• Why Beijingers cannot learn Cantonese well



    I’ve been thinking about this topic all the way since I started learning Cantonese. A native, native Beijinger as I am, I have been undergoing all this and have the strongest feeling about it. The content of the subject, as I am to write about here, is a Beijingese speaker who has been forced to learn Cantonese in Hong Kong, among all other ethnic Chinese from China whose mother tongues are not Cantonese.

    No one can deny that Cantonese, although being a member of the Chinese language family, have little in common with Mandarin, the standard and most widely used dialect of Chinese, thus learning Cantonese is more or less like a foreign language to a Northerner and some a Southerner whose mother tongue is from a region really far from Guangdong, or Canton. The official Chinese language, Mandarin or Putonghua, is a language that mingles most major dialects used in China, although based on the common pronunciation in the geographical Beijing. This makes it easy for most Chinese people who are originally brought up in a Chinese language atmosphere to learn and get used to Mandarin. But at the same time, it also makes it no need for a Beijinger to learn Mandarin specifically, as Mandarin is similar to Beijingese1 enough for every qualified Mandarin speaker to communicate with a Beijingese speaker without any obstacles. This means that the language Beijingers2 are used to is differed to a even greater extent than Mandarin, which brings especial difficulty in learning of Southern dialects, added to the already existing obstacles in learning Cantonese.

    In all Hong Kong universities, as far as I am concerned, all mainland students excluding those from Guangdong3 are required to take the same course and undergo the same grading methods. For those students from southern China, especially from the provinces adjacent to Guangdong, it is really easy to learn Cantonese – some of them originally can understand most Cantonese when projected clearly without any learning, and their grammar and vocabulary are quite similar too. But for those students from northern China, it may just take years in college for them to understand the very basic Cantonese spoken at a very low speed. In this way, knowing that they will hardly ever catch up with other students in class, Northerners easily give up and pay their limited time and energy to other courses where they have equal chance to succeed. But more tragically, for some majors, say translation4, students never expected to be informed for the first time that fluency in Cantonese is a requirement for their further studying.

    Everyone not only proclaims but also believes that their mother language is the most beautiful language in the world. Beijingers are no exception. Their pride for their mother language is even magnified when it has always been the foundation of the nationwide official language, Mandarin, for the last thousand years. Put into such a condition, many Beijingers have a strong resistance deep from their mind toward learning another dialect of Chinese.

    When these major obstacles added together, it makes it really difficult for a Beijinger to learn Cantonese whole-heartedly, let alone learning it well enough to match other student in the same room. But such is always neglected by educator in Hong Kong, where they have only a population of seven million and of course the majority of them have the same mother tongue and there is no need to consider the language orientation of local students. As the education facilities become more widely available to students from all over the country, such problems should be drawn into the administrators’ minds.


    1. These is the common misunderstanding as Putonghua being the same as the Beijingese language. Actually, although Putonghua is based on the Beijingese analect, it has been modified to a considerable extent to fit for the wide majority of Chinese both in its pronunciation and vocabulary. This is also why some foreigners who are quite adept in Mandarin would still face a few language difficulties in Beijing.
    2. The term “Beijinger” in this article, is mostly in referring to an aboriginal Beijinger, excluding the many immigrants to Beijing, and even some first-generation descendants of these immigrants.
    3. I hate to admit that some students from Guangdong, Cantonese being their mother language, are still “wasting time” in Cantonese courses. Their aim is to gain the privilege of earning a best score in such courses without even studying, which brings inequality to most students.
    4. The translation major in some Hong Kong universities refers to the translation between English and Cantonese, differed from what most mainland students expected, English and Chinese, where Chinese is only in referring to Mandarin in most Chinese people’s conception.