If you’re a follower of the Cantonese-centric part of my blog, you might have heard about the Cantonese Conversations project elsewhere. It is an initiative that Olly Richards and I, among others, took a while ago to create a set of Cantonese learning materials that are completely organic and natural, in order to fill the gap of listening/reading materials on the intermediate/advanced level. It is a package of video/audio recordings of native conversations, together with a written transcript, Jyutping transcription and my English translation.

It came out officially a few months back, and recently I’ve been working on putting out a revised version, particularly focusing on proofreading the Jyutping. And that got me thinking: if I assume correctly, the majority of users will be reading the Jyutping instead of the Chinese script. And there’s a troubling thing about Cantonese: not only does it lack standardisation, but it is also undergoing a number of pronunciation changes. What that means is if you listen to us native speakers, there will be multiple ways of pronouncing the same words. We hardly even notice the differences, even though they tend to sound drastically different to foreign ears.

In the Jyutping transcriptions inside the package, we aim to

  1. represent the recording as accurately as possible,
  2. expose the reader to different pronunciations, and
  3. limit the number of varieties to make sure readers can still recognise them as the same word.

And quite often, these goals came into conflict, and we had to try and strike a balance. So halfway through the revision process, I thought I’d take to my own blog to explain some of the most common divergent pronunciations, so that it is still possible to recognise the words under different guises. The following pairs of sounds are often called ‘lazy sounds‘ (懶音 laan5 jam1) by native speakers. Chinese teachers will tell you one of them is right and one is wrong, while younger people would say one is newer and one is outdated. The fact is that they’re both in use, so I suggest you use either one yourself, but make sure to get acquainted with both of them. Here we go!

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I can’t believe it’s been one month! The time really zoomed by. For a three-month challenge like this, I find it appropriate to give monthly updates, so here I am. Spoiler warning: the progress isn’t exactly ideal.

The Hurdle

I’m a music student, and this month was a month full of my friends’ graduation concerts, which, for me, entailed rehearsals and concerts every day and evening. I also had to finish a musical composition within the past month. It was really hard, but I’m not going to let this become an excuse to slack off. So as I so happened to have written before, despite my plans for intensive study, I reduced my learning activities, but made sure they were consistent. It’s more important to do something every single day than do a lot on one day.

So here’s a quick run-through of my project progress!

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Collage of scenes from Pavia. Photo from Wikipedia

Aaaaand so, I’m back. From the craziness of university. But more craziness is coming on.

I never liked these ‘three months’ challenges, especially how overused this particular length is. But it just happens so that I’m going to Italy, for the second time in my life, in (a bit less than) three months.

The Italian language was always on my radar: after all, it’s the one language that’s most closely associated with music. I read Italian words on a daily basis in my musical scores – which is why I often joke that I have a wide (if highly specialised) vocabulary base for someone who doesn’t speak the language at all.

And around a month ago, I was notified that I was accepted at an international festival for composers near Milan, and immediately decided this was an unmissable opportunity for the polyglot side of me as well. After all, I’ll be there for two weeks, unlike my last trip, which was shorter and more touristic. So off I go!

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At the time of writing, it’s the Chinese Lantern Festival, i.e. the 15th day of the first lunar month, also known as the Chinese Valentine’s Day. And a mere 3 days after that, it’s a day that many Hongkongers either relish or fret about: the western Valentine’s Day! Among local teenagers, being single is a thing often poked fun at, to say the least. So, to celebrate my 21st single Valentine’s in a row, here’s a rapid-fire list of local/Internet Cantonese slang related to love and relationships – so you can save your 我愛你 ngo5 oi3 nei5 (I love you) for your significant other and joke light-heartedly about him/her with your friends afterwards 😉

Single life

superdry brand logo

Superdry – single life in a nutshell.

Sometimes I look back on single life, which felt so dry (thirsty for romance). Whenever people with 愛情嘅滋潤 oi3 cing4 ge3 zi1 jeon6 (the “moistening” of romance) took to the Internet to 曬命 saai3 meng6 (to “sun-dry” life) i.e. brag, or poke fun at me, all I could respond with was 首先…… sau2 sin (first…), which is a shorthand for 首先,你要有個女朋友 sau2 sin1, nei5 jiu3 jau5 go3 neoi5 pang4 jau5 (…but before that, you must have a girlfriend), a self-deprecating joke that’s gotten so overused on the Internet that the first part alone is understood to imply the entire sentence.

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“What’s my name in Chinese?”

I cringe a little whenever I hear this question, because it comes up so often. To Westerners, Chinese is probably the epitome of an exotic language: it sounds sing-songy and weird and looks completely incomprehensible. But all I could answer to this question is, “what’s your name in Russian then?” That would probably just be the original name with an accent, which is basically the case in Chinese. Still, we see that many Westerners do end up getting a Chinese name (漢名 hon3 meng2 Han name) that sounds almost completely different. How do they do it?

