Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Cantonese I Monday, Oct 30, 2017 Class Summary, Insights, Homework

Hi Everyone,

Thanks to the miracle of technology and my fairly limited tome this week, I am typing most of this entry in the Blogger app on my phone while sitting in Li's Monday night Mandarin I class. Yay for technology...

Today was a tedious, but important class, in which we covered the material on pages 11 through 18 of our book. Fortunately, pages 19 through 22 (the remaining pronunciation material that we need to cover) is simply a reiteration of and elaboration on the initial sounds and finals on pages 11 and 12, which we spent most of tonight covering.


I began class with a brief review of the 6 tones of Cantonese, reminding everyone that we are combining the high falling and high level tones into one high level tone for simplicity's sake; better 6 rather than 7 tones to start, right? I again drew the tones diagram on the board and this time wrote out the 6 tones in Yale romanization on the syllable BO. The class repeated after me and I made sure that everyone voiced a solid 1 tone on bo (high level tone) before turning to the table of initial consonant sounds on page 11.

We noticed that everything in the first 2 lines sounds exactly like English. Line 3 presented some consonants that are similar to English but which, when pronounced properly in Cantonese, in effect sound like they are halfway between 2 different English language consonant sounds.

We saw (heard) that the J intial consonant in Cantonese, which we voiced with the sample syllable JA (pronounced like the English syllable "jah") is pronounced halfway between the sound of an English language "Jolly Jimmy Jelly George" and the final "ds" (dz) sound in "The Creature with Two HEADS." So, somewhere between a "j" sound and a "dz" sound. I explained that there will be some accent variation of poTAYto poTAHto going on with different speakers and that we will see this play out better once we start learning vocabulary.

Similarly, the CH sound in Cantonese is sort of halfway between an English language "ch" and the sound of the end of the word "caTS" -- as in "Brendan has two cats," which i do. Perhaps even more than with the J sound, the accent variations at either end of the TS vs. CH spectrum may be noticeable to students; in fact, many older Cantonese textbooks spell Yale's CH sound as "ts." This same variation in pronunciation is also reflected in different spellings of common food items on (Cantonese) Chinese restaurant menus, and may be seen in the choy / choi / tsoy / tsoi spelling variations of the Cantonese word for vegetable or dish/cuisine (as in "bok choy").

The rest of line 3 as well as most of line 4 is also pronounced just like the corresponding English language consonants. The exception, we saw, is NG, which does not appear in English as an initial consonant. It does, however, appear in between the words "sittiNG_On the desk" and "gettiNG_Off the desk." 

I pointed out that you have 3 choices for pronouncing the initial ng sound in Cantonese:
  1. (The choice I recommend) Learn to pronounce this initial consonant properly from the start. It's not that hard -- particularly since EVERYONE in the class was able to say "sittiNG_On the desk" / "gettiNG_Off the desk." There really is no need to cut a corner with this one. You can all say it already by slurring these English language words together, so why make excuses? Don't be lazy; just learn it!
  2. Your second option is to pronounce the NG as a regular N initial consonant in English, but hold it out slightly too long and really "dig into it," so to speak. In this way, I showed how my former student Francis was able to get away with saying in effect, "NNNNNoh5" for "I" or "me" in Cantonese. His use of this trick was subtle and eventually unnoticeable.
  3. I mentioned that most younger generation Hong Kong accent Cantonese speakers drop the NG entirely on many or even most words with an ng initial consonant, for example saying "oh5" for "I" or "me" instead of ngoh5. Our Saturday Cantonese teacher Hung is from Hong Kong and he (almost) never says the initial NG sound on any Cantonese words featuring this consonant. This is a 100% viable option for those of you struggling to make the NG initial consonant sound.
We saw that GW sounds like the beginning of the word "guava" (the fruit) and KW sounds like the beginning of the English word "quiver" (to shake, or a holder for archery arrows). And, finally, W sounds just like an English w.

From here, we moved to the table of finals on page 12, tackling them one column at a time. We began with variations of A vowels in Cantonese.

