Sunday, November 26, 2006

Things I Wish I Knew Before

In the course of my life, I've studied several langauges and like to think that I'm proficient in some. Each language has its own difficulties and challenges and sometimes require different approaches. I've probably tried every language learning method available and these are some of the things I've learned.

1. CLASSES ARE A WASTE OF TIME: Every person's pace of learning is different so it can be very frustrating if you are faster than the class or slower than the class. Finding one that matches your pace exactly is very difficult. Besides, when you are sharing your class time with many other students, the time you can actually speak the language is severly limited and your listening can be screwed up by someone else's bad accent.

2. GET A GOOD TEXTBOOK SET: This seems very obvious, but I think a lot of people are not sure what to look for. For one, make sure it does not use romanization. There is no way to get around it; if you want to good at a language, you need to invest the time and effort to learning to read and write. Also, it is not a good idea to jump around different series. Unless the set you are working on is undeniably terrible, finish it. After that, you will have a feel of what you need to work on and you can focus your studies to your weaknesses. Another thing that needs to be considered is whether or not there is audio for you to hear the language. If there are no cd's included, you could be butchering the language and not even know it. And finally, a good series builds on itself so you don't waste your time repeating lessons. Find a series that goes from beginning to advance and go throught it all. For example, if you work on a three book series and then move to a six book series, you just wasted your money and time since the six book series should have everything the 3 book series has. In any case, before you start spending big, do lots of research and make an informed decision. P.S. You cannot learn a language in 10 minutes a day. Avoid these or similar books like the plague.

3. AVOID PRIVATE TUTORS AND LANGUAGE EXCHANGES: The only time I might recommend this is if you are not in your target language's country. Private tutors are overpriced and language exchanges are usually just trying to practice their English rather than seriously teaching you anything. Besides, if you are in the country, there are plenty of opportunities to practice just by going out your door. However, find a friend who can help you out if you have any questions. When I was studying Japanese and had a question, I just called one of my friends and asked him/her to explain it, and they me. I didn't burden them with the expectation that it was their responsibility to teach me the language at a certain time everyday like the terms tutor or exchange would imply. And they didn't burden me with that, either. If your or your counterpart's expectations are not met, it only leads to frustration.

4. HANG OUT IN GROUPS: If you are with one other person, often times, they will speak English, which is something you probably don't want to do. But if you are in a group, you will be immersed in the language because people will speak their language since it is more comfortable for them. Besides, a lot of people are shy about speaking English in front of their friends.

5. ALCOHOL: Drinking relaxes you and relaxes the people you are with. You lose that nervousness you get when speaking another language and you get some new friends. And more importantly, since you got these new friends now, all the formalities melt away and you can hear how the language really is. And if they don't understand you, you can blame it on their drinking. : ) Anyways, I'm sure there are a thousand other ways to get closer to people, but I have yet to see anything break social walls faster than a little bit of fire water.

6. FORGET ABOUT FLASHCARDS: Learning words on their own is really not helpful. Learning them IN CONTEXT is. Think of the words 'over', 'finish', 'end', and 'terminate'. They all basically mean the same thing, but the situations in which they can be used can be quite different. The movie can be OVER or the movie can be TERMINATED. I can FINISH my homework, but Can I END my homework? It is all in the conotations of theses words and you can't get that from flashcards. A student trying to learn English would be at a loss if he/she only used flashcards to learn these words. Read and keep reading. Works a thousand times better than flashcards. The ONLY exception for me is when you are trying to learn Chinese characters. I don't mean Chinese words, but recognizing Chinese characters.

7. SWALLOW YOUR PRIDE: Don't be afraid to make mistakes. Don't be afraid of looking like an idiot. Nothing burns a word or grammar point into my mind better than making an ass out of myself by saying something completely ridiculous because I got the word/grammar wrong. Will I look stupid? Yes. Will I remember? Yes. Small price to pay if you ask me. But most importantly, if you don't know, ASK.

Anyways, these are some of the conclusions I've come to all these years later. I wish I knew them a long time ago. It would have saved me a lot of money and a lot of headaches.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Good Okinawan Eating

I've never been to Okinawa, but while living in Japan, I developed a taste for Okinawan food since there are restaurants everywhere. Honestly, it is one of my favorite cuisines. Lucky enough, a buddy introduced me to a Okinawan place in Hong Kong. Good stuff. As a plus, all the waiters and waitresses spoke Japanese so I didn't have to fumble around a Chinese menu and play charades or pictionary to get my order across. I did take a small blow to my pride when I found out that the waitress spoke Japanese as well as me even though I've lived in Japan twice as long. I guess there is something to be said about learning Japanese by working in a Japanese restaurant. Anyways, at least I have a place to go to to get my fix of Aomori, pig ears, and goya chanpuru.

Pimsleur's Cantonese I (Review)

Just got finished (for the 3rd time) with this set. 30 audio-based lessons at 30 minutes each for a total of 15 hours. Honestly, I think the Pimsleur method is fantastic as it forces you to use your brain instead of just parroting whatever the narrator is saying. It is also great because it helps me get a feel for the language and how the tones and rhythms work together. Now for the bad. There were a couple of times where I was not sure if I was hearing what I was supposed to be hearing, but there was no way for me to check since it does not come with any written material. Very frustrating when I had to replay some portion of the tape over and over again trying to figure out what they were saying. In this case, being audio-based is this product's best and worse aspect. Also, this is ridiculously expensive and as much as I like it, it is not worth the money. Better to borrow it from the library or something. That being said, I look forward to sets II and III.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Still Studying Japanese

When I first went to Japan, I spoke absolutely no Japanese. I took one class several years ago and only remember the hiragana. However, because I came to Japan, the logical first step was to start learning the language. I am the first to admit it. I hate textbooks. Not because I think they are not any good. It just seems that I have better results when I'm out there hearing and parroting the language. I bought the Japanese for Busy People Kana series and went thru it, but, to be honest, little of it stuck. I would say 95% of what I have learned was from harassing the people in my office to explain what they were saying. What was especially helpful was that I was in the deep countryside where I had very little chance of speaking English. Anyways, for me, the textbooks became helpful AFTER a couple of years learning the language when what I learned thru intuition was explained clearly and things 'clicked'. For myself, learning some of these rules beforehand were difficult because I couldn't understand their importance or what situations they are supposed to be used in.

In any case, I can safely say that my Japanese is pretty good. But when I moved to my new company, I realized that pretty good doesn't cut it. This was the first time that I NEEDED to be good at Japanese. Normally, no one expects a foreigner to speak Japanese. If you can say hello and goodbye, that is good enough for most. But as a friend once said, the better your Japanese is, the more people will not put up with your mistakes and misunderstandings. Very true.

My first few months were difficult, but in all honesty, there is almost no better motivation to improve your Japanese than feeling like an idiot in the office. And my learning curve shot up. Of course, I am the last to admit that I'm fluent, but I am leaps and bounds ahead of where I was and hope to get even better. Even if I am in Hong Kong now. So what am I doing now? Going back to the textbooks.

I am using two resources now: The Genki series and Remembering the Kanji. The reason I am starting from basics with the Genki series is because 1) since I never really went thru a structured course, I feel like there are big holes in my Japanese that I should know. That is why I am starting from the very beginning. And 2) the Genki series does not talk down to its users. After lesson 3, it introduces the kanji and forces you to learn in a very structured format. This series is published by the Japan Times and I think their whole lineup is excellent. Any course that does not teach hiragana, katakana, and kanji does not deserve to be on any serious student's list.

Remembering the Kanji is fantastic and helps you to learn how to write more than 2000 characters although it doesn't teach you the pronounciation. But reading online articles with the help of Firefox's rikaichan plug-in, remembering the pronounciations of the characters is very easy.

