Chapter 13 Learning Chinese

If you go to America, you must learn to speak English, though a few older people never make it. If you go to China, you will have to learn Chinese if you are to survive. But if you come to Hong Kong, it seems you can get along well enough with English, that is for a short time. But after some years, unless you learn to understand and speak some, you will never feel at home! However, I have known many Jesuits who worked hard and were deeply appreciated even though they only had rudimentary Cantonese. What then if you are an English teacher, does the importance of speaking Chinese really matter!

It was different for me. In 1960 I was set on being a missionary in China, so I wanted to speak Chinese, eat like the Chinese, feel and think like the Chinese. If I did not, how could I help build up Catholic Chinese communities, and how could I really help people in their spiritual lives.

During the sea voyage to Hong Kong on the SS Asia, I used to see a Chinese lady in the ship’s library writing letters in Chinese. I set my heart on learning to write Chinese and mastering its written language.

Arrived in Hong Kong on the 24th August 1960, I met Mr. Anthony Tse the following day in Cheung Chau. He arrived to teach me. I surprised him by saying I wanted to learn to write Chinese with a brush! He taught me. It was hard. My method was to treat each character like a chemical compound, so I broke it down into its “elements” and practiced putting the parts together with a brush on paper! In two years, I had mastered about two thousand characters. After that I had no fear of any written Chinese.

This is one way to enter into language learning. It requires much labour and great memory, little of which I had. It has benefits in the long run, but it does not facilitate personal interaction. I am consoled by the lack of speaking skills in English by many local men I know here, who are perfectly happy reading English but are very hesitant to speak it. May be I belong to their group.

The other extreme is what I have seen in homes, where the Filipina domestic helper communicates perfectly well with children and their parents with a few words of Cantonese and some of English, and much body language! The result is that there is perfect functional use of language! It is called “Functional Language”! Would that I also had this!

My first handicap was that I was a university post graduate, used to the academic world. Now I had to step down to very ordinary life. I needed to be able to communicate with ordinary people in the village of Cheung Chau- with children and family people. I had a distaste for that. I was not willing to mix with people at meals and games, or to pick up what they were saying, and maybe learn from them! I would counsel foreigners learning Cantonese and Chinese to do just this- mix with people and try to understand and get through to them in the various ordinary contexts of life. I would even force the students I teach to use what they have to communicate, and also to listen and imitate English accents and movements.

Language is learned by listening! The mother tongue is literally that- we speak like our mother and what we learned in our earliest years. To learn a language we have to listen and try to imitate like a child. And it takes courage and great motivation.

I can speak French because my kindergarten was in French. Though we spoke English at home, my mother spoke French with many of her friends. I never met English children of my age until I was in Primary Three. I even did not know any of the families of my mother and father until I was twelve. After that, I only had occasional contacts with them. We learn a language when we are young and in the context of that language.

In Hong Kong, parents are eager to send their children to an English speaking kindergarten and even primary school. I can understand how important this is in mastering English- the earlier we learn a language the better.

However, there is another factor and that is the interest and language abilities of a person. I just am not good at languages, though I had many opportunities to learn different languages. My father only spoke English and despised other languages.

In school, besides English there were French classes. I was not good at these. In senior secondary school, there was also Irish and Latin, both of which I had no interest in. For the bright students, there was also Greek, which was beyond me.

Teaching English for so many years, I see clearly that some people are not linguistically inclined, just as some people think they feel they will never be good at Mathematics. Consequently, one much teach simple English. In many cases, it is just to pass examinations. But my aim was evangelisation and building up of the local Cantonese Church! And for that fluency in Cantonese was required and I always felt deficient in this regard.

This is all stated to explain my lack of fluency and mastery of Chinese. I started learning it at the age of 29, after post graduate studies. Further I try to justify myself by saying that I did not have good teachers of Cantonese. My teachers were two mature men who were helping foreigners to learn their language but had very little, if no training, in language teaching. For that matter in Hong Kong in 1960 there were very few professional places to learn Cantonese, unlike today. I jumped into studying Cantonese in 1960, with incompetent teachers, and very little guidance, much like a university graduate would do if he were learning Cantonese on his own.

Starting in 1960, I paid serious attention to progress in spoken Cantonese as well as written Chinese until 1981! Then I gave up! Did I do well?

I think of the wonderful students I have been teaching English to. They have to learn English to pass examinations and they are told that they will need English for their future. But do the students in Wah Yan need to speak English? For one they have little opportunity to speak English to anyone. I have noticed that with the foundation our students get, they blossom out into very good English once they go abroad. When in situations where everyone is speaking English, they start to do the same. To defend myself, when in the context of an English Medium School as an English teacher, and living mostly with non Chinese, am I in a Cantonese context?

I used to try to teach Ethics using Cantonese, since the text book was in Chinese. I know that Ethics deals with our personal and social life. Now the students lack the vocabulary of morality and real personal expression in English. Ethics classes should be in Chinese to enable morality to be deeply interior in real personal cultivation. Consequently, I have been using English in Ethics classes, while the students use Cantonese is speaking and writing.

With the social changes that came in the 1980s, the students told me I had better use English since my Cantonese was so bad. Subsequently they used Cantonese. It worked out well. They were spared bad Cantonese and they were in a Hong Kong where English was fading out as a sign of being in the upper classes. But I have to add that unless one understands Cantonese and even some Putonghua, one can never feel comfortable in Hong Kong! It is necessary to learn it, unless one is here only for a few years.

