Friday 29 November 2013

Learning Cantonese, I think I’m learning Cantonese, no I don’t think so.

For someone who has exhibited little or no aptitude for mastering second languages to date, learning Cantonese is proving to be several steps too far.

Only two lessons into an intensive course of eight, at the Panda Cantonese Academy on Lamma Island with my devoted and proficient tutor, Dilys, and things are already looking ominous.
Cantonese is monosyllabic which should make it simple. Unfortunately, it also has a number of tones that must be mastered before vocabulary can be attempted or grammar properly grappled with. Some text books insist there are no less than thirteen tones but Dilys has decided we will stick to six, which is more than enough for the time being, as far as I am concerned.
Because of these different tones, one word can have multiple meanings depending on which tone is adopted and making basic errors can have quite devastating consequences on your social life. 
For example, “Ngo Hai (6th tone) Stuart, “means simply “I am Stuart”.
However, “Ngo Hai (1st tone) Stuart,” means “I fuck Stuart”.
As you can probably appreciate, this is quite a crucial difference in translation when introducing yourself to the neighbours in Hung Shing Yeh or, even worse, exchanging friendly banter with schoolchildren on the ferry.
One tiny and subtle variation in pronunciation can mean the difference between approving nods of amusement and being arrested.
And when I use my new list of stock Cantonese phrases on local shopkeepers and café owners, they just look at me blankly as though I might have uttered Russian, Hebrew or even Welsh rather than their own Mother tongue.
Tragically, during Lesson two, things descended rapidly from mild embarrassment to utter humiliation.
At least at school you could mime along with the more linguistically gifted or just mumble enthusiastically in the back row but at these intensive one to one sessions at the Panda Academy, there is nowhere to hide.
To be fair, when I was asked to repeat an audio Cantonese conversation between Mr Wong and his boss Miss Cheung, I was still suffering from a slight hangover from a night at the Happy Valley racecourse the night before.  My mind went in to a blind panic as the dialogue speeded up to the pace of near normal conversation.  I started looking at my notebook in desperation when Mr Wong says “Ho Ho” as I thought it might be some sort of Christmas comedy being acted out featuring a Chinese Santa.
This caused  the usually patient Dilys to accuse me of “Chut  Mau” or “cheating” though literally translated it means “chucking the cat out of the house”. I feared that Dilys might chuck me out of her house so poor was my performance.  I am confident she would have done if I had not been persuaded to pay for the first eight lessons in advance.
Poor Dilys has just emailed me the recording of today’s lesson but I am too embarrassed to listen to it. 
Lost in translation without a GPS.