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The Quadriplegic Mayor March 3, 2008

Posted by Edwin in Canada, Cantonese, English, French, Mandarin, Punjabi.

Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan caught the attention of the international media back in 2006, when he accepted the flag at the closing ceremonies of the Turin Winter Olympics. He is Canada’s first disabled mayor and also the first quadriplegic mayor of a North American city.

The mayor was paralysed after a tragic skiing accident when he was 19. Apart from many other achievements in life, he is also well-known for his linguistic ability. The Tourism Vancouver website contains some multilingual video messages from Mayor Sullivan speaking English, French, Punjabi, Cantonese, Mandarin, and French.

The major does not like to be confined in a wheelchair either. Here is him going hiking:

In the following video clip posted only recently, the mayor shared his thoughts in Cantonese on a legendary Hong Kong actress, a resident of Vancouver, who passed away a few week ago. I was touched when I saw the disabled major, who can barely use of his feet and hands, signing his name in traditional Chinese.

Transcript and translation of the clip are available here.


Languages Spoken in Toronto December 10, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Cantonese, Mandarin, Toronto.

After more than a year of waiting, the data finally came out last week. Statistics Canada released the language-related statistics of the 2006 census.

Here are the top 20 languages “spoken most often at home” in Toronto, my home town, and their corresponding head-counts and percentages:

  1. English – 2746480 (55.31%)
  2. Italian – 185760 (3.74%)
  3. Chinese, n.o.s. – 172040 (3.46%)
  4. Cantonese – 166655 (3.36%)
  5. Panjabi (Punjabi) – 132745 (2.67%)
  6. Spanish – 108380 (2.18%)
  7. Portuguese – 108185 (2.18%)
  8. Tagalog (Pilipino, Filipino) – 100420 (2.02%)
  9. Urdu – 98575 (1.99%)
  10. Tamil – 93590 (1.88%)
  11. Polish – 80090 (1.61%)
  12. Russian – 65210 (1.31%)
  13. Persian (Farsi) – 63975 (1.29%)
  14. Mandarin – 62850 (1.27%)
  15. French – 58590 (1.18%)
  16. Arabic – 56155 (1.13%)
  17. Gujarati – 54160 (1.09%)
  18. Korean – 47750 (0.96%)
  19. Greek – 46305 (0.93%)
  20. Vietnamese – 45325 (0.91%)

Here is an interesting point about the Chinese-speakers. The “Chinese n.o.s.” category includes responses of ‘Chinese’ as well as all Chinese languages other than Cantonese, Mandarin, Taiwanese, Chaochow (Teochow), Fukien, Hakka and Shanghainese. This number just too big for the minor Chinese dialect speakers. Therefore, we would expect most people in this category probably speak a major dialect. Somehow they just put down “Chinese” instead of the specific dialect in the census.

Who would do this? My speculation is that those who can speak Mandarin together with another dialect would have a tendency to do so. On the other hand, those who can speak only one Chinese dialect would more likely put down the dialect instead of ‘Chinese’.

If my speculation is correct, then there are in fact many more people who speak Mandarin than what is shown in the data.

No matter what, if we add up all the people in the ‘Chinese n.o.s.’ category together with those in the Cantonese and Mandarin categories, they make up about 8% of the Toronto population. This is about 1 in 12 Torontonians. This is quite a significant portion, considered only 6 out of those 12 speaks English as their mother-tongue.

The Language of Good December 1, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Cantonese, French, Toronto.

Since I have joined so many language exchange websites, I am quite used to receiving language exchange requests from time to time. Back in September, I received yet another one. But this time it was a bit unusual.

First of all, she was a native French speaker (bilingual French/English to be exact) asking for a Cantonese exchange. In the past, I often received requests from French speakers wanting English in exchange, or Cantonese learners who did not know French. This time it seemed to be a perfect match. Even better, she lives in my city!

Secondly, this person is no novice to the Cantonese language. In the past, I usually received requests for Cantonese help from people who knew virtually no Cantonese. There was no way we could communicate anything in Cantonese. This time, the person turned out to be the site owner of Cantonese.ca, a website which contains a lot of resources for Cantonese learners. The site has not been updated for a while, and she admitted that her Cantonese was rusted. That was why she wanted to pick up her Cantonese again. Besides Cantonese, she has also studied Dutch, Arabic, and Esperanto.