I explained that a single A not followed by any other vowel or consonant should be spelled "aa" in order to be consistent with the rest of Yale romanization. As a convention of the Yale system (so just accept it and move on), single A final sound in a Cantonese syllable is written with one "a" but pronounced like the English word "fAther." This same sound when combined with other vowels or consonants is spelled in Yale with two As (AA). So, GA is pronounced like in the English word "God." It should be written as "gaa" if Yale were 100% consistent with itself, but it is instead written "ga." Get over it.

The next 8 pairs of LONG and SHORT A-BASED VOWEL FINALS in Cantonese compare and contrast the differences in pronunciation of syllables involving one or two As:
  • AAI vs. AI
  • AAU vs AU
  • AAM vs. AM
  • AAN vs. AN
  • AANG vs. ANG
  • AAP vs. AP
  • AAT vs. AT
  • AAK vs. AK
In the first 2 cases, these A-based final vowel sounds are diphthongs. For the AA versions, you pronounce the first half of the diphthong as AA (like the English word "fAther"), in effect holding it out slightly longer before moving to the second sound in the dyphthong (either I or U). In the single A versions, the first half is pronounced as "uh" as in the English word "above," which in effect makes the first half of the diphthong go by faster and the second half appear to sound as if it lasts slightly longer.

As a example of why it is so important to be aware of and to pronounce the long AA vs. short A final forms correctly, I gave ji1 maah4 GAAI1 (Sesame Street) vs. ji1 maah4 GAI1 (Sesame Chicken). We will review these finals in column A again at the beginning of our next class.

 The second column of our finals table includes variations of vowel sounds based on E. We saw that a single E in Yale sounds like the English word "yeah." EI sounds like the vowel in the English word "gay." ENG sounds like somewhere halfway between "ang" in the English word "sang" and "eng" in "Englewoood, NJ." It is probably closer to "ang" in English, depending on the accent of the Cantonese speaker EK is like the end of the word "check" in English.

The third column involves a sounds foreign to English, EU -- which, depending on the accent of the Cantonese speaker, either sounds like a "French" "eu" sound (how I originally learned it from my first Cantonese teacher), OR sounds like "er" in the English word "her." I explained that while Tony Parisi, one of the two founders of ALESN, learned this as a French "eu" vowel from his teacher, Kam Yau, our other co-founder and an ABC (American Born Chinese) Cantonese speaker with her family in Brooklyn, pronounces this syllable as well as the variations in column 3 of this table as "er" like the English word "her."

EUI is the one Cantonese vowel that absolutely does not exist in English, no matter how hard I look for an example. It is NOT the sound of "boy toy joy Roy," even though most beginning students make this error and pronounce this vowel that way. "Boy toy joy Roy" is actually a separate Cantonese vowel sound, spelled OI and shown in the O finals column of our chart. 

EUI is formed by starting with the "French" sounding "eu" pronunciation of EU and at the end of the syllable,you shape your mouth like you are about to whistle. I asked the students to repeat after me and then we got some of the native speakers in the class to also say this vowel, and the students repeated after them as well. Though there were some subtle variations in pronunciation, it is important to note that neither I nor the Cantonese speakers in class sounded like "boy toy joy Roy" when saying this vowel.

EUN, EUT, and EUK were repeated by the class, and I explained the differences, while pointing out that EUN and EUK can show either the "French" "eu" sound or the "er" sound from the English word "her." EUT kind of sounds like the English word "foot." Not exactly the same, but close.

The book does a good job of explaining all of the EU based final vowel sounds of Cantonese in the long English language text portion on pages 19-21, which we will review during our next class. For now, please listen to the accompanying mp3 for lesson 1 and practice making these particular vowel sounds. Make sure that you do NOT sound like "boy toy joy Roy" when making the EUI sound!!! THIS IS SUPER DUPER IMPORTANT!!!

Column 4 features the I vowel finals: I by itself sounds like the English words "he" or "she." IU sounds like the English word "few." IM sounds like the English word "seem." IN sounds like "lean." IP sounds like a cross between "hip" and "heap" in English, closer to "heap" IT sounds like a cross between "hit" and "heat," closer to"heat." IK sounds like "sick" in English. This last one is subtly different than IP and IT.

Column 5 involves the O based vowel finals. Remember that O by itself in Yale romanized Cantonese sounds like "on" or "off" in English. OI sounds like "boy toy joy Roy." OU sounds like the English words "no" or "go." ON sounds like the English "on." ONG sounds like the English words "song" or "long." OT sounds like the English word "thought." OK sounds like English word "hawk."

The U column starts with the U sound, like the English words "food" or "mood." UI is oo-ee, like "chewy" chocolate chip cookies in English. UN is "oon" in English, like the sound of the word "rune." UNG is not the sound of "hunger" in English, but is rather like the sound of the vowel in the English words "could should would" with an "ng" at the end of the syllable. UT is kind of like a cross between the English words "foot," and "flute." I will help clarify the difference between the EUT and the UT sounds during our next class. UK is very close to the sound of the English words "look" and "book." Not quite, but almost.

Finally, the YU column in the table, similar / almost identical to the "German" umlaut U sound in Mandarin. This is a "pucker face" or "kissy face" "y" sound that follows certain initial consonants in Cantonese. This sound will make much more sense once we see actual words involving this pronunciation, and then we will have something to practice and learn. I will review this sound next time instead of describing it here. Please read the English language explanation of how to produce this sound in your book on page 19.

Following our discussion and repetition of the sounds of the Cantonese finals table, we reviewed the book's explanations of these various consonants, vowels, and vowel combinations from pages 12 through 18. Remember that pages 12 through 22 simply elaborate on the final vowel sounds presented in the table on page 12. We will cover the summaries of sounds on pages 19 through 22 next time, then review all of the Cantonese vowel sounds, and then move on to some drills at the end of our next class.


There are many insights that I could give at this point, but I will only give you one this week:

You MUST (whatever it takes -- and that will be very different for each student in the class) take the time to accurately learn all of the basic initial consonant and final vowel sounds of spoken Cantonese NOW -- starting this week and continuing for the next however many days or weeks until you simply get them. If you get them right away, then good for you and you won't need to spend much time on this phase of your learning. If any of these sounds are difficult for you, you must FOCUS ON THOSE SPECIFIC SOUNDS -- the sounds that you are the worst at pronouncing. 

Whatever you are the worst at right now, THAT is absolutely what you need to study and work on. THAT is THE ONLY THING that you need to study and work on right now.

I was mentioning to the Mandarin 1 workshop that I taught last Saturday that my main observation about our beginning Cantonese and Mandarin students at ALESN is that most of them never solidify their pronunciation and tones early on, so most of them have some degree of uncertainty every single time they speak, even when advancing to our higher level Cantonese and Mandarin classes. 

You MUST solidify the accuracy of your syllables and tones NOW, at this early stage, so that you won't be distracted for the rest of your time that you try to speak Cantonese with some kind of doubt, wondering "if you said that right." 

The successful students in our program get to a point fairly early on during their learning process where pronunciation and tones are NO LONGER AN ISSUE. Some sense of confidence is achieved where the learner knows that if he or she reads from the romanized Cantonese on paper or on a computer screen in front of them, a real native speaker Chinese person will absolutely understand what was said by the student, because the student will have pronounced every syllable and tone accurately. Eventually this happens during real-time conversations between the student and native speakers, but it must first happen when the student reads romanized Cantonese aloud or to him- or herself. 

There MUST be some sense of certainty and confidence that the rules of pronunciation and tones for this language have been learned and internalized, OWNED by the student before any real learning can take place.

Once the student has internalized and OWNED the pronunciation and tones, THEN he or she can begin to learn grammar and sentence structures and word order and vocabulary -- and THEN real communication can begin to take place. This is true when learning any new language.


Your homework for this week is to review the pronunciation of the initial consonants and final vowel-based sounds of Cantonese as described in the 2 tables on pages 11 and 12 of your book. Spend a good amount of time with this until you feel like you are making progress and beginning to understand how each consonant or vowel sound is produced, AND HOW IT IS SIMILAR TO OR DIFFERENT FROM ENGLISH (or from your first language if not English). 

Once you have spent some time with these 2 tables, please read or reread the English language elaborations on pages 12 through 22. We will finish covering this material next time.

The nerdier among you are also encouraged to preview pages 22 through 26 for some background and cultural information that we will mention, but gloss over, next time in class.

Finally, please take a look at the drills on pages 26 through the top of page 30, which we will hopefully spend a bit of time exploring towards the end of next Monday's class.

Thanks for reading and good luck with your studies this week!

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