I lived in the Jesuit house in Cheung Chau and studied Cantonese, but they people I lived with did not speak that language. I was encouraged to go around the fishing village that it was and speak to ordinary people. I was in the Sacred Heart Primary School, but I did not find this congenial. I concentrated on learning to read Kindegarten and Primary School readers. This has a lasting value but after two years of study I only got to the level of reading Chinese books for ten-year olds in Cantonese. I did not get to the level of being able to speak to ordinary people in a polite conversation.

I learned what I would need to say Mass in Cantonese, hearing Confessions in Cantonese, and to sing the Hymns in Cantonese by 1970. That was a good step. But by 1985, I was invited to say Cantonese Masses, but not to preach!

Seeing my slow progress in the language in 1961, and listening to the advice of primary school teachers, I saw the need to speak the National Language. I saw my next step was to get into a group of Jesuits who used Chinese. I asked to go to Baguio City in the Philippines. Here at Bellarmine College, the Jesuit house of studies in Shanghai had moved and was continuing to prepare young Jesuits for evangelization of Chinese people. I put my hopes in learning the language by going there to study four years of Theology. However the language of that community became English the year following my arrival. That was the end of living in a Chinese context.

With my aim of being a Catholic priest in China, I returned to Hong Kong in 1967 and became an English teacher. I had a tutor once a week to help me prepare the Cantonese masses and to advise me on phrases to be used. I tried hard, giving myself two to three hours a week at Cantonese. But I had no confidence, and perceived that I was not getting through to people.

My consolation was the number of teachers I knew, who were in an English medium secondary school, and even graduated from Hong Kong University, who were not really themselves when they spoke English. Perhaps I was like them! They could speak English and also teach in English, but they were not thinking in English, nor was it their preferred medium of communication.

By 1981, when I felt I entered into middle age, I gave up pursuits in Chinese, to be more in the English context. At the same time, I keep up any pastoral work I could do in Cantonese. I saw what I could do in English and began neglecting Chinese.

What then do I have to say about language learning! My experience has been that I concentrated on written Chinese in 1960, which has advantages. Language is primarily for oral communication. There is need to communicate in Cantonese and here I came up against my linguistic limitations.

As a teacher whose native language was English, I concentrated on Oral English, even though I was deficient in the Queen’s English, its grammar and literature. Added to this was my lack of interest and ability in verbal and written expression. My bent was mathematics and positive sciences; my interest was communicating by action and sounds and a few words.

I have noticed in Irish Jesuits that those who were good at Irish, picked up Cantonese sounds and intonation very quickly. I would say that once you have mastered another language, it is easier to master a third and so forth.

With most of us in Ireland, there was English and Irish, Latin and French. Now I was not good at any of those, so how could I learn Chinese.

In the past, many Jesuits had only a rudimentary grasp of Cantonese and yet were widely acclaimed and received. In the Wah Yan context, English in the medium of instruction!! So why bother and strain yourself to learn Cantonese ! Why? If you want to feel at home in Hong Kong, you have to be able to participate in the conversations and social interchange between Cantonese speakers then it is necessary to know Chinese.

Now to be practical! To learn a language one must put oneself in its context- one has to be immersed in it. One of the reasons why Wah Yan students are often not that good in English is because no one speaks to them in English, and they are not forced to use it. Once they are in an English speaking context, the training they have had comes to fruition and most find they can get along well in English.

It is with regrets and a feeling of failure that I look at my Cantonese language abilities. That is wrong, and it is like the students who complain that their English is not good. Rather, I should be proud of what I have learned and use it. Why complain about having your glass half empty, when you could enjoy the half full glass. Why should I not be pleased with the little I have achieved and use it. The key to learning is the confidence one has in what one has learned and the feeling that one can progress. Then one can pick up more from listening to people and even spot in print what could be used.

Learning Cantonese needs a love and respect for local people which needs our empathy, interest and desire to be a part of the lives of Cantonese speakers.

Learning Cantonese should have made me understand the difficulties of learning English. It should have made me concentrate more on oral communication and desire to pick up and learn from those who talk to me.

Putonghua is gradually becoming the language of business and society. I would counsel foreigners to first learn Potunghua, which is simpler and now very important. With a mastery of Putonghua, Cantonese speakers will most probably understand what the foreigners say in the national language. The next step of the foreigner will be to take steps to learn a new language for them, which is Cantonese. And they will need the ability to study hard, learn almost from scratch, and be courageous to use Cantonese with their friends and acquaintances. ( 2377)

earning Chinese in Cheung Chau, with Fr. J.Hurley, Fr. J Coghlan

and our two Chinese Teachers and Fr.J.Gannon

第十三章 學中文



一九六零八月二四日,抵達香港的第二天,在長洲一位謝老師(Anthony Tse ) 來教我中文,當我告訴他,我想學用毛筆寫中文,他很驚訝,他真的教我,但是很難學的,我的方法是將每一個字,當作一個化學元素,我將元素分拆開,然後,又合併起來成一個字。兩年之後,我學會二千中文字,以後,我再不怕寫任何中文字。

學習語言是要多聽! 我們的母語是從少跟母親學來,所以,我們要多聽和嘗試,像小孩子去模仿,這是需要勇氣,和很大的動力。

我懂法文,因我讀的幼稚園是法文的,雖然,我們在家媮翮^文,我母親跟很多朋友講法文,我從未遇過一個與我差不多大的英國孩子,直至到小學一年級,更甚的是我十二歲那年,才見到父親的家人,而我很少聯絡他們。 我們學會一種語言,當我們年青,和明白語言的上文下理。



自一九六零年,我很認真去學講東話,直至一九八一年,我不斷學寫中文! 然後我放棄了,我做得好嗎?