I later found out that this person was Sonja Elen Kisa, the creator of the language Toki Pona.

Toki Pona, which means “the language of good” in its own language, is a conlang which has only 14 basic sounds and 118 words. It is designed to be a simple language with simple vocabulary. Yet it turns out that with such a small set of vocabulary, it is quite sufficient enough to express a lot of complicated ideas. In fact, when Sonja created the language, she wondered why the vocabularies in our natural languages have to be so complicated.

Toki Pona has since caught the interest of language enthusiasts around the world, and it has also caught quite a significant media attentions, too.

In recent months, I have been communicating with my daughter, who is now 2 and a half years ago. I often have to avoid using complicated vocabulary. For example, instead of saying “fuel up”, I would tell her that our car is ‘hungry’ and needs to ‘eat’. “Turning off something” can be substituted by “putting it to sleep”. Even the concept of death can be conveyed as the person is “no more”.

So why do we need such complicated vocabularies in our languages. This just made life difficult for language learners and lovers like us.

I and Sonja exchanged a few emails and that was about it. She seemed to be quite occupied. I read from somewhere that she is in the process of writing a book about Toki Pona. Last week, I bumped into her again in a Cantonese Meetup group.

My New Cantonese Blog November 23, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Cantonese, Listening, Reading, Tools.

I always find language learner’s materials artificial and boring. I always want to access real-life contents in the languages I am learning.

There are of course a lot of real-life contents I can find today, especially on the Internet. However, most of them are either in written forms, or only available in audio or video format. Sometimes, I can find audio with someone reading some texts. As far as transcripts of real-life conversations are concerned, there are just not many of them around. At one point in time, I was so frustrated that I wanted to hire someone to transcribe for me. But then I figured out it could be quite expensive to do so.

What can I do? May be I will start by providing transcripts for learners in languages I am fluent in. Perhaps I will start with Cantonese first, which is my mother tongue.

So here it is. Ladies and Gentlemen … my new blog dedicated to all lovers (and potential lovers) of the Cantonese language: Cantophilia.

It could be that I am spawning this new blog out of my own frustration due to the lack of Cantonese transcripts out there. It could be that I am not happy with the fact that no Cantonese speaker is doing it. In fact, I can find only find 2 websites containing Cantonese transcripts, one from Milan and another from Marcelo, both are learners of the language. Where are the native-speakers?! (Besides their Cantonese friends who did the transcripts behind the scene of course).

My main reason of creating the blog though, is that I want to promote my own language. I already have this in mind for a while. Finally, I am putting it into action.

Tower of Confusion is still going to be my primary blog for language learning and multiculturalism. I still have a lot to talk about on these topics.

Coalition Of The Willing September 7, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Cantonese, English, French, Speaking.

Naturegirl left a comment on my previous post, mentioning a common scenario, where you want to practice your target language, only to find out that the other person always responses back to you in English (or your native language).

This is indeed an extremely frustrating experience. This could be by far the number one enemy for language learners who want to practice speaking. I remember Milan has been ranting about it in his blog all year long!

A common counter-move is to tell the other person that you don’t speak English. This could be funny at first and probably help to break the ice. But I believe it won’t get you very far. Alternatively, I have some suggestions based on my experience and those from the others.

If you are a beginner’s level speaker, don’t expect people to put up with your broken sentences. They would only do that out of generosity (well, except if you pay them). You must state explicitly that your are a learner and want to speak the language. Do this right at the beginning or after the usual greeting exchange. Say this in the target language so to build up your confidence and at the same time to show the other party that you really know something about the language.

I have been trying this protocol in Skype to practice my French. The greeting part is usually simple and standard. Then the other party would start to throw in more complicated vocabulary and increase his speed. Sooner than I would expect, I become lost. I would then tell him that my French is not really good and I am a learner, and he would slow down and return to more basic conversation. At this stage, don’t expect anyone to stay up with the conversation very long. Even if some are willing, your own tongue will begin to tide up very soon, and you will get discouraged. I would recommend the conversation to last no longer than 5 minutes. Then you may end it or switch to another language.

