Why I Want to Be Able to Read in Another Language 🗺 + What Languages I Can Speak!
Over the summer, my younger cousins tested me on my Cantonese to see what grade I would go into if I suddenly had to go to school in Hong Kong. They wanted to start from the very beginning, so one of my cousins took out her preschool textbooks and began to go through the vocab words with me.
Okaaay… so I didn’t recognize a few words in the book, but that wasn’t that bad. Learning Mandarin at school definitely payed off in my recognition of Chinese characters. I got through all the preschool textbooks, but barely made it through Grade 1. Then my cousins took out a Grade 2 textbook.
Once they opened it, I knew I couldn’t get past the first page. 😶
All the instructions were in Cantonese, and if I couldn’t understand the instructions, then I couldn’t do the exercises. Not only that, but for Cantonese, the way you pronounce characters when you’re reading it off a piece of text versus the way you talk in conversation is completely different — I knew all the colloquial way of saying things, but reading Cantonese was an entirely different realm of understanding the language for me.
Here’s an example: If you wanted to tell someone (in a conversation or through informal texting) that they forgot their book, you would say
However, if you’re formally writing a formal piece, say, for school, and you wanted to write the exact same sentence, you would write,
These sentences mean the exact same thing. One is written the way someone would colloquially say it, while the second sentence is how you would formally write it. The Cantonese language is so intricate and beautifully complex, and I am so grateful that Cantonese, along with English, is one of my first languages.
However, that also makes learning Cantonese really hard for me.
My cousins and I live on different sides of the world, and we speak different languages in our daily lives because of this. While I’m constantly trying to improve my Cantonese and Mandarin, they’re learning English in school — and they’re becoming pretty good at speaking it. When we meet, they teach me Cantonese and I teach them English. With their help, my speaking has been getting better and better each year, and I love learning local words and phrases that I really can only learn about if I’m totally immersed in the Cantonese Chinese culture.
Basically, I’ve been consistently improving in my speaking for Cantonese… but it wasn’t until this summer that I realize how behind I am in learning to read in a language other than English.
Page One used to be one of my favorite bookstores in Hong Kong because it had a huge selection of English books with UK edition covers, which I don’t really see back at home in the U.S. When I heard that it closed down, though, I realized that I didn’t want to get English books in Hong Kong anymore — I wanted Cantonese books, and most importantly, I wanted to be able to read them. Like, actual chapter books and not kindergarten-grade books about apples and bananas and grapes and how Bobby loves to organize fruits in his kitchen. I wanted to be able to take a local newspaper, sit down at a dim sum place, and be able to read it.
I consider Hong Kong my home as much I do for California, but not being able to read Cantonese even though I can speak it has always bothered me. It creates this barrier between my grandparents and cousins when we go out. They can read the names of the shops and pick out the foods they want from the menus at the 茶餐廳, or local cafes, while I have to get the same few dishes every single time because I can’t read Cantonese fluently. It’s always black pepper fried rice, tomato and pork baked rice, club sandwiches, egg tarts, or stir fried soy sauce noodles for me — I’m not complaining at all about the food because just thinking about these dishes make my mouth water, but I constantly wonder how much I miss in Hong Kong because of my inability to read Cantonese.
So that was me, in the past. I love talking to people in Cantonese, but it’s kind of embarrassing when I can’t tell that something’s on sale (the sign’s right there, they say, but 1) idk how to read percentages in Cantonese and 2) I understand only 4 of the 10 characters on the sign!!!) or can’t operate a toy or cook a certain dish because I can’t understand the Cantonese instructions.
Also, there are so many brilliant Cantonese/Chinese authors with books that I want to be able to read in the language they originally wrote it in. Yes, thank you for the English translation, but there are so many words in Cantonese that don’t have a perfect English equivalent. Some words encapsulate a feeling in its entirety in such a specific situation or moment that when you translate it to another language, the impact and meaning and relatability is just lost. It’s inevitable that reading a translated piece of work creates a barrier, no matter how minuscule it might be, between you and the author.
Soooo yes, I want to be able to read in another language. I think that be able to do so will broaden my understanding of the world, and also make me much more open-minded. I want to be able to put myself in the perspective of someone who speaks a different native language and lives in a different culture than me.
All of these wants mean nothing, though, if I don’t actually work towards them. Thus, here comes the fun part of this post:
🗺 What Languages Can I Speak? 🗺
How Am I Learning To Read/Write New Languages?