Before, textbooks frustrated me, but after 3 years of studying the language, these textbooks are helping me firmly grasp the language and making it mine. But one thing is true. The best way of learning any language is being in a situation where not being able to use it is not an option.

Just Some Background

Probably in the course of this blog, I will mention several other languages that I am currently studying outside of Cantonese. Am I a glutton for pain? Am I trying to give off the impression that I'm smarter than the average bear? Nope. Fact is I need to learn languages for my life and career:

Cantonese: I'm living in Hong Kong
Japanese: I work for a Japanese company and have lived in Japan for a few years
Korean: Korean is definitely the most personal to me since I was born in Seoul and am half Korean
Other: Just because I'm fascinated by languages

So for those of you who are (or aren't) wondering why I'd be studying anything else besides Cantonese, there you are.

Pimsleur's Cantonese 1

This is the 3rd time that I've listened to this series. The first two times were quite awhile ago so I'm thinking that listening to it again now would be even more beneficial. As a lot of people will tell you, the vocab learned in this series is very minimal, but for me, the important thing is getting into the rhythm of using tones. Will I learn Cantonese with this set? No. But it is good preparation. Besides, it is a good way to kill time on the MTR.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Motivation for Learning Cantonese

Last Sunday, I met a buddy of mine who I went to school with. He, his girlfriend, and I went to Shang Wan for dinner at this chinese restaurant he knew. Great food, as usual, but the real fun was in the ordering. He was Japanese so he could read the characters, but could not pronounce them. Furthermore, he spoke a little Mandarin, which is like speaking Inuit at a Baton Rouge cajun bbq. After miming and a round of pictionary, we finally got our food, but my buddy was frustrated, the waitress was pissed, and me and his girlfriend could barely control our laughter. But the best part of the night was when he tried to order some tea. He points to the teapot which was filled with hot water only and said what what we think is 'I want tea' (in Mandarin). She picks up the pot and pours hot water into his glass of beer. This was definitely one of the funniest dinners I've ever been to. Moral of the story? Learn Cantonese or you will get hot water in your beer.

Saturday Fun

Last Saturday was a bunch of firsts. I went to my first HK bbq. Lots of fun. V picked me up on his motorcycle and drove along the highway. The view was fantastic and reminded me of a HK version of Highway 1 along Cali's coast. When we got there, I realized that my image of a beach bbq was slightly different than everyone else's. It was an asphalt square with beach umbrellas and portable charcoal pits. You use a prong to skewer the meat and there you go. Good stuff. Another guy brought his pet parrot which was fun to play with...until it bit me.

Afterwards we headed to the gym with some of V's other friends for badminton and squash. I just moved in so all my stuff didn't arrive yet so all I had were slippers. I decided to play barefoot. Of course this was met with, 'Are you out of you mind?' They offered to find me a pair of sneakers, but the idea of putting on a stranger's shoes is not all that appealing to me. Anyways, I found that I really really enjoyed squash. Hopfully, I'll get to play often here. It was V's birthday so we went to a Thai restaurant in TST. It was in this pedestrian only sidestreet with a bunch of restaurants with outdoor seating that was obviously an expat hangout. It was very nice and reminded me of Beihai park in Beijing....only without the lake. The food? fantastic. I've been eating so much here that i'm starting to worry about my weight after only one week.

Next was karaoke. The facilities were great, but the selection was a bit weak for me since I couldn't sing, let alone speak, Cantonese. It also looks like my friends are not big drinkers because it was a dry karaoke. I don't know about the rest of HK, but my friends take karaoke very seriously and let me assure you; sober karaoke is NOT easy. Especially when we were in their for about 5 hours. The cool thing is that I learned a couple of drinking games. Ironic, isn't it? I got back at about 3:30am. It was a good day.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Shopping for Books

Yesterday, I went out to TST and HK Island to look for some books for learning Cantonese. Everyone told me that I could get by quite easily with only English, but having trouble talking to a taxi driver and not knowing the names of the foods you want to eat convinced me otherwise. I went to Swindon's and Page One in TST and to Dymocks on the island. Dymocks had the best collection and the highest prices. Here is what I got:

A Cantonese Book, by Betty Hung
No Sweat Cantonese, by Amy Leung
Interesting Cantonese, by Susanna Ng

I'll try to give them a review after trying them out, but my learning style has always been to buy a lot of books for a lot of money and then not opening them.