For advanced speakers, I have once learned a tactic from Cecilia’s podcasts. Cecilie Gamst Berg is a Norwegian living in Hong Kong since 1989. Besides Norwegian, her mother tongue, she is fluent in both English and Cantonese. She has been doing a Cantonese learner’s program in a Hong Kong radio station. In one episode, she went to the subway (MTR) to demonstrate how to buy a ticket (to increase the value of her Octopus card to be exact). Seeing a Caucasian, the ticket clerk replied in English right away. Being intolerable with this seemingly disrespectful action, she replied immediately:

“你講乜嘢呀?唔好講英文啦你!” (What are you talking about? Don’t speak English!)

The “啦” (laa1) towards the end of the sentence is a emotional particle in Cantonese. Together with the unsatisfactory mood she carried when saying it, the sentence should be more correctly translated as:

“What are you talking about? Don’t speak English for goodness sake! This is Hong Kong after all. Why would you as a Chinese speak English? Shame on you!”

Then I could hear the clerk switched back to Cantonese, feeling very embarrassed.

If you do this successfully to someone you will be seeing regularly, I bet he won’t dare to speak to you in English anymore. But then of course, you have to show your confidence speaking your target language in the first place.

With the above suggestions being said, I don’t believe there is a perfect solution to the problem. My own advise is to pick your speaking partners carefully. No matter how well you speak, there will always be people who are not willing to speak to you in their own languages. After all, they also have their right to practice their English, right?

I have many Mandarin-speaking friends and colleagues. Some know me for a long time, well before I started to pick up the language. They just feel speaking Mandarin to me a bit unnatural, and they would rather speak English to me, as it has been done for years. So I have decided to give up speaking Mandarin to them. Now, I only pick those whom I have recently met, and those who are willing to put up with my weird accent.

I believe the overall approach is to find a few speaking partners who are willing, stick with them, and leave the unwilling ones behind. Just like Mr. Bush’s “coalition of the willing“, you don’t really need a lot of them.

CBC May 25, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Canada, Cantonese.
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The other day I and my wife walked pass a mobile phone sales booth. My wife was considering upgrading her phone.

A young salesman approached us and started to introduce to us all kinds of phones available. He was a CBC (Canadian-born Chinese) speaking English with a perfect Canadian teen’s accent. Then he got stuck in a question and had to redirect it to another salesperson behind him. She was also a CBC. Somehow she overheard I and my wife exchanging in Cantonese, so she started speaking Cantonese to us. This really surprised me.

Her Cantonese was not perfect and had to switch to English from time to time. Although I wished to switch back to English many times, but I had this feeling that she was seizing the opportunity to practice her Cantonese, so I decided to stick with Cantonese and tried to speak as clearly as possible.

For most CBCs, if they were in the same situation, they would probably choose to speak English right through, just as the first salesperson did. Speaking Cantonese is troublesome to them. Why bother? We all know English anyway. The only time that they would attempt is when they have to talk to their grandparents, who happen to know no English at all.

I don’t have a clue why this saleslady would bother to speak Cantonese with us. There must be a motivation behind it. In any case, I sincerely wish her a great success in her Cantonese acquisition.

The Doctor’s Office May 18, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Cantonese, Toronto.
1 comment so far

This morning, I needed to call the doctor’s office to reschedule my daughter’s appointment for next week. From the other side of the line came a female voice:

“The doctor’s office…”

Both receptionists speak Cantonese. I usually speak to them in English when booking appointments. But today for some reason, I felt like speaking Cantonese.

“唔該…” (May I…)

“Excuse me, would you speak in English, please?”

Oops, it was the nurse who picked up the phone. I was so embarrassed!

In Toronto, it is of course a normal practice to engage in a phone conversation in English first. You never know what other languages the other person can speak. But if I know the person whom I am calling speaks the language I speak, and I know the person well, it does sound odd if I would kick off the conversation in English.

But then there were many occasions in the past in which I dialed a wrong number and asked for a particular person in Cantonese. Then I was shocked that the other side replied in Cantonese, “冇呢個人, 你搭錯線” (There is no such person. You’ve got the wrong number)!

Correct Pronunciation March 23, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Cantonese, Speaking, Toronto.
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Imagine someone threatens to sue you for pronouncing some words differently.

