Like it or not, Pokémon Go has taken the world by storm. At least where it’s available anyway. Even though in Hong Kong we’re still impatiently waiting for it to arrive, this album has gone viral among my friend circles. What it is is an ever-growing list of Cantonese-based puns on Pokémon, created by an Asian-American. Some of them are so culture-specific that learners or lovers of Cantonese might not get them! Since Pokémon and Cantonese are two of my biggest passions, I thought why not take the good stuff that’s there, and share the fun with more of you guys? You never know, you might learn some cultural fun facts 🙂
I can’t believe it’s been eight whole months since I took my TISUS test, switched Swedish from “learn” to “improve” mode and picked up the language I’d been intended to try out for a year – Polish. (In fact, my Polish Glossika package had been lying around in my hard drive for quite a long time.) Fast forward to two months ago, I was attempting to test out my Polish skills for the first time with the surprisingly numerous Polish participants at the Polyglot Gathering. And around a month ago, I stepped foot on Polish soil again, spending entire evenings with friends I made in Berlin. Did it work? Yes and no. I think it’s about time I reflected on what I’ve done so far, how far I’ve gone, what I’ve done right or wrong and how I’ll go forward.
A difficult language
I have a confession to make. Why did I start learning Polish? When people ask me this, I usually bullshit things like Chopin. But the real motivation I had was to take on the “most difficult language of the world”. But what makes a language difficult?
Phew! It’s taken a bit longer than expected to get the third (official) day of the event documented here! That’s mostly due to me setting off on my final journey in Europe and spending more time with my private travelogue than this. But if you’ve been reading the past two installments, the bulk of this will be similar: more talks on different topics. I’ll try to recollect what I found interesting in each talk concisely, and highlight more of the special activities unique to the day!
By the third day I’ve becoming totally hooked on the lozenges I got from my friend. Thankfully it doesn’t really hurt anymore to speak, but I still have that sexy, coarse voice with a very limited volume – I won’t be shouting at the speakers from my seat any time soon for sure. Again, it was simply impossible for me to get to the first talk in time, after all the gettting-up-procedures and a chatty breakfast. Not even when it was Richard Simcott himself’s talk on language difficulty. The thing is, while we all have high expectations on the talks by these big-name polyglots, they’ve for the most part already said all they have to say on other media, so in these talks they kind of just summarise certain advice and ideas for us. Same for this: we’ve all discussed hard and easy languages, and what makes them hard or easy, but the point is it’s our own circumstances and motivation that make a language easy or hard, in addition to the intrinsic complexity of the grammar and vocabulary.
The minute this post hits the interwebs, I should be landing on good ol’ Asian ground, ready to drag my limp body along in the devastating heat through the streets of Hong Kong, my homeland. My exchange year is officially over; I am back. The word ‘back’ starts to sound funny – I’ve spent exactly 359 days away from Hong Kong, almost a full cycle on the calendar, and mildly surprisingly, I have – my subconscious, probably, has – begun to call another place ‘home’. When I say ‘I’m back’, I feel like I’m once again arriving at the busy Lund Central and Clemenstorget from a short flight, with either piercing or refreshing wind hitting my face, not the pressing humid air. For better or worse, no, I never felt truly home sick once. Been there done that; I’m way over it. There’s just too much to see, too much to do.
But there’s the problem. However long a year, or just a term may sound to you, it feels ridiculously short in retrospect. Depending on how much you fell for your new home, a lifetime might not even suffice. A lot of us try to do too much at once, cramming all the plans of our dreams into the calendar; which is completely understandable, but that way, we tend to miss certain things that we never realise we should have done until it’s too late. Throughout my year, I’ve been very open to shaking up my routine and lifestyle, so overall I’m pretty satisfied with what I’ve done; yet still, there are so many things I wish I could have done earlier. So, contrary to my usual style and theme, here are 10 things I suggest you consider doing if you’re going on an exchange:
Getting into the even more fun parts of the gathering! This day there were even more multilingual talks, as well as sessions (that I skipped) called Lightning Talks, i.e. 5-minute short talks by anyone without too much preparation or visual aid. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Starting from day 2, we had to get up much earlier, at least in order not to miss anything interesting. (I do know someone who skips everything before noon though.) I was fine getting up, only to find…no, it’s the opposite: to not find my voice. Yes, I had known on day 1 that I’d caught a cold, and I’d felt a sore throat, but I thought it’d get better real soon. It didn’t. Instead, I was shocked to realise I’d lost my ability to speak, almost completely. At a polyglot gathering! It’s as if someone had put a curse on me or stolen my speaking capabilities. Jealous maybe. I’m a goddamn polyglot.
