Championing Cantonese and Marvelling at Mandarin: An Interview with Rebecca Starr

by on September 20, 2016

Natalie Tong speaks with Rebecca Lurie Starr, Assistant Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at the National University of Singapore, about her views and experiences learning Cantonese, as well as acquiring and teaching Mandarin in the U.S. Dr. Starr specializes in sociolinguistics research, and works mainly on Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, and English.

What inspired you to learn Cantonese and how did you go about doing it?

There were three factors that went into my decision to study Cantonese. First, while I was an undergraduate in the early 2000s, I was a manager and teacher at a program called Chinatown ESL (English as a Second Language) where we volunteered to teach English to Chinese immigrants who were living in Boston and prepare them for the American citizenship exam. In that program, there were many more Cantonese-speaking students than Mandarin-speaking students, but we had barely any volunteers who knew any Cantonese. So at that time, I began to think that knowing Cantonese would be really useful. Around the same time, I took a course on Chinese cinema and I got really into Hong Kong movies. The final factor was simply that, when I arrived at Stanford University as a graduate student, I discovered there was a Cantonese language program, and it actually taught colloquial Cantonese using romanization (learning Cantonese using not Chinese characters but the Roman alphabet)! I was very lucky to be able to take three years of Cantonese there with a wonderful teacher.

What’s the most interesting thing about learning Cantonese?

As a linguist, studying Cantonese was fascinating and very insightful in terms of seeing how various branches of Chinese have evolved, as well as the relationship of Chinese to languages like Japanese. Since Japanese borrowed Chinese words before the final consonants were dropped in Mandarin, many Chinese-origin words in Japanese, like koku for ‘country’, are much more similar to Cantonese, gwok, than to Mandarin, guo. As a side note, I think this makes it easier for people with knowledge of Cantonese to learn Japanese, compared to people who only know Mandarin!

It was also fascinating to see the ways in which Cantonese grammatical structure is different from Mandarin, even though the common perception is that they are the “same language”. For example, in Cantonese, a ditransitive construction like “I give him money” has a different word order, so instead of saying “I give him money”, as in Mandarin (我给他钱), in Cantonese you’d say “I give money him” (我俾錢佢). That’s actually really unusual cross-linguistically, and I ended up writing a class paper about it, so that was really fun! There’s also no agentless-passive in Cantonese, so in a sentence like “I was robbed”, you have to include the agent, which is the word ‘人’, meaning someone, in “我俾人打劫” (I was robbed by someone).

At the time I was picking up Cantonese, I was also taking a class on pidgins and creoles and I learned about the features that pidgins and creoles have which other languages don’t. And the cool part is that Cantonese fits most of the definitions of a creole! For example, question words in Cantonese are made up of these little morphemes which are pretty basic, such as “邊度”, which literally means “which place” for “where”, and then for “who”, it’s “邊個” (which person). So coupled with a lot of other aspects, it really looks like a creole. But one way in which Cantonese is not a creole is that it has lexical tone (the pitch level of a syllable which is essential in conveying the meaning of a word), which creoles are not supposed to have. So I was really intrigued by how Cantonese is very creole-like, and that the language is really neat!

Did your knowledge of Mandarin help when you were learning Cantonese?

I experienced a lot of transfer from Mandarin when studying Cantonese, some of it helpful and some of it not helpful. When you learn an L3 (a third language), you can get a lot of interference from your L2, which in my case is Mandarin. This wasn’t a problem when the sounds in both languages are the same, or if a sound in Cantonese was totally new. However, it got pretty tricky when a sound in Cantonese is similar to but not exactly the same as in Mandarin, like the “ao” sound. The fact that “ou” and “ao” are often swapped in Mandarin and Cantonese words was difficult for me, too! I also found the long-short vowel contrasts in Cantonese really tough.

When did you start learning Mandarin and why?

I started learning Mandarin in my first year as an undergraduate student. I actually started learning Mandarin and Irish Gaelic at the same time, which maybe wasn’t a great idea, in retrospect!