My second day (actually, it was still technically my first since I arrived so late/early), was mostly logistics. I had to open a bank account, shop for a phone, get a computer, etc. After opening my account, I discovered that they had something that I really missed in the states. The debit card! They system is called EPS and I used it to fix the problem at the hotel. Finally, things were going my way. When I got back, there was a message from V. He is a manager at the local HK branch of my old company in Japan. I met him a few years ago on a business trip and we hit it off right away. Great guy. He invited me to dinner that night with his wife, A , who taught me how to lose to her at mah jong a few years ago. I met up with him at TST and said he'd loan me his phone while I was here. See? I told you he was a great guy. Anyways, he helped me pick up a rechargable sim card and then headed out for dinner. His place and my place is very close so we headed back, picked up his wife, and went to the restaurant. It was a place in the local shopping mall that specializes in Shanghai cuisine.....and it was one of the best meals I ever had. Ready? Here we go. We had dumplings in sauce, cold chicken noodles with peanut sauce, Shanghai crab with vinegar, shark fin soup, crab dumplings, shrimp fried in duck egg sauce, warm noodles in peanut sauce, something from the ocean in oyster sauce, fried ice cream, sesame pastries, ginger tea, jasmine tea, and a very delicious plum wine. We ate so much food so I'm sure I missed a couple of dishes above, but it was heaven. I was actually full after the Shanghai crab, but everything looked so delicious, it would have been a sin not to try them all. In the end, I ate so much that it hurt...but it was a good hurt.

Anyways, V and A invited me out this wknd to an all day birthday party for V including a beach barbecue, tennis, dinner (already salivating), and karaoke. Life is good when you have good friends.

Day 1

I gotta arrival was a lot less smooth than I thought it would be. I finally land at about 11ish, grab a taxi, showed him the address to my serviced apartment, and proceeded to drive in circles. In all fairness, the taxi driver was a really nice guy and I'm sure he wasn't just running up his meter. Turns out that in Hong Kong, all the streets have English and Chinese names that don't always mean the same thing. For example, Elm Street in Chinese doesn't necessarily mean Elm or have anything to do with trees. I only had the English address. I would have given him the Chinese address if I could have found it on the hotel's webpage. Anyways, after a few misses, I give him the number and he calls them up for directions. We finally arrive around 12:30 at night.

At the apartments, it was a whole new mess. I was coming from Japan and I had my first months rental fee in yen. It turns out that they do not accept yen payment. This was confusing to me since when I made the reservation I told them I was coming from Japan. They had my address in Japan. They had my phone number in Japan. Wouldn't it be logical to expect payment in yen? I guess not.

Basically, I had three options: Hong Kong Dollars, US Dollars, or credit card. I didn't have the first two and my credit card limit is embarrassingly low. His advice? Grab a cab, drive 30 minutes away to a currency exchange center that may or may not be open, drive back another 30 minutes with a bag full of bills, all in the dead of night. Since that was not going to happen, I asked him to call the manager at home. No answer. How about the assisstant manager? No answer. He asks me to wait a minute with each my attempt to be reasonable, i waited an unreasonably long time. Long story short, we finally check online for the exchange rate between HKD and yen and I gave him that amount to hold with the promise I would change it to HKDs the next day. I didn't get into my room until 3:30am.

I'm a reasonable guy and seldom, if ever, get angry. The fellow behind the counter obviously felt bad for me, but he had to follow the rules of the establishment. Nevertheless, I was ready to kill someone. Welcome to Hong Kong.