After killing the time – both mine before the actual gathering and yours for reading my previous post for Day 0 – the actual gathering was about to begin. To be fair, though, Day 0 already contained enough socialising to be considered an essential part of the event. I met tons of polyglots I knew, and even more that I didn’t. It’s pretty magical that we polyglots, or language learners – probably a weird geek among our ‘normal’ friends – get to meet so many other weirdos just to geek out together. To not feel alone in the quest for polyglottery and cross-cultural communication. To help each other spread the message that…one language is never enough.
For better or worse, I already started staying up a bit before Day 1. Thankfully, the event starts late on the first day to accommodate people just arriving that morning. At 10, we were all done with our first breakfast socialising session – complete with cornflakes, very German Schinken and very German bread, and sweet, sweet coffee – and gathered in a full room for the greeting. Indeed we really have these people to thank for this – such a huge event, along with accommodation, meals, extra activities (to be mentioned later!)…it’s a huge annual effort and probably heavy pressure. But I was soon put under pressure as well as I had to choose talks to go to. As a lingophile, virtually all of the talks captured my interest. Fun fact – I’m one of those who can never make choices. So here I’d have to choose ones that were more immediately helpful or useful, or just choose according to my new friends’ preferences or the speaker, and hope that they’d upload the video recordings soon enough. Because last year’s talks didn’t finish getting uploaded until last week. Seriously.
If you’re one of the two people who have been reading my blog since its inception, you might remember how it all started out – with a series of travelogues from Germany. Okay, I’ve always planned to make it predominantly a language blog, and I never managed to complete the series, but guess what, it’s #throwback today, so why not…write a language post that’s also a travelogue in Germany?
So…we’re here! YES, I just came back from Berlin to Lund, from the unforgettable annual Polyglot Gathering that I’d been looking forward to for months. Heck I’d been wanting to go since the first one, two years ago, but was only unable because I lived in Asia! So the moment I knew I was going to be an exchange student in Europe, my reaction was “yes! POLYGLOT GATHERING!”, above all. I don’t know whether I’ll ever be living in Europe again (no matter how much I want to) or whether I’ll get rich enough to afford an annual flight to Berlin, so before I departed from Lund, I firmly told myself – I had to have the most fun possible.
It’s finally time to open the Pandora’s box of Cantonese! Despite having lots of colloquial and expressive stuff planned, I suddenly had the idea to start with something simpler, but extremely useful in daily life: units. The world appears to be divided into metric VS imperial when it comes to units, and you might wonder how we make our measurements in Hong Kong. In a way we are like the UK: depending on situation, we use a mix of both, plus our traditional units. But there is a general trend: my generation is educated in the metric system, so the other systems might end up going out of use in the future, for better or worse. But for now, let me tell you how I and people I know measure things. And believe me, the Chinese names of the ‘western’ units are just as easy!
In my Bel Canton series, I attempt to break down Chinese into the substituent components so that you can understand what’s going on behind the scenes and find it easier to remember the structures and vocabulary. However, not every character translates so well word-for-word into English, which is why I have to create my own conventions for this break-down. Here are my principles:
- I always follow the Cantonese script first with Jyutping romanisation. Pronunciation may differ slightly from speaker to speaker, but I romanise my own pronunciation, which I can promise at least all Hongkongers will understand. I don’t have the so-called “lazy sounds” that my teachers basically purged in school but you might see in other materials. They should not be considered wrong, rather just variations or even shifts in the pronunciation. More on that in another post.
- each word in the English translation/break-down (i.e. separated by a space) corresponds by default to one Chinese character.
What comes to mind when you think of Chinese? Time and time again I’ve heard people saying things like “it’s a picture for every word”, and many a language’s version of “it’s all Greek to me” points to Chinese instead. It’s always this exotic, unknown tongue in a faraway land. In the first article in my new Bel Canton section, I’ll start with the mother of Cantonese – Chinese, breaking it down to you how it’s actually composed, and showing you why it isn’t as mystic as it appears to be.
But before I talk about the structure of Chinese languages, I’d like to briefly describe the structure of the Chinese language family so as to clear up some ambiguities concerning what I’ll be discussing.
The Chinese language family
You won’t believe how many times I’ve had this conversation, but the linguistic status of Chinese languages are pretty much still undefined, especially among Chinese-speaking communities themsleves. The confusion usually comes from the unity in writing: despite the many tongues existing in China, everyone writes the same way, with (mostly) the same set of characters, and can understand one another through the script, even if they don’t share the same speech. This has a long history: for a long time China has used classical Chinese as the written standard, from which the spoken languages deviate, pretty much like Latin and the Romance languages. It isn’t until a century ago that they decided to reform the written standard according to Mandarin, the language of government at the time. Hence to this day, the other spoken languages are still labeled dialects (方言). That’s putting aside the political subtext which clearly influences this choice of terminology, since dialects are subordinate to a language, but this is not the right place for that. Nevertheless, it is indeed said that it’s the “square characters” – our logograms, as opposed to alphabet – that has given us mutual intelligibility in writing and thus engendered a tendency towards unification throughout Chinese history.