I decided to study Mandarin for a few reasons, mainly because when I was younger I had studied Japanese and I wasn’t sure which Japanese level I should go into at the university, and because I had heard that the Mandarin program at Harvard University was really good. I also had a lot more Chinese-speaking friends in high school, and I remember thinking it would be so much more useful if I were studying Chinese instead of Japanese, because I didn’t know people who spoke Japanese. I also thought that learning Mandarin would help me learn kanji (Japanese characters of Chinese origin), which would be useful for my Japanese.

I remember the day before classes started my freshman year, thinking “I know exactly one word of Chinese (ni hao) and I have absolutely no idea what Irish even sounds like, but by this time tomorrow that will all change.” It was a weird feeling!

We heard that your sons are learning Mandarin too! Why did you want them to pick it up?

I have two sons, one is 3 and one is almost 1 year old. I think the most important reason is that I want them to grow up speaking 2 languages, and Mandarin is my second-best one, so I thought, “I can do this!” I think the research is pretty convincing that there are cognitive advantages in being an early bilingual, so I wanted them to experience that as much as possible.

I speak almost exclusively Mandarin with both of them, and the oldest has started going to a bilingual preschool, so they know quite a lot of Mandarin, although he has entered a phase of wanting to reply in English, which is very common. It has also been challenging because I learned Mandarin in university, so I don’t know a lot of “baby words”. But this is a fun way to learn new words, and have somebody to talk to in Mandarin, since my husband doesn’t speak it. I also read bedtime stories to my elder son in Mandarin, and my husband reads English books to him.

What do you think is a challenge faced by your son—and potentially other children—when it comes to learning Mandarin in Singapore?

Well it’s possible to get by in Singapore with English, so there isn’t the same incentive to use Mandarin that there would be in China, for example. But there are still lots of opportunities for children to speak and learn Mandarin here, such as during Mandarin classes in school!

You’ve taught Mandarin to both children and adults. Could share some your experiences with us?

The main type of teaching I’ve done is to adults. For children, I volunteered at the New Orleans Chinese weekend school for kids, and that was difficult, because some of the kids did not really want to be there, and it can be tough to teach kids who aren’t interested.

As for adults, or at least for students anyway, I taught at Stanford and Tulane, and they were all great students who were interested in the material and willing to work hard. We got to choose Mandarin names for the students, which was really fun but also challenging when I had to do it myself, because there are so many different characters that can be names in Mandarin. I gave everybody traditional 3-character Mandarin names, so if someone had a name like Matthew, one of the characters in their given name would sound like “ma”, and the second one would be different just to make it exciting.

I loved teaching Mandarin. When you teach a language, you and your students can easily see the concrete gains in what they have learned, so I found it very rewarding. Usually students who sign up to take Mandarin in the United States are very motivated and expecting to put in a lot of effort, and often they are pleasantly surprised that it’s not as difficult a language as they had anticipated. Of course, I also love teaching linguistics, but being a language teacher has its appeal as well!

Did you notice any difference in the learning or teaching styles for children compared to adults?

Yeah, it’s a totally different experience. I’ve also worked on textbooks for kids, and you have to try to make it fun and convince them to learn. But with adults, you don’t really have to work as hard to invest them in the topic, because you know they want to learn Mandarin—that’s why they signed up for the class. I’ve also had the experience of teaching one of the adult classes in the weekend school, and having a once-a-week routine made it so hard for them to gain any progress in Mandarin, especially for learners in their first year. I think it’s more useful if we have classes every day, which we did at the college level.

Were you able to focus more on the grammar of the language when you taught the older learners, because they can probably better understand what you’re teaching as compared to teaching children?

Yeah, it’s really fashionable these days to just do language immersion and not teach explicit rules, but I find that for Mandarin, it helps to just lay out the rules for older students. I find it’s useful to teach them the rules and patterns, so teaching would be a mix of speaking Mandarin so they know how things sound, but also explaining to them how the language works.

What’s the most rewarding aspect of learning Cantonese and Mandarin?

