If you speak Cantonese, Mandarin or both, then you know that certain words sound very very similar. However, to the untrained ear they are worlds apart. For me, it took a few months to get adjusted to the harsher sounding lexicons of the Cantonese language. A friend who is trilingual (a Cantonese, Mandarin and English speaker) once told me that she preferred Cantonese over Mandarin because to her, it’s a language that is “much more expressive” compared to Mandarin. I didn’t really understand what she meant by that. But after listening more to Cantonese, I now know why.
Because Cantonese has +/- 7 tones, dialogs have a noticeably larger sound range. The sentences and words go through more highs and lows than in Mandarin and take sharper, more abrupt sounding turns or stops. Mandarin is therefore a much easier language to learn because it has a stricter delineation of 4 tones. Only 4. Neither language is, in my opinion, a breeze to learn. But once you learn one, it’s not as difficult to hear the connotations between the two. Additionally, Cantonese is notorious for having a very colloquial culture to it – a lot of slang is used and can vary across Cantonese speaking regions, namely Macau, Hong Kong and through Guangdong Province. Therefore, it is very difficult to learn and maintain a language that is so transformative.
My ear cannot always distinguish among the Cantonese tones, although there are apparent phonetic overlaps that I can pick up on when in context. One of the first times I clearly remember learning a few basic Cantonese words was when my apartment suddenly ran out of water. Downstairs, I desperately attempted to express myself in Mandarin by saying “No water!” to the doorman:
Me: “Méi yǒu shuǐ!”
Doorman: “Ah, Mò séui.”
It suddenly clicked. These two phrases spoken aloud one after another allowed me to instantly hear the connotation between the two phrases. So, I learned a very basic word 沒. Pronounced “Méi” in Mandarin and “Mò” in Cantonese, this highly useful word negates the subsequent word in a sentence or phrase in both languages.
This also helped me learn the word for water 水:
My Cantonese listening skills are also put to the test every time I drop off my laundry across the street. The lovely woman at the shop knows a very limited amount of English and Mandarin (I’m estimating the extent of her vocabulary is ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, ‘thank you’ and numbers 1-100 in both languages). Our conversations reach a functional stage with me speaking to her in Mandarin and her responding in Cantonese.
Whenever I pick up my laundry after a run, and she always comments:
Laundry Woman: Páao bo? (You were running?)
Me: Duì pǎobù. (Yep, running.)
There have been times where we both struggle to understand what the other person is saying. In this scenario, I attempt to repeat the words that she says in Cantonese until I hear its Mandarin counterpart in my head. Sometimes this works. Sometimes I fail miserably and just end up giggling embarrassingly at my misinterpretation. But she is very sweet about it and just laughs along with me. (Or maybe just at me.)
If you listen really closely to both Cantonese and Mandarin, you can start picking up on how similar they actually sound. Here are a few more phrases that sound very similar in both languages:
Hello/ how are you?
Cantonese: làay ho
Small/ a little bit
Mandarin: xiǎo xiǎo
Cantonese: siú siú
To listen/ hear
Mandarin: pián yi
Cantonese: paang di
Fast/ faster/ hurry up!
Mandarin: kuài yī diǎn a!
Cantonese: fai di la!
Cantonese (the language)
Mandarin: Guǎng dōng huà
Cantonese: Gwáng dùng wáa
Languages are something that I’ve always been fascinated by. I took French in middle/ high school for about 6 years and I always felt that it was easiest to remember the words that sounded most similar to my first language of English. Like the word orange. It’s exactly the same in French as it is in English, just pronounced differently. (Yep, that’s about all I remember from my 6 years of French.)
Now that I know more Mandarin, the words that I tend to remember the most in Cantonese are the ones that sound similar in Mandarin. Without even trying, my language acquisition of Cantonese is sometimes automatic. And that is:
Awesome, 好正啊, & HO GAENG AAAH!