From taxi drivers to shop assistants I encounter people who don't speak English on a daily basis. While I was pregnant D and I had lessons with a lovely local man who came to our home once a week and attempted to teach us the subtle nuances of Cantonese. He laughed at our accents and at times overwhelmed us with the complexities of a language that is riddled with landmines, but he was kind and patient, and it was our first experience of spending time with a native Hong Konger. My Cantonese got lost in the fog of new baby bliss and I can't claim to know much more than I did when I first started out, but I know the basics and I find that a little bit goes a long way. I used to get frustrated when I'd attempt to practice my best "how much is this?" in Cantonese only to be met with either a blank stare or a response in English. I still make the attempt but I've realised that most of the locals who do speak English like to practice as well. They're most often grateful that you've made the effort and speak English (when they can) to make it easier for you. It's always nice to see the look of surprise on a taxi drivers face when you give him the address in Cantonese or when you thank the shop assistant politely.
So, unless you're fluent, the following might help:
- We had several Cantonese lessons before we moved to Hong Kong but without practice it was quickly lost. It made a lot more sense when we came here and heard it and used it every day. If you do pick up a few phrases, don't be shy, the more you practice, the better you'll get.
- Cantonese (Gwan-dong-wah) is a tonal language. You need to learn it by ear, so a phrase book won't be nearly as helpful as lessons with a native speaker, you'll probably learn a lot more about the local culture than just the language too.
- The same word can have up to nine different meanings depending on the way it's said and you really can get yourself into trouble. The word for nine can also be dog or penis, not words you want to get mixed up!
- Even if you learn nothing else, please and thank you (mh goi, and do je) are essential. Your address, numbers and how to ask for directions are also useful. Whenever I'm going somewhere new I look up the address in my phrasebook and I also have the map open on my iPhone (in Chinese characters as well as English) to save time, money and a whole lot of frustration.
- Knowing some phrases may help you avoid getting ripped off in shops. Pulling out a "gei do chin ah?" (how much is it?) and "tie gwai la!" (too expensive) might only save you a few dollars but proving you're not just a tourist is worth it for the expression on the faces of the shopkeepers trying to charge you tourist prices.
- Don't ever be arrogant enough to assume that English will be spoken everywhere you go. If you get caught out, or lost, be polite and patient and with a few gestures you'll get by.
- Language courses are everywhere but here's a list of a few to get you started: