你好 :). My first proper language post of 2023 following my excited post about the year ahead and it's about the first leg of my 3 months of travel: Hong Kong.
First up: Cantonese. I’m writing this at the end of a 2 week journey back to Hong Kong, where I was born. In my introduction post I highlighted my very vague ideas/plan for how I’d build my Cantonese back up as someone who was born in Hong Kong and was exposed to it as a young kid (before moving to Australia at the age of 6).
The purpose of the trip was multi-faceted: see family, revisit my place (and spiritual home?) for the first time in 3 years, this time with the aim of focusing a significant amount of mental energy into actively re-learning my Cantonese. Combine that with seeing family and various admin tasks and it was to put it mildly, a pretty chaotic trip.
Now since I’m writing this on the plane out of Hong Kong (on my way to Spain for v2 of language immersion, actually) I’m going to dedicate this post to the tactics I came up with to work on my Cantonese in Hong Kong. I’ll then wait a month or so and write a more nuanced version of this when I've reflected some more. But learning is scrappy and I believe that these 'log' type posts are just as important as the more refined posts.
*There’s one very important caveat with the techniques I employed: before I came to Hong Kong I was already somewhat conversational. Without having some background, using immersion to learn laguages would probably not be as effective.
But with that aside, here we go: 5 language learning tactics I tried after immersing myself in Hong Kong for 2 weeks. Some of them I thought of in advance, some of them I figured out along the way, and all of them I refined over the 2 weeks I was there:
Eavesdropping (be a fly on the wall)
I promise this tactic isn't weird in real life - it just means I went about my day but paid extra attention to the conversations I happened to hear around me. It's a great technique for picking up new vocabulary and in particular with Cantonese, hearing the tones associated with different words with the local seal of approval.
The easiest way to explain this is to take you all the way back to baby times. A key aspect of the way that we would learn was just to absorb the sounds and conversations around us. That's simply what this tactic is: going about your day but dedicating that extra bit of energy into listening, translating and interpreting. It also doesn't require you to dedicate a specific time in your day for language learning, only a bit more energy!
Obviously - don't eavesdrop if it's a personal/sensitive conversation and don't follow people around. Duh.
I already mentioned this very simple, seemingly intuitive strategy in my post about Spanish. Simply repeating everything you hear including not only the words but the intonation, rhythm and flow (prose) is a great way to practice your speaking skills as well as developing your listening.
This technique was very simple in Hong Kong as it's such a bustling metropolitan city that 1) there are conversations flying about everywhere and 2) no one notices some random guy just talking to himself. At the time I went, facemasks were still mandatory when you were out and about which made this tactic even easier. If you feel particularly self-conscious about this though, you can always move away and pretend to be on a phone call.
An important point with this technique is that speaking out loud isn't the same as saying something in your head. In the former, you're physically using your tongue and mouth muscles to pronounce words correctly and it makes a big difference to your conversation skills. This is a mistake I made at the beginning; I'd simply repeat something in my head but this is more akin to hearing it again rather than practicing my speaking. So make sure you're repeating things you hear out loud to get the most out of this strategy.
Conversing with locals + asking for feedback
This is for the more dedicated learners out there, but I strongly emphasise this technique if you're truly serious about your language learning. It's essentially a practical, real-life version of active recall, i.e. one of the most evidence-based techniques for learning things out there. Check out this summary (medically focused, but still relevant) for some more background .
Essentially, engaging in conversations with locals and asking for feedback about your language skills is like active recall because 1) you're trying to dredge up those words/phrases/tones from your memory and then use them in practical situations under time pressure, and 2) you're getting feedback about what you did right and wrong in real time.
The obvious drawback to this method is that apart from being quite energy-sapping, not every local is going to want to or have the time to become your impromptu language teacher. So pick your battles - I found relatives and friendly hospitality/venue staff (e.g. barber, restaurant staff) to be the best people to practice with.
The best part about immersing yourself in a country of your target language is that you're exposed to loads of the written language around you. Road signs, subway maps, ads, shop signs, you name it. Pay extra attention to them and test yourself by reading and translating everything. It's essentially a less stressful version of the active recall method (conversing with locals) above, so if you're not comfortable with that technique, try this first.
Perhaps the most obvious part of immersion. While in Hong Kong, watch Hong Kong TV. Read books written in Chinese. Listen to Cantonese artists on Spotify. The possibilities are endless and I found myself switching between listening and watching TV during my trip. My writing/reading skills are still limited compared to my spoken language skills, so I personally didn't pickup any books. But that's parked for later.
And that's it! Hopefully you get some useful ideas on how to synergise your overseas trips with language learning. And do remember to enjoy your trip first, language learn second :).