Transliteration and Translation

There are several important concepts and factors relating to how Westerners have their Chinese names. Firstly, we transliterate, not translate. Translation of a name, in a daily sense as I would put it, involves more of a transfer of meaning (意譯 ji3 jik6 meaning translation), like how we say ‘Jacob means Supplanter in Hebrew’. But we never call Jacob ‘Supplanter’; Jacob is just Jacob, or rather, יַעֲקֹב with an anglicised pronunciation. A more common example comes from European first names based on saints: ‘Katarzyna’ would be a translation of ‘Catherine’, since strictly speaking, they are names native to different cultures with the same meaning (in this case, reference to the original Catherine).

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Working along the Swedish countryside

Again, it’s been a while since I last posted! As you might guess, it’s truly been a crazy term for me at university. For starters, I wrote and rehearsed two musical compositions. And as the term progressed, it’s only gotten worse: at the time of writing (this sentence) it is the end of term, where piles of work come to a climax. Ironically, slowly through the months, I’ve cooked up this post about running out of time – for everything in general, but particularly for language learning.

In my last post, I suggested ways for me and you to juxtapose time for learning two languages at the same time. Unfortunately, when the free time you have isn’t much to begin with, splitting it up just leaves you with hardly anything left. In other words, I’ve put Kazakh aside. Despite this, my German has been improving by leaps and bounds, as well as my Polish, without needing hours and hours of intensive study. How did I squeeze the time to manage that?

It’s all about choosing the less intensive but consistent activities to keep, making use of ‘dead time’ (that goes to waste anyway) and putting the time-consuming ones on hold.

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I’m not even kidding. I’m not a wealthy student; travelling in western countries does take its toll on my wallet. It would’ve been a shame not to do it though, so during my year abroad, I did my fair share of excursions around the European continent, be it for immersion, events or just sightseeing. And to mitigate my financial stress, since last year, I started exploring newer ways of travelling alone: instead of forking out for hotels and airbnb, I tried lots of hostels and Couchsurfing hosts instead.

…which is why I’ve recently been answering a lot of questions like “is it risky to couchsurf?” “is it awkward to share a room with strangers?”

A while ago, my friend Fiel from Between 3 Worlds wrote a great post on why hostels rule; while I couldn’t agree more with his reasons, I feel like it’s only half the story. I think it’s now my turn to answer some of these questions, drawing from my one year of ‘cheap travelling’ experience.

What Couchsurfing is about

Before we dig deeper, some of you might not know exactly what Couchsurfing is yet. While it’s originally the name of the biggest site of its kind, it’s evolved to mean home-sharing communities, where travellers get to sleep at hosts’ place (supposedly) for free, be it on couches or beds of all sorts. This is where most people scratch their heads: why would people even share their homes? What is it all about?

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It’s been a while since I wrote something about my own language learning hobby, rather than my more educationally minded column. And fairly recently (around a week ago), I made a decision that might sound like a big deal or a dumb idea to many, but a small change in direction to me.

I started ‘dabbling’ in Kazakh.

That doesn’t mean much to my daily life, to be honest. Since I’ve pretty much been feeling on holiday for a year, I’ve long had a ‘main’ language I’m working on, then some others I ‘toy’ with. Before this, I was maintaining a 50-day streak in Hebrew on Duolingo. I also listened to 5 days of Glossika GSR in Lithuanian, just because I’d bought the package during a sale. In short? My other toys are going bye-bye for now.

Why Kazakh?

Before I talk about ‘dabbling’, let me reveal my reasons for trying out this language, and you’ll easily see the fun of dabbling in any language. Beware: all my reasons for learning any language are incredibly specific to myself.

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What’s a word?

Funny question, isn’t it. A word is the thing in a text that stands between two spaces.

But as you know,in Chinese languages you don’t write spaces. And if you caught up with my introduction, the structure of a text and how we look at it differ quite a bit from the alphabetical languages we’re all so used to.

Now let’s dig deeper into the world of “words” – or zi6 – shall we?

We in bilingual schools end up with a lot of inconsistencies in what a ‘word’ designates in Chinese writing and speech – though no real confusion – especially when writing essays. I don’t know about foreign schools, but our exams always had clear word limits: “around 800 words” for an essay, or maybe 200 for a shorter question.

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Read the previous parts: Day 0 Day 1 Day 2 Day 3

Thanks to my slow (albeit steady) publishing schedule interspersed with other topics, even the next polyglot event of the year has ended. But fear not! With my thick online face, I shall continue to document my favourite excursion of the year until I’m done! Unbelievable as it was, we’d come to the last day of the main event, and I’d come to my last chance of recovering my voice. Yes, it was still lost…I did get one good sentence out, but afterwards it got worse again. So bad that I skipped breakfast to grab a couple of lozenges at the one and only Hauptbahnhof. Hoping for the best. But let’s get back into the last day of fun!

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