(feat. very beautifully arranged rocks and souvenirs around language-related books😍)
First of all, I can speak Cantonese fluently! 😊 I will be forever grateful for my mom’s determination in speaking to me in Cantonese throughout my childhood, and even now I speak Cantonese with my mom. Being able to speak Cantonese has allowed me to communicate with my relatives in Hong Kong. I’ve learned so much about the Cantonese culture by being able to talk with people I meet in Hong Kong in their native language. It’s also wonderful when people start a conversation with me asking about how I know Cantonese — it’s amazing how much I learn about the way people talk and what certain local phrases mean by conversing with people.
It’s because I know Cantonese that I have such a fascination with the Chinese culture. I’m currently learning Mandarin in school, and I realize how lucky I am that I already know Cantonese because Mandarin and Cantonese are so similar. In addition, learning Mandarin actually helps me with my Cantonese, and vice versa — how amazing is that? 😆
In Hong Kong I bought a few Chinese-English books to study from, one of which is shown above. Each chapter within the textbooks contain a piece of text in Mandarin and the English translation of it right after. Currently I’m studying from one about Food in Chinese Culture. I love these books because not only do I learn tons of new vocabulary from each piece of text, but the book also describes a lot of details about Chinese culture. Some of the aspects of the Chinese culture that the book talks about are things that even I don’t know about, so I’m very impressed with the book so far.
I take notes in a simple notebook, and the way I help my Cantonese through learning Mandarin is by first writing down the vocabulary words with the pin yin and English translation, studying it, then later adding another layer by figuring out how to say the words in Cantonese. I also make sure that I learn both the traditional and simplified characters so I can understand the writing in parts of China that uses traditional characters (like Hong Kong and Taiwan) and in parts that use simplified characters (mainland China).
I’ve also collected a few Chinese-only books throughout my travels that I’m hoping to be able to read in its entirety when my language skills get better. The book above is actually an art book that I got in Hong Kong, but my mom says the text is probably Taiwanese and not Cantonese. Either way, studying the vocab from this book will help me with understanding the Chinese language. Another bonus to this book is that I feel so inspired to draw every time I open this book up because the illustrations of sea animals are just so adorable.
I find that mixing learning languages with another hobby of mine, like drawing, makes me feel even more motivated to learn the language. In the art book above, not only do I learn more colored-pencil drawing techniques, but I also learn about vocabulary related to sea animals and drawing techniques.
And, of course, I have a Mandarin phrasebook in my collection of Chinese-related books. 😊
Currently, I would say that my Mandarin is at an intermediate level. I’m definitely not a beginner any more, but I feel like I have some ways to go before I can comfortably and fluently talk to a native Mandarin speak without stumbling through the conversation. In contrast to my Cantonese, I’m much stronger at writing and reading Mandarin than I am at speaking and listening, but that’s because I don’t have anyone to talk to in Mandarin in my daily life while I have my mom for Cantonese.
Okay, so we have Cantonese and Mandarin covered — but there’s also one more languages that I’m learning, but I’m nowhere near as advanced in it as I am for Cantonese and Mandarin.
That language is… Japanese!
I’ve been to Japan a few times, and every time I go, I end up falling so in love with the place, language, and culture. I feel like Japan is similar to Hong Kong in the way that many people think of the crazy and fast-paced life of Tokyo when they first think of Japan. It’s only when you delve a little bit deeper into the culture that you’ll find how serene and peaceful Japan can be, especially in the more rural parts.
Hong Kong is known classically as one of the cities that never sleep in the world, and it’s sort of true, especially in the more touristy areas. I’m so grateful that I have family in Hong Kong because they’ve shown me the more hidden and sweet aspects of the Hong Kong culture that doesn’t involve bright neon lights on streets and taxis zipping past people waiting in line for buses despite it being midnight. Theses hidden parts of Hong Kong consists of the entire family sitting around a circular table for a family dinner; going out to “wet markets” every day to get fresh produce for the day’s meals; and being scared to walk barefoot at night because of the abundance of cockroaches the end up roaming the floor no matter how clean the house is.
As a result, Japan is really similar to Hong Kong in the sense of having peaceful and lovely aspects of the culture that are often overshadowed by the hectic image both places bring to mind when you first think of them. I would love to talk more about how beautiful Japan is, but for now — the language. Let’s get back to discussing how I’m learning Japanese. 😊
So, as you saw in the picture above, I have a Japanese phrasebook! I also have another Japanese phrasebook that is more targeted for learning simple vocab that would be helpful to know if you’re in Japan, which I’m finding to be very helpful to learn from:
As for more serious textbooks on Japanese, I bought one textbook here that is working okay for someone going into this with a minimal background in learning the Japanese language. I got this textbook at Barnes & Nobles, and it came with a CD and printable sheets online for learning hiragana and katakana.
