20 September 2011

Here’s an interesting one that I picked up this morning. On the way into work I get to spend about thirty minutes crushed in the MTR. This is Hong Kong’s underground railway system and quite frankly it kicks ass. It’s clean, it’s fast, it’s on time. However, at rush hour, it’s absolutely packed. MTR stands for Mass Transit Railway and it certainly lives up to its name. The trains are about twice as wide as the London underground, are fully air conditioned and they are very clean. No chewing gum, no burger king wrappers, no undefinable stench wafting past every time the door opens. In fact it’s great - just it’s usually packed with people.

There is one benefit though. You get to hear a lot of Cantonese and I do mean a lot; all the time, from all directions at loud volume. Once you get a little more used to the sounds of the language, it’s a lot easier to “lock in” on a particular conversation, just like we can filter out the background noise in a crowded room to hear who we’re talking to.

The interesting thing is, very few people actually sound alike. I mean sure different people sound different which is obvious enough otherwise we wouldn’t be able to tell people apart by their voice. However, listening to the way they actually speak, you can tell that there are some pretty big differences.

For example, the most awesome word in Cantonese is M’goi. This magic word means excuse me, please, thank you, cheers, give me attention and many more things depending on the context. It is quite simply the swiss army knife of the language. It is also used when shoving people out of the way to get in or get off the train depending which direction you happen to be going in. Of course the concept of queuing is totally foreign here. Everyone queues up neatly in lines, the doors open and then all hell breaks loose. It’s like they stand in line because they’ve been told to, not because it makes getting on the train any easier.

Anyway, the word of choice for moving people is M’goi. Today listening to this maybe forty or fifty times, there were at least five very different pronunciations. Some people pronounced goi _(rhymes with oi!) as _gai  _(rhymes with guy). Some put a great deal of emphasis on the initial _M and some barely pronounced it at all. There were lots of other differences too and none of them matched the accepted pronunciation. If you learn Cantonese from any professional teacher in Hong Kong you will be taught the same pronunciation. I know, I’ve worked with several teachers and two of them were outstanding. So, if my fellow travelers were pronouncing these words wrong, then how were they being understood?

Well, it turns out that pronunciation doesn’t really matter all that much. There are lots of people here for example from the Chinese mainland who are usually native speakers in their own local dialect and usually skilled in Mandarin. Their Cantonese pronunciation is often frankly horrific. In fact there’s a Cantonese joke about it:

Ngor Tin Butt Par, Deih Butt Par, ji Par buk fong yahn gong gwong dung wah mh zeng

Which translates to:

I fear neither heaven nor earth, I only fear Mandarin speakers speaking Cantonese so inaccurately

Apparently this goes both ways as in Mandarin:

Wo tian bu pa, di bu pa, zhi pa guangdong ren shuo putonghua

translates to:

I fear neither heaven nor earth, I only fear Cantonese speakers trying to speak Mandarin

And the reason for these jokes is clear - for both parties, speaking the other language is usually a bad day out. But here is the clincher. Despite it being widely accepted that each side speaks the other language poorly, despite the fact that these jokes are probably centuries old, despite all this…

They understand each other!

That is worth a moments thought. There are huge discrepancies within native speakers of a language. There are huge differences between foreign speakers and natives, even when they do have a command of the language. And yet despite the fact that they pronounce words differently or badly, they are understood. They can still communicate despite these problems.

So, when you’re wondering whether you know enough to get started and when you open your mouth and the other person visibly cringes, know one thing and keep this in mind - they still understood you. You still communicated. The reason you’re even learning the language is to communicate. Cringing or not, you succeeded. You may not feel like it, but when you think about it, you’ve actually reached your goal!

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