Musings of a Multilingual | Learning Cantonese – 1

[muhl-tee-ling-gwuhl, muhl-tahy- or, Can., -ling-gyoo-uhl]
1. using or able to speak several or many languages with some facility.
2. spoken or written in several or many languages: a multilingual broadcast.
3. dealing with or involving several or many languages: a multilingual dictionary of business terms.
4. a multilingual person.

During my recent road trip, I got to thinking about my own multilingualism.  Many Canadians are bilingual in education, but for many Western Canadians, we are primarily anglophones in practice.  However, growing up Chinese-Canadian benefited me linguistically.  I’ve been looking at my own language abilities and wonder how it all works in my brain.

Let’s look at my first language, chronologically, but not my best language.


Born into a Chinese family that immigrated in the mid-70’s from Hong Kong, I was exposed to Cantonese right from the beginning.  It may be my first language chronologically, but it is not my strongest.  I speak and understand it fairly fluently, but I often mess up the tones.  For example, I can never separate the words for buy and sell in Cantonese (Both words are pronounced “mai”, but with different tones). I may apply English word order rules to Cantonese much to the amusement of those listening.  I often have word recollection problems in Cantonese where I know the word, but I cannot recall it at that particular moment.

I also experience good and bad Cantonese days.  Some days I feel like I am on the ball and feel totally native in my speech.  Other days, I can’t string together two sentences without feeling like I am tripping over my words.  There’s also the cultural subtleties of Cantonese speech with which I am not so well-versed.

I can watch a Cantonese show or listen to a Cantonese radio show and understand most of it.  As long as the show is about something everyday and not something complicated like science or politics.  When I listen to music, I have a lot of difficulty understanding the words.  I feel the words are very different in music. Perhaps because the lyrics of songs arise from written Chinese, not spoken Cantonese.  So it makes sense that I struggle with reading.  When I was in my 20’s, I started to be able to read most of a Chinese menu.  However, don’t ask me to read a Chinese book, newspaper, or magazine.  I get through one paragraph and I feel like I’ve already stretched my brain in every which direction.

I have also had the experience of taking Cantonese-instructed classes.  I had classes for Japanese and drawing as a kid taught to me by Cantonese-speaking teachers.  Retention was minimal and I was not able to connect nor engage in the class.  Also, I am already bad with keeping numbers in my head.  Once someone starts explaining something mathematical in Cantonese, my brain simply freezes.  It comes close to freezing in English sometimes.

Overall, I am fairly fortunate as a Canadian-born Chinese (CBC) to be able to speak and understand fairly fluently in one form of Chinese.  I thank my grandmother who spoke barely a word of English (Her English vocab consisted of good morning, excuse me, and thank you.  That’s it.) and my small home church with Chinese-only sermons and services.  If I weren’t forced into using my Cantonese at key times of my life, I don’t think my Cantonese would be where it is today.

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