My first language – French
I remember my first foreign language learning experience when I was a kid was with French. I had just transferred from a local primary school to a Canadian school. The first couple of days went by pretty smoothly, it was a welcoming environment, but I soon discovered that it was compulsory to take on a second language, with Mandarin, Japanese and French being the available options.
I’ll admit that I’ve always been better at English than Chinese. My parents raised me bilingually, but they, especially my mum, emphasized on the importance of English fluency and literacy, exposing me to the language whenever possible, including when we spoke, but leaving Chinese to my own devices. With that in mind, the natural choice to me, then, was French, which was closest to English.
I can’t say I remember much from that time – primary school was a long time ago. However, I do retain some memories from that period of time. Our teacher then was called Mr. Labonté, and along with a few other students who had no prior instruction in French, he set us aside and gave us worksheets to get started with the language. It had phrases like “Bonjour”, “Au revoir”, “Ça va” and “Comme ci comme ça”, but I was stumped. I had no idea how to pronounce those phrases, nor any idea what to do with them.
That, I distinctly recall, was my first experience with learning a foreign language.
Fast forward a few weeks, (I think) we started to cover animals. We learnt things like “le chat”, “le chien”, “le gerbil”, “la perruche”, “le perroquet”. The end of the lesson, we had to write up a short paragraph introducing ourselves and describing pets (or something along those lines). I had never been a “clever” student per se, but I felt that I could catch up with the curriculum in school. This was the first time, in my stint as an actor in the education system, that I felt like a failure.
My vocabulary in French was literally nil, apart from the few tens of words we’d been taught in class, and I had no idea how to form sentences. So the first thing I did was to go to a bookstore to get myself a bilingual French-English dictionary. And once I got back home with my dictionary, once again, I was crestfallen. Even with a dictionary, I was no better than I was before getting a dictionary because I had no idea how French worked.
I then did the only thing I knew (which I found out many, many years later to be one of the worst things we can do when operating in a foreign language) – I transliterated. So, if I wanted to say something like “I have a dog at home”, I would look up each word in the dictionary, and piece together “Je avoir un chien à maison”. I remember submitting that homework and after some sequence of events, Mr. Labonté ended up fixing my poorly constructed sentences for me. I didn’t feel bad or anything, just stumped that I didn’t know what I could do moving on.
My university days
Thinking back, I never thought I would do any work related to languages. I always thought I’d span a career in finance when I was younger, but in a way, I’m glad it didn’t work out.
During my years in Shanghai, where I spent my university days, I studied software engineering. While I had fun coding (at times, and at times, it was a nightmare), I’ve always felt that it deviated from the type of “software engineering” that I had in mind, and that it lacked “spirit”.
From my years spent coding, I’ve seen fantastic coders who’re able to write code quickly, and accurately. But I feel that amidst the technically able, that was all that lingered in the air. It seems that we have forgotten that coding, beyond wrangling with logical puzzles, is a high level abstraction to help solve problems, human problems identified by humans and whose solutions are for humans. And in the absence of that “human” spirit, I felt that I had to step back and take a hiatus from the technical side of things and reconnect with the human side of the equation.
In stark contrast to that, from that episode in French to my university years up till now, I’ve separately studied Japanese, Spanish and Korean on my own, and cannot be happier about the things I was able to glean through the medium of language. Every time I read, or speak in a foreign language, it feels as if my spirit exists in a different space and time, with a completely separate identity. My experiences are different, and everything feels different.
Through what I’ve experienced through Japanese anime, Korean dramas and friends, French at school (Spanish I haven’t spent that much time with yet unfortunately), I’m convinced that I have to spread the joy of learning languages and potentially share with others what I’ve learnt along the way, and if possible, my own native languages if they were deemed useful to others.
Why learn languages
Being the conservative person I am, I always think about the practical applications of a potential endeavour, in this case, languages, of which there are many. The ability to speak a second foreign language, if not a third, fluently is increasing in importance as we enter a new age of globalization. With a further integration of nations across the globe, especially from an economic standpoint, it is inevitable that our cultures mingle and everyday that they do, we’re converging into something that has never before been witnessed in the history of humankind – “a global identity”.
In addition, with scientific research pointing to the benefits of a multilingual brain, with the closeness one forges with another person by speaking their language, all of these make it all the more enticing to not just learn, but to immerse ourselves into a different culture, which eventually leads to us developing a separate identity and cognizance of the world.
That, I told myself, is the reason languages are worth pursuing even many years in the future.
Of course, who was I kidding – these are just things people say to each other. The real reason anyone learns a language is purely because of interest. Interest forged by the need to communicate with a loved one, to connect with them on a deeper level; interest from a pure love of the culture attached to that language; interest in the language’s phonology and how it sounds – if interest were non-existent, then language learning would become an onerous chore, with some going so far to describe “confronting it every time with feelings of dread”.
But do not forget – a language, at the core of it, serves as a tool for us to foster communication with others. In other words, the objective is more important – we want to use it to help others understand us, and us them. This is why as the great Hungarian interpreter Dr. Kató Lomb once referred to languages as, “the only thing worth knowing even poorly”.
As a Cantonese teacher
Along the way, I’ve ventured into being both a student and a teacher, but more recently a teacher of Cantonese (https://www.italki.com/baggio). I’ve found that during my part time career (albeit somewhat short-lived) as a teacher, students face an almost insurmountable barrier in learning Cantonese. Referred to as one of the most notoriously difficult languages to learn in the world, most students tend to agree with that assessment because of the many difficulties of the language not altogether related to the language itself.
The number one reason I’ve heard students mention with regards to why Cantonese is so difficult to learn is the simple fact that there are very few learning resources available. Unlike other languages, or even its cousin, Mandarin, learners pretty much have to jump from beginner materials to native materials if they are serious about continuing to learn.
So, that’s my main motive for creating this site – building a bridge. Languages are an inseparable part of my identity, and I feel that it’s worth putting effort in sharing that spirit with others, in this case, in the form of presenting useful resources dissecting the Cantonese language to students who may be struggling to get beyond a beginner’s level, and intermediate students who’re struggling to find materials to take their Cantonese to an advanced level.
I hope this spirit will show through my work at Cantolounge, and I really hope the resources here will be useful to you.
Thank you so much for visiting, and I look forward to hearing and talking with you soon.