I will say, though, that I think I am so lucky to have learned Cantonese and Mandarin before learning Japanese. Knowing Chinese characters already makes learning Japanese so much easier. The kanji characters introduced to me in the textbook above so far are characters I’ve already learned in the past, so all I need to do is learn how to pronounce them in Japanese and I’m good! 👍 I’ve heard that kanji is often the most difficult part of learning Japanese, so for me to already have an advantage in this regards makes me so grateful and appreciate all the hard work before in learning Chinese.
Over the summer, my aunt, who is also learning Japanese, gave me one of her old Japanese textbooks to study from. The interesting thing about this textbook, though, is that it teaches Japanese in Cantonese — and I can actually understand a lot of the Cantonese in the textbook! Crazy, right? I’ve improved so much since summer when I was stumbling through understanding Cantonese menus. 😅
As you can see in the picture above, the textbook has no printed English translated. To the left are vocabulary words in Japanese, and to the right, the Cantonese translation. I feel like this textbook is going to be really vital for me in improving my Cantonese, because honestly, what is a better test to see if I understand Cantonese by learning a foreign language through Cantonese? 😆
I know I mentioned before that my motivation to learn Japanese came from traveling to Japan, but before I even went to Japan, I had already wanted to learn Japanese because of a toy I adored as a kid. Guess — it involves a digital screen, a creature you raise until adulthood, and an egg-shaped device.
Do you know what it is?
It’s starts with a “t”…
Okay, drum roll please!
It’s the Tamagotchi!
As a kid, I was obsessed with Tamagotchi. I had all these different plugs that would add different features to my Tamagotchi device, but the thing that always made me so mad was how I couldn’t read anything in the instructions, the guidebooks, or on the device’s settings because they were all in Japanese. (This is starting to sound similar to the reason why I was so motivated to learn more Cantonese, right?) One of my childhood goals was to eventually be able to read all the Tamagotchi guidebooks I have and navigate the Tamagotchi device without having to guess what everything means. Even though I haven’t picked up my Tamagotchi in a long time, I still want to achieve that childhood goal of mind — one day. 😋
Another introduction I had to the Japanese language as a kid was through origami packages. Japanese origami packages are the most adorable and creative things. I made so many food products with these special origami packages and played kitchen/grocery store/bakery with my origami pieces instead of using plastic pieces of food, and just thinking about how much fun I had with origami makes me smile. 😊 I used to have a lot of these packages, but the only ones I have now are ones for sweets, fruits, fast food, and sushi.
… And that is it! Cantonese, Mandarin, and Japanese — those are the languages I’m focusing on improving/learning right now. However, there are a few other languages that I know I will focus on learning in the future, two of them being Korean and Spanish. There is just no end to learning about languages, and even the language I speak and know the best — English — is something I’m still exploring. There are still so many quirks to the English language I don’t know about yet, and the expanse of vocabulary that I have yet to discover through reading is too large for me to even fathom quantifying.
Now you know why I have this desire to be able to read in different languages, and also what languages I can speak/am learning to speak!
I hope you enjoyed the lovely pictures above of books and souvenirs from around the world, and if you can read in another language, tell me in the comments!
Can you read in another language because you grew up bilingual, or because you learned the language later in life? Do you feel like being able to read in another language has expanded your perspective on the world? If you aren’t bilingual or can’t read in another language, do you want to? What languages would you like to learn?
Thanks for reading, and I will cya next time! 🤗
And P.S. — I’m dedicating this lovely post to my mom, because I wouldn’t be learning so many languages right now if it weren’t for her tenacity in raising me as a bilingual person. I know it wasn’t the easiest thing having me speak one language at home and another at school, but now that I realize how much being bilingual has defined me and the way I see the world, I am so grateful and thankful to my mom. I love being able to communicate with my relatives in Hong Kong, and most importantly, I love feeling connected to another place across the world that I’ve never lived in, yet understand and love enough to call my second home.
So thank you, 媽咪, for giving me the opportunity to learn Cantonese, speak it every day, and love the Chinese culture that I am so much a part of. 我愛你! 😋❤️