This actually happened last month in Toronto. A group of Cantonese language enthusiasts held a press conference, complaining the news anchors of some Cantonese channels for adopting a pronunciation standard known as the ‘Correct Pronunciation’ (正音). They also started a petition letter:

“As native speakers of Cantonese, we find the news broadcast harsh to the ear. These awkward-sounding pronunciations are either unheard of or simply not employed in daily Cantonese language use, in settings formal or informal, cultural or otherwise.”

Last week, I had a chance to talk about this issue with a friend who happened to work in the news department of one of the stations. He said the incident was actually more serious that it might seem. He said the group even threatened to take legal action against them! He believed the group was trying to make a big deal out of it so that people would take notice of the issue. In fact, they successfully made it into the many Chinese newspapers, and even the national Global and Mail:

“A dispute over the form of Cantonese spoken by announcers on Toronto-based television news broadcasts that has been quietly simmering the Chinese community in breaking out publicly just in time for the Chinese New Year.”

The so-called ‘Correct Pronunciation’ movement (粵語正音運動) started in Hong Kong in the 1970s by a university professor Richard Ho. The purpose of his language rectification movement was to correct the mispronunciations of many Cantonese words by the general public. This movement was backed by the Hong Kong government and its broadcast station at that time. Unfortunately, Dr. Ho based some of his rules on his interpretation of a 1000-year-old dictionary of Chinese rhymes (廣韻). Some of his suggested pronunciations just sound weird to modern Cantonese speakers.

My friend said even if the group takes legal action, they wouldn’t have chance to win. First of all, their news anchors have not adopted all the ‘weird’ pronunciations from Ho. Secondly, who can make the call of which pronunciation is correct? My friend’s station is a multicultural station, and his colleagues told him that they often have these kinds of complaints from audience of their own languages.

Hypercorrection March 9, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Cantonese, Grammar, Phonetics.

Recently, to my surprise, I have found out that I have been mispronouncing a word for over 30 years, in my own native language!

The word is ‘愛’ (oi3) in Cantonese, meaning ‘love’. It is a commonly used word, and many people like myself, mispronounce it as ‘ngoi3’. It is usually not noticeable, but in terms of phonetics, it is a completely different sound.

To be exact, I am pronouncing the word in the ‘less correct’ way. The official Cantonese dictionary accepts this pronunciation as a variant. The wide spread of this ‘less correct’ pronunciation was an result of an unconscious rule of adding the initial ‘ng’ for all words that do not have an initial. The rule is not always correct.

In fact, there is a linguistic term for this kind of rules – hypercorrection. It describes the over-generalization of common usage by imposing artificial grammatical rules that are not necessarily correct in all cases. An example in English is the rule of not ending any clause with a preposition. After being hypercorrected, Winston Churchill made this famous quote:

“This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.”

To be honest, I am still having a hard time to convince myself that I am wrong (or ‘less correct’). Many people nowadays will not accept the original pronunciation, and would assume that it is incorrect. I don’t like its sound either. I find my pronunciation of the word more natural.

I have 2 choices now. I can either correct myself, or I can wait for the dictionary to be updated, which could happen one day.

Have you ever found yourself mispronouncing any word in your own language? What would you do about that?

Fun With Global Translator February 7, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Cantonese, English, Humour, Mandarin.
1 comment so far

Here is a follow-up on my recent post “Fish Jokes“.

Although I discourage my fellow-bloggers to provide machine-translation links to their pages, from a reader’s point of view, I do find the existence of these links very meaningful. Indeed, they are extremely entertaining!

This site has just installed a WordPress plugin called the Global Translator, as described by its post today. I can’t wait to entertain myself by checking out some translations of that page.

Let’s look at the Chinese translation for example. The original first sentence of the page is:

“Today I added another nice wordpress plugin to my list of top wordpress plugins I use.”

It is translated to:


First of all, note that it is not a proper sentence at all. Next, if you look closely, ‘nice’ has been mistaken as the place Nice. The translation of the phrase “top wordpress plugins I use” does not make any sense. In fact, ‘顶我’ sounds rude in Chinese.

If you go down to the bottom, you will be amazed to find a list of ‘recent job posts’ (近期职位)!

The plugin is nice enough though to provide the original text if you ‘mouse over’ the translated text.

Disclaimer: I have no intention to poke fun at the author and his blog. The author himself already warned in the post that there are shortcomings using the translation plugin.