bernard from the Cantonese forums and engaged in some Cantonese dialogues with him on Saturday.

Though the week in Singapore made me feel like my Cantonese was regressing and it felt quite strange having so much English and Mandarin spoken in Chinatown in comparison to Sydney.

Found a video from RTHK featuring several non-Chinese speaking Cantonese. I think my Cantonese is getting much better now, I can listen and understand 80% of the entire program. The program talks about immigrants and discrimination in Hong Kong.

PART 1: 10:23min PART 2: 10:55min

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