Learning a new language can be hard. But for Norwegian Cecilie Gamst Berg (甘茜蓮), who has lived in Hong Kong since the late 1980s, learning Cantonese (廣東話) is fun. In fact, she loves Cantonese and its culture so much that she teaches it to other foreigners.
No fear of Cantonese
The story of Cecilie Gamst Berg shows the crux of learning languages well – bravery and persistence. In fact, hundreds of her students are also inspired by her love of Cantonese and our local culture to learn it.
WHEN Junior Standard fi rst met Cecilie Gamst Berg (甘茜蓮) and her student, Joan Bouttell (阿珍) in a cha chan teng, Cecilie was ordering one of her favourite drinks, iced water with lemon and no syrup. She spoke in fluent Cantonese, “M4 goi1 yut1 bui4 dung3 ning2 seoi2 zau2 tim4 aa1.” (「唔該一杯凍檸水走甜吖」)
Gamst Berg is a fair-skinned Norwegian (挪威人) in her 50s. She has been in Hong Kong for nearly 30 years. To understand our city, she spent a year and a half learning Cantonese, the mother language of most Hongkongers. Since then, she has developed a profound interest in this language and its culture, and has been teaching Cantonese to other foreigners or overseas-born Chinese for almost 20 years. Besides, she not only insists on preserving Cantonese and traditional Chinese writing in our city, but also promotes it as a world language.
In February, shared their experiences of learning and speaking in Cantonese. For English learners,their tips of mastering a different language may also be useful.
C:Cecilie Gamst Berg J:Joan Bouttell
Question 1:Why are you interested in learning Cantonese?
C:BECAUSE I like Hong Kong and the people here. To understand the city, we should learn the language that citizens speak so as to interact with them. I also like the interjections of Cantonese, especially the ‘ji2’ (咦). The Cantonese pronunciation also sounds pleasant and descriptive.
J: My family and I first came to Hong Kong six years ago, and I have been working as a nurse. I initially thought that it was impossible to learn Cantonese, until I listened to Cecilie’s radio programme about the fun ways to learn. I started picking up this interest and joined Cecilie’s private lessons last year. Learning Cantonese helps me interact with my colleagues at the hospital better, and I no longer feel isolated and lonely because of the language barrier.
Question 2 How do you learn Cantonese?
C:WHEN I first learnt Cantonese, I went to a bar and a karaoke club to sing Cantonese songs, and I remember even getting third in a singing contest. We learn a language by speaking it every day. I always speak in Cantonese to the locals, and learn much slang from them. I also read gossip magazines to learn the Chinese characters and Cantonese expressions. While learning a language, we must act like innocent kids and cannot be too shy to ask.
J: Cecilie advises me to always jot down the Chinese characters and Cantonese pronunciation of the vocabulary that I see on a street or in a hospital, such as ‘gam1 yat6 hai6 cing4 jan4 zit3’ (‘Today is Valentine’s Day’, 今日係情人節) and ‘gwat1 zit3’ (‘broken leg’, 骨折). I still feel nervous having a long conversation, but I try to ask for plastic bags in supermarkets or add value to my octopus card in convenience stores, in Cantonese. I feel gratified when the staff understands my Cantonese. I also compile my own notes and carry a dictionary all the time.
Question 3: What difficulties have you encountered while learning Cantonese?
C: TO me, learning languages is a piece of cake. But when I learn Cantonese, I find it tricky that what we speak daily cannot be always written down. In the other languages that I previously learnt, such as English, French and German, etc, there are characters to represent the words spoken. But in Hong Kong, where we speak in Cantonese, most textual materials are written in formal Chinese but not the colloquial Cantonese. Some Cantonese expressions even have no Chinese characters to represent them.
J:The most difficult partis the speed. People often speak too fast. Though I can hear the words, there is no time for me to digest and understand. I often ask them to speak slowly for me to catch up. It is also a bit scary to chat with locals in Cantonese because I am afraid that I can’t speak in the correct tone. I am a shy person, and I feel a bit sad if people can’t understand my Cantonese. I also agree with Cecilie that it is harder to understand Cantonese without writing.