Learning a Language from Scratch

12516333_10154006834543431_793466560_nI don’t know about you, but Cantonese was not offered at my high school. Mandarin, yes, but even that I didn’t consider taking. I never could have imagined that a few years later I would be here, having chosen to study abroad in Hong Kong, clutching a freshly pressed Canto phrasebook while watching a single one-minute youtube video about counting to ten over and over and over again until I can finally recite them by rote.

And for the first time, I am worried that my birthdays have changed a bit more than the list of countries I can drink in. I am worried that these foreign words just aren’t sinking in the way they used to.

It was about 11 PM when I started having this little crisis. Had I surrendered my ability to learn a language to time? Was it all over now? I drilled myself counting from 1-10 for a good half hour, still stuttering and stumbling by the time I went to bed.

And then I woke up the next morning, and they spilled out of my mouth.

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10! yat – yi – sam – say – ng – luk – chut – baat – gau – sop!

Learning to count to 10 in a new language is something I haven’t had the primal satisfaction of doing since elementary school, and what a feeling it is! To go from absolutely nothing, to a little bit of something. What a baby step!

12721954_10154006834618431_532486547_nLearning any Cantonese is an interesting challenge, as we are starting to look at this language from a beginning point even more base than “from scratch.” We don’t even have the ingredients, or understand what the ingredients are! We are looking at square one from about 100 feet back. Cantonese has a completely different writing system, different sounds, a tonal system! My phrasebook’s utility is limited because the guided pronunciations may indicate the direction of the tone but it is still such a new concept to us that we cannot read it.


It’s a fun challenge to get started on. Here is some of what I have learned so far, dipping my toes into these Cantonese waters:

  • Verbs are not conjugated in Cantonese. The infinitive, the present-tense, and the past-tense are all the same. This seems like a God-send. 75% of the time I spent studying French was spent memorizing verb conjugations.
  • There are 7 tones (the pitch and melody of a syllable) and the tone is just as important as the phonics
  • Speaking of phonics – that’s not really a thing in Cantonese. The written language is “ideographic” – representative of a concept rather than a sound.
  • “chaau faan” means fried rice and “chaau fan” (shorter a sound) means fried rice noodles, so think about that when you see “chow fun” on a menu!
  • yat – yi – sam – say – ng – luk – chut – baat – gau – sop! 
  • The “ng” sound often comes at the beginning of words in Cantonese which is tricky for us English speakers to get used to. The book recommends saying “sing along” over and over again and then dropping the “si”
  • “ng – goy” means thank you, for instance


Any tips out there for picking up the basics of a language before extended traveling? We’d love to hear them. Wish us luck!


4 Comments Add yours

  1. caitmonan says:

    The best tip I give to study abroad students is to talk to locals as much as possible. You will pick up something much faster than simply watching youtube, and reading out of the book. Don’t get me wrong, that totally helps. But a crash course would be spending a day in the market with locals simply asking questions. Try asking things like “how are you?” and listen to their responses. Best of luck!!! Also check out and follow my blog more study abroad tips.


    1. coffee&twigs says:

      Well, that won’t really be possible for us until we get there in September 😉 but we’ll be sure to make that effort


      1. caitmonan says:

        Best wishes! Check my blog for tips to get the most out of your study abroad!!


  2. I’ve friends that swear by Rosetta Stone. There are other apps you could try….duolingo comes to mind. Also check your community, around here there are all sorts of groups that get together to learn new skills like this. Good luck!! Exciting new adventures await!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s