Working up my courage, I proudly said, “一個袋唔該,” to the woman in the lime green polo shirt behind the cash register at the grocery store.
She looked at me like I’d grown a second head, said “I know what you mean” (in English) and handed me a plastic bag.
A few days later I told my hairdresser, “今日天氣好熱好曬.” He acknowledged (in English) that the weather was hot and sunny and gave me a look of pity.
Both of these reactions are similar to the responses I received from Dutch people when speaking to them in Dutch last year. The underlying question in their minds being: Why in hell’s name are you bothering to learn my rather niche language?
My answer: So I can eavesdrop on your conversations and pry into your culture.
And I am quite serious about my eavesdropping and prying.
In the Netherlands, I took Dutch lessons six hours per week. This allowed me to: (1) understand what Dutch people are saying when they shout at their children; (2) enjoy the full contents of the very odd and terribly cool food program, De Wilde Keuken; and (3) learn that the Dutch are very willing to make blush-worthy puns about testicles in children’s songs and books.
It was completely worth studying Dutch for this.
Now back in Hong Kong, I’ve recommitted to studying its own niche language (well, niche compared to Mandarin).
What has Cantonese revealed so far?
It’s still early days so my discoveries are small. I do already understand what parents are nagging their small children about. More interestingly I’ve learned that the pronunciation of “open the window” (開窗) and “open fire (with a gun)” (開槍) are exactly the same: “hoi coeng,” including the tones. I’ve also discovered the existence of a popular drink, a disturbing mixture of coffee and tea, called “jyun joeng” (鴛鴦) or “pair of Mandarin ducks.” I am already delighted with my progress.
The lesson in all of this is that if you are going to make a go of studying a non-essential, niche language you must be willing to ignore the eye rolls of native speakers and to embrace the small comprehension victories that come from eavesdropping on nagging parents.
Do you study a niche language? Why in hell’s name are you bothering?