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Québec City’s 400th July 3, 2008

Posted by Edwin in Canada, French.
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This year, Québec City celebrates its 400th anniversary. This is of course a good opportunity for the Canadian francophones to promote their culture and language.

Although the official opening ceremony was held today, many celebration activities have already been undertaken nation-wide in the past few months. There was a festival held in downtown Toronto 2 weeks ago, but unfortunately I could not make it that day. Ironically, I went to one in Vancouver a few weeks ago while I was transiting there.

The timing was perfect. The concert started at 8pm and my flight was at 11:30pm. As I was walking toward the Francodome, I was met with a volunteer handing out some flyers. She explained to me the event, and I acted as if I just knew about it. I stayed for about half an hour and left to catch my flight.

It was a free concert. The scale of the event was smaller than I expected. There were about 200 seats in the Francodome, and it was half-filled when I went in. As I looked around, I truly appreciated the efforts the volunteers put in to make the concert successful.

When I was outside the Francodome, I overheard someone near me, presumably a Canadian anglophone, asking his friend a question: “By the way, what is a francophone?”


Pronunciation-Wrestling June 24, 2008

Posted by Edwin in Accents, Canada, English.

In my last project at work, we dealt with a US telecommunication company. We had a team consisted of about 6-7 colleagues from the US and 4 of us from Canada, all ‘locked’ in a conference room somewhere in the vicinity of Seattle.

Since our client was a telecommunication company, the word ‘Mobile’ came up extremely frequently during our discussions. It was very interesting to notice how different people pronounced the word differently. In brief, people from the US pronounce the word as ‘Moble’ (rhymes with ‘Noble’). The rest of the world pronounce it as ‘Mobile’ (rhymes with ‘File’).

This means all the representatives from our client said ‘Moble’, as for most of our US colleagues. The only exception was a colleague with an Indian heritage. On the Canadian side, 3 out of 4 of us actually spoke English as a second language. Somehow, we naturally adopted to ‘Moble’ right from the beginning of the project. We just follow how the client said it with no complaint. The only person insisted on saying ‘Mobile’ was a native Canadian (meaning born and raised in Canada).

I came back to Toronto afterwards and talked with my boss about the project. She was another native Canadian, so she said ‘Mobile’. But then I found myself kept on saying ‘Moble’ and couldn’t switch it back!

I remember I was in another project many years ago. The team consisted of mostly Americans, with only a few of us from Canada. There was an issue with a database flag ‘Z’. Our US colleagues would say ‘zee’, but our Canadian colleagues, in attempt to keep up with our Canadian pride, would say ‘zed’. Somehow, everyone insisted on pronouncing it his own way and no one bothered to suggest to unify the pronunciations at least in the discussions. At one point, I was shocked to hear my team lead, a native Canadian, began to say ‘zee’. From then on, I knew we had lost the wrestling.

As a matter of fact, the ‘Z’ alphabet was once used as a Shibboleth. It was
known in American history and popular culture for distinguishing American males who fled to Canada from the US to escape the military draft in the 1960s. But thanks to the American cultural influences in the past few decades, such as Sesame Street and the Alphabet song (American version), ‘zee’ is now adopted more and more by many young Canadians.

Sophia Books June 18, 2008

Posted by Edwin in Canada, French, Japanese, Multiculturalism, Spanish.

Due to business reasons, I had to travel to Seattle back-and-fro in the past few weeks. I came back to Toronto each weekend stopping over at the Vancouver Airport. In the Memorial Day long-weekend, I had trouble connecting to an immediate flight from Vancouver. I ended up spending 6 hours in Vancouver. I went out to have a dinner in Richmond, which was just next to the airport. It had been more than 13 years since I visited Vancouver.

It was a pleasant experience, so I decided to try it again. Last week, I stopped over at Vancouver for 6 hours, and this time purposefully. I went to the downtown area. One place I visited was the Sophia Books, probably the only multilingual bookstore in Canada.

Sophia Books is not a huge book store, but it surely has plenty of books, magazines, and other media. French and Spanish are the 2 major sections. There is a large Japanese section right at the end of the room. Other languages fill the rest of the store. There are also up-to-date newspapers from different countries available.

I spent about half an hour in the store and picked up 4 books at the end: a Japanese magazine for my wife, a Spanish bilingual book for myself, and 2 story books for my daughter (1 French and 1 Spanish). Some books seemed a bit overpriced, but the rest are reasonable. Overall, the visit is a memorable experience to me.

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.

O Canada November 15, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Accents, Canada, English, French.
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Last week, I was compiling a collection of more than 25 different versions of the Canadian nation anthem “O Canada” for my daughter. The anthem is her favourite song besides, of course, the Alphabet song. I had been singing the anthem to her since she was 3-months old. Somehow, the tune worked great for a lullaby when sung with my dull voice. Now she is almost 2 years and a half, and she can sing the complete anthem by herself.

A few quick facts about “O Canada”:

  1. The song officially became the nation anthem only very recently, in 1980.
  2. The French and English lyrics of the anthem have nothing to do with each other. Their meanings are completely unrelated.
  3. In fact, the French lyrics came out first.
  4. The anthem is often sung by mixing the lyrics of the 2 languages. One reason for doing this is to demonstrate the bilingualism of the country. Another reason, rather more subtle, is to avoid some ‘sensitive’ words. So, if there is a sensitive word in one language, they would switch that line to the other language. How ridiculous!

In one version of the anthem, I found the pure English French-accent perfectly rendered. When I first heard it, I thought it was sung by some folks from the US (for it was from an NBA game). But then I found out it was sung by the Canadian A Capella-turned-rock-band (then disbanded) group – the Moffatts.

I was amazed how well the parts were harmonized. These 4 brothers had been singing A Capella since they were kids. I was more amazed that even their English French-accents were so harmonized too!

Out of the many versions of the anthem I have collected, the most beautifully sung French version I find is one posted by the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary on YouTube. In my opinion, it was sung better than the Celion Dion’s version.

A Multicultural Country? July 20, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Canada, Multiculturalism.

Today, many countries have realized the importance of embracing multiculturalism, and many have already claimed to be multicultural. Incidentally, I have recently heard a few people claiming that their own countries being multicultural, including this one:

Honestly, merely having some immigrant’s children attending some public schools does not make a country multicultural. In fact, even if the whole classroom is filled with students from different cultures does not mean anything. So what makes a country truly multicultural?

Personally, I believe that a multicultural country must respect, support, and be sensitive to different cultures. It is probably very difficult to achieve all these at the level of individual citizens, but at least the government must adopt policies in doing so.

Here is a brochure downloadable from the website of my regional government. Apart from English, it is also available in 7 other languages. Remember, this brochure is only written for people living in my region. It is irrelevant to those living outside my region or even the whole world.

This Wednesday, my provincial government just launched a telephone information service, and it supports more than 120 languages!

“The EatRight Ontario team of Registered Dietitians is available by phone Monday to Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. EST. The service is available in over 120 languages including Mandarin, Korean; Polish; German; Spanish, Ukrainian; Punjabi; Hungarian; Portuguese; Italian; Arabic.”

This is what I call true multiculturalism, and I am proud of being part of it.

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.
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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)!