Interesting Observations #0: Assumptions

Long time, no see.

Recently, I’ve been learning a lot of Mandarin whilst in Hong Kong, and I’ve discovered some things which I think reveal something about how we learn language.

I also think these things might be useful for other people learning Cantonese or Mandarin to read, if only as interesting questions to think about.

However, I really don’t want to bother making anything long or academically rigorous.  I want to write everything in the shortest possible manner, without endless qualifications such as ‘under conditions A and B, C occurred’.

With this in mind, I would like to make a few initial assumptions which will apply to any further posts in this series, should I have time to write and publish them.

Assumption #1: Relativity

Everything in life is dealt with in a relative way.  Wealth is a good example: if you had $1m, you’d probably be the richest guy on the street if you moved to, say, Kenya, but it would be nothing special to someone living in New York.

As such, I might write times which I make up off the top of my head – for example, ‘it took me three hours to learn dialogue X, but six hours to learn dialogue Y.’  The point is that Y takes appreciably longer than X, and is not that Y took exactly three hours longer.  (The concreteness should assist understanding,  but one shouldn’t get too wrapped up in it.)

Assumption #2: No Absolutes

What exactly does the word ‘native’ mean?  What is the difference between ‘native’ and ‘near-native’? How does one factor age into the problem – a ‘near-native’ L2 speaker who is 15 years old will totally outplay a ‘native’ L1 speaker who is 5 years old.

It will be much easier for me to just classify myself as a native speaker of both English and Cantonese, rather than repeatedly making the same qualification of ‘near-native’, or ‘native level for a high-school graduate’ (or whatever).

Assumptions #3, #4 and #5

These kind of play off the first two assumptions.

  1. I’ve finally achieved native-level fluency in Cantonese.
  2. I can read Chinese-language newspapers at a native-level speed.
  3. My Mandarin listening and speaking skills are at about ‘intermediate’ level.

Qualification: in practice, ‘intermediate’ means ‘sometimes gets lost in conversations’.

That is all, for now.



15 thoughts on “Interesting Observations #0: Assumptions

  1. Pingback: Interesting Observations #2: Mandarin Speakers Learning Cantonese: 入聲 | Thousand Mile Journey

  2. How long did it take you to reach native level in speaking Cantonese? Also if you sit down and watch that quality show ‘Come Home Love’ 8pm TVB, can you understand the whole thing?

    • Hey Dan,

      I started around five years ago. I have spent the last year learning mostly Mandarin though, which has had a certain impact on the Cantonese (because of interference effects).

      How’s it going for you?


      • 嘩,真係好耐冇見 … Eldon, I just wanted to say congrats on your success. I know it might not be a big deal but understanding almost 100% of a TVB show is no joke. Well done and I’m jealous, I wish there were more chances to use Canto in NYC but it seems my conversations get steered to English most of the time. 恭喜勢

    • And yes, I understand everything they say, as well as all the subtitles in ‘Come Home Love’. (Maybe 3% of the time I’m haven’t heard a phrase before, but am still able to understand it immediately from context.)

      • Being able to understand everything in a TV program is quite an accomplishment. I envy you. You must be very disciplined in your studies. May I ask if as part of reaching this stage you spent a long time watching TV for several hours a day? If so about how long? I don’t remember you writing about this before although you might have. It’s hard to find time to spend lots of time watching TV, although I’m sure I’m at the stage where it would be very helpful. Sometimes when I watch TV I can understand about 80% of what they say without looking at the characters, but sometimes I can barely understand anything.

        • Hey Cony,

          Actually, 愛回家 is easy to understand, as far as TV programs go, because they all speak so slowly and clearly, so I’m not sure how representative it is. The historical dramas, whilst I can follow the basic plot, are much harder to get the nuances.

          In fact, I did spend quite a lot of time watching and re-watching TV. I assumed that since it had been covered so thoroughly by other websites that there was no point repeating it.

          If you’re at the 80% stage, I think it’s just a case of watching episodes twice and trying to pay attention to new vocabulary. The 100% stage shouldn’t be too far away!

          How come it’s hard to spend time watching TV, though?


          • Glad to hear that I’m getting closer. Thanks for the reply. There’re a variety of factors keeping me from being able to watch as much TV as I’d like. If I managed my time a little better I’d probably be able to do a little more. Being married sucks up time because you have to spend more time bathing, driving far away to buy candleholders, and stuff like that. Not to mention that I’m studying three languages at the moment. I have this one mainland Cantonese sketch comedy program called 都市笑口组 that I try to watch a few times a week. Each day there are two approximately nine minute skits. Due to their length they’re easy to rewatch three times and they have a total of 10 skits a week (of which I probably get to watch three). Sometimes I watch other stuff, too.

  3. 3 and a bit years learning. I cant read Chinese, I learn using the Yale system. I am hopeful to improve my fluency but need more time speaking Cantonse, as its pretty much always English at home. I like to watch the show and can follow a bit but not much. I just watch it cause its modern and the language is not overly complicated. Well done on your learnings. Great stuff!

    • English at home would be a barrier, I imagine, but there’s presumably nothing to stop the TV or computer on a continuous TVB stream? Some of the anime and afternoon kids’ shows have even simpler language. 🙂 well done to you too 🙂

  4. Pingback: Interesting Observations #3: You Don’t Need to Know Tone Mapping Patterns | Thousand Mile Journey

  5. Pingback: Immersion Environment | Thousand Mile Journey

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