Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Cantonese I Class Summary, Insights, and Homework for ALESN Monday, October 23

Hey Guys and Gals,

This past Monday was a productive class -- focused again on tones, with a bit of syllable pronunciation thrown in.

Before I get started, here is an excellent Youtube video emailed by one of our students. It is an overview about learning Cantonese: why, what, and how. Please note that this video uses the jyut6 ping3 romanization system. We used to teach this system in our program and may one day go back to it. I recommend that all of my students eventually learn jyutping, BUT we will be using Yale romanization for the duration of our current Cantonese 1 course.

Below is another video sent by our assistant teacher Allison regarding the n-l pronunciation phenomenon in spoken Cantonese. This video is entirely in Cantonese, and I only watched it once so I got maybe 65-75% or so of what he was saying. The interesting thing for me when I watch videos like this in Cantonese, when they are about topics that interest me that I already know something about, is that I am able to fill in a lot of the gaps in my own vocabulary via context -- even if I don't understand every word that the speaker is saying. In this case, though I understood most of the language that this gentleman used to discuss the n-l phenomenon itself, I experienced many gaps in my knowledge pertaining to the specific words and phrases he used as examples of n vs l at the beginning of certain Cantonese words. This video also made me realize that I have gaps in my knowledge pertaining to vocabulary that is used to describe the structure of Chinese language and grammar -- language about language, so to speak. I look forward to watching this video several more times over the next week or two, to see (and hear) how much more I might be able to understand upon subsequent viewings...

Everyone is welcome to watch this video for one of two reasons:
  1.  If you do already speak Cantonese with your family like Amy Lam and some others in the class, please watch this video and listen to the examples that this guy provides of ng variations and the n-l phenomenon and when pronunciation variations are appropriate and when not;
  2. If you are an absolute beginner, just listen to the sounds of this video to hear a very educated, academic rendition of spoken Cantonese in the context of an academic discussion, most likely at a college or university in Hong Kong. This is SOPHISTICATED Cantonese, the kind of pronunciation you want to aspire to -- as opposed to some of the rougher versions of Cantonese that we might hear gangster characters speak in various Hong Kong movies.
He begins by discussing the ng phenomenon that we have already mentioned in class, whereby many Hong Kong accented native speakers will drop the ng sound from the beginning of certain qualifying words such as ngoh5 (I or me), making it oh5. As an example of this pronunciation phenomenon, I suggested to those of you who attend our Saturday classes that you pay attention to our teacher Hung and the way that he pronounces many common Cantonese words, eliminating the ng sound at the beginning of various syllables. Two other common words that Hung pronounces this way are touh5 ngoh6, hungry, which Hung pronounces as touh5 oh6; and ngauh4 yuhk6, beef, which Hung pronounces as auh4 yuhk6.

From here, the speaker discusses the n-l phenomenon, which I am happy to clarify to the best of my ability in class, if anyone is curious. I won't bring it up unless it will help to clarify a vocabulary item in one of our lessons, but I love this stuff, so if anyone is interested, please ask my in class.

Now back to English language supplemental learning materials:

If that last video wasn't enough to whet your collective appetites for one of the two reasons suggested above, here is a really cool "newish" website that I just discovered that must be under 1 year-old, because I don't recall seeing this or having any students bring this to my attention during last year's ALESN Cantonese 1 class (i.e. during  the 2016-2017 academic year). This appears to be a really cool website with a potential wealth of information. All you need to do is give them your email address and you will be sent a link for a free 127 page PDF textbook.

I have not yet had a chance to do anything other than download my free textbook, but the PDF looks amazing, with a huge number of links to other online resources, videos, etc. Like the first video link that I gave above, this resource is also in jyutping, but it appears to be excellent and I recommend it to everyone -- with the caveat that I will update this blog entry once I have had a chance to go through the entire website and read the entire ebook myself over the next few weeks.

At first glance, this appears to be an excellent additional free online resource for you all as absolute beginner Cantonese students:


This past Monday night, we began with the vocabulary on page 30 of your textbook. If you don't have the textbook by now, you need to get it immediately or you won't be able to participate in my class going forward. 

As I mentioned, though all of these are excellent beginner level Cantonese words, I only used the vocabulary and dialogue of Lesson 1 this past week to illustrate tones, tonal contours from one syllable to another and from one word to another, and syllable pronunciations. I was not so concerned with breaking down any grammar or sentence structures at this point. I am mainly interested in having my students participate in critical listening of the sounds of spoken Cantonese, as we begin to develop our most basic level 1 listening comprehension skills.

Following a preview of the vocabulary and some brief explanations of certain key words, I read the Recapitulation of Lesson 1's dialogue aloud to the class and asked you all just to listen to the sounds. I also had Allison read this aloud to everyone one time.

From here, everyone repeated after me beginning with the Basic Conversation Build Up on page 2. This will be our basic method going forward when we start a new lesson: a preview of vocabulary followed by a preview of the Recapitulation of the dialogue, followed by a breakdown of the words and phrases in the dialogue -- and then eventually followed by the class breaking up into small groups and Allison and I walking around and listening / correcting each of you as you practice the dialogues with your group partners. We did not break into small groups this past Monday. Instead, we went right into --

Our textbook's explanation of the 7 tones of spoken Cantonese, which I then distilled and simplified for everyone into a more manageable 6 tone system.