I remember in the first semester when I was starting to learn Mandarin, I was so impressed with how nicely the grammar worked. “This is the best language ever!” Previous languages I had studied had a lot of inflectional morphology and conjugations to memorize, but Mandarin has almost none of that, and I just loved not having to deal with that sort of complication. So, for me, I guess I’d say my biggest love for Chinese is really the language itself—I think that learning more about Cantonese and Mandarin has been rewarding in that respect, aside from other benefits like being able to speak with many people from Singapore and other parts of the world.

Do you think Cantonese and Mandarin will be relevant in the near future, in Singapore and globally?

Do I think that Mandarin will be relevant globally? Definitely. I think its importance is growing, and more and more people in the US are learning Mandarin now. A lot of people in the West still have the impression that Mandarin is really difficult, but once a certain number of people have learned it, I think the others will realize that Mandarin is just an ordinary language which they can also learn. I think Mandarin will also be relevant in Singapore, although it is so hard to tell what the future holds for Singapore’s language situation due to the potential for demographics and language planning strategies to rapidly shift here.

As for Cantonese, from a worldwide perspective, I think it really depends on the political future of Hong Kong, so we can’t be very confident what will happen either way, but it seems likely that in 50 years Cantonese will be in a weak position. The international success of Cantonese was fed by a few factors that are now fading away—Hong Kong will probably never again be the huge cultural force that it was in the past, and the population of diaspora Cantonese speakers is shrinking. In addition, a lot of Cantonese speakers who migrated from Hong Kong to places like Canada aren’t teaching their children the language, and don’t really mind if the next generation can’t speak it. This might be because the speakers are from families who were not originally from Hong Kong anyway, and may not be as attached to Cantonese even though they can speak it. There aren’t many Cantonese heritage language schools in the U.S. either, so there aren’t as many opportunities for kids to learn Cantonese.

As for Cantonese in Singapore, of course the number of fluent speakers is now low, but on the other hand it is actually doing well compared to other “dialects” like Hokkien. Based on the recent population census, Hokkien is experiencing a much sharper drop in the number of speakers compared to Cantonese, so the two are now about even in terms of the number of younger speakers, even though there were many more older Hokkien speakers in the past. I also know that there are more kids who have a positive attitude about learning Cantonese. There are also communities of Cantonese speakers in Malaysia, so I do think it has the potential to experience a bit of a revival among young people here. We’ll see how things progress in the next few years.

Lastly, what is one piece of advice you would like to give to those who wish to learn Cantonese or Mandarin?

Whenever people ask me about learning Mandarin, I always tell them that taking an intensive class at the beginning level is very important. I feel that Mandarin has a really steep learning curve in the first year, because you have to get the pronunciation right, learn how to write the characters and learn the basic grammatical structures. But once you’ve learned all of that, you can actually afford to continue learning Mandarin (such as picking up new vocabulary) on your own. Often, adults try to casually pick up Mandarin at the start by trying to learn it themselves or taking a class once a week, and find it difficult—to me, Mandarin is most difficult in the first year, and then gets much easier, while languages like Japanese have the reverse learning curve.

As for Cantonese, I think some Singaporeans have the impression that Cantonese is very challenging or not well-suited to being learned in the classroom, maybe because there aren’t many Cantonese classes here. But in Hong Kong, almost all students go to school in Cantonese. So my message would be, Cantonese is the same as any other language—there are Cantonese textbooks and Cantonese classes, and it can be learned as a second language!

2 Responses to “On Cantonese and Mandarin”

  1. Thank you for the encouragement that learning Mandarin (and Cantonese) is not as difficult as many believe it to be :) I was struck by your use of the word “fashionable” when talking about teachers who don’t explain grammar explicitly to their students – I would say it is more than a fashion, it is an informed decision teachers make based on second language acquisition research.

  2. Wolfgang

    Especially if you’re in a native environment (Hong Kong) for me, I think it pays of to concentrate on vocabulary learning and grammar can be kind of learned either on the side or completely through listening (however, I’m already fluent in Mandarin, so I do already go in with the basic concept). To be able to concentrate on vocabularies I’ve created a vocabulary book for Cantonese, you can find it here: Totally understand that it’s not the most hip way of learning languages, but works very well for me and maybe it helps somebody here. Thanks for the great interview, very much enjoyed it!


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