I spent maybe 10 minutes explaining and showing on the board via our tones chart how I will be combining the 7th or high falling tone with the 1 tone or high level tone. I explained, as the book does, that the high falling tone is slowly disappearing from the language and that for new learners during the initial stages of their journey towards conversational Cantonese, it is best to combine the high falling tone with the high level tone and learn to say both of these as simply the high level tone.

Some students asked excellent questions regarding the distinctions in meaning or intelligibility between the high falling and high level tones, and we finished the discussion with a general "blanket" suggestion that for now, everyone should combine your pronunciation of both tones into one accurately pronounced high level tone, per the suggestion of the book. I am fascinated by the evolutionary changes that Cantonese is currently undergoing such as the disappearance of the high falling tone, the ng phenomenon, the n-l initial consonant phenomenon, etc., so I am happy to discuss this at greater length in class if it will help students with their reading of the romanized text and with their pronunciation of the 1 tone going forward. Just let me know...

Following the examples on pages 4, 5, and 6, we practiced saying various tones on the same syllables, mainly si/sih and fan/fahn. We saw on pages 6 and 7 that the H in Yale is used to separate the tones of syllables into the upper register and the lower register of the speaker's voice. Remember that I pointed out (and the book explains) that if there is NO H at or near the end of the Yale romanized Cantonese syllable, the tone can ONLY be 1, 2, or 3. If there IS AN H at or near the end of the romanized syllable, then the tone can ONLY be a 4, 5, or 6. And once you notice whether there is an H at or towards the end of each syllable, the diacritic or accent above the syllable will tell you definitively whether it is a level tone, a rising tone, or a falling tone within the higher or lower register of the speaker's voice.

Don't worry; we will go over this again and again as the semester progresses. If this is confusing right now, don't worry; as long as you pay attention in class and listen carefully while you repeat the class material, this will all eventually make sense to you. I promise.

As a reminder, I asked everyone to please read the copious paragraphs of English language explanatory text in between the examples that I cited from the book. Class time did not permit me to teach some of this material, but it is in the book AND IT IS IMPORTANT, so you all will be responsible for reading this text and for asking me any questions about it during our next class. This goes for any English language grammar or vocabulary explanations in any subsequent lessons as well, if time does not allow me to teach bits of the material during our once a week lessons.

After reading the examples of various intonations when speaking the same sentence in English on page 9, as well as a slight variation at the end making it a question, I asked you all to read on your own the English language explanatory text on the rest of pages 9, 10, and at the top of 11. We will pick up next time on page 11 with "C. Consonants and Vowels."


In the interest of time, let me keep this brief, because I have some other work to do as soon as I finish typing this entry.

My main insight for you all is that this learning process is a marathon -- not a sprint. Or, more accurately, it will probably happen for each of you as a series of brief sprints with some longer stretches of marathon-style, long distance mentality studying and review of the material in between.

You may have some quick breakthroughs here and there, or you may feel like you are beating your head against a wall for days or weeks and then all of a sudden, the differences in pitch AND FEEL of the 1, 3, and 6 level tones might become very clear to you in a way that you can't believe you didn't see or hear before -- and which you will never forget once you understand the way that these 3 level tones function in relation to each other with your own voice and in the voices of people around you or with actors on tv or in films that you may watch.

I like to tell my students to expect this: the journey towards conversational ability in any new language seems to progress like a steady uphill slow climb for a while; followed by some kind of short, steep hill; followed by a comfortable downhill trot for a short time as a new concept is assimilated into your knowledge; followed by more slow but steady uphill climbing. Occasionally, you will find a level spot where you can appreciate the progress you have made and actually even FEEL your progress unfolding in your ability to understand a scene of a film that you couldn't comprehend before -- or perhaps in your ability to seemingly suddenly talk about a new topic with a native speaker in a way that was not possible just a day or two earlier.

The more each of you becomes aware of your own personal language learning odyssey, the better each of you can then tweak or "hack" your specific learning process to speed things up for yourself going forward. THIS is one of my favorite aspects of a well-conceived language learning process where the student really pays attention to the workings of his or her own mind during the various learning phases.


Your homework, as mentioned at the end of class, is to reread lesson 1 up to page 11, and then to preview the material from pages 11 through 22 -- which we will cover next week (to the best of our ability).

Remember: I said that, due to time constraints, I will be discussing examples from the pronunciation section spanning pages 11 to 22, but that I won't have time to cover all of the English language phonetic theory behind some of the sounds -- so it will be up to each of you to read and internalize this information on your own. It is valuable information and will definitely help some of you to make these sounds, but time will not allow me to discuss all of the material in these pages next week.

Finally, please reread 2 blog entries ago -- the one where students submitted Youtube videos. I have added at least 3 new videos, possibly 4 since some of you last read that entry. All of these videos are excellent aids to proper pronunciation of the 6 tones that we are teaching you at ALESN.

Thanks for reading and see everyone next Monday.

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