Why it is hard for many ABCs to pass on Cantonese?

So Hard for Many ABCs to Pass On Cantonese

It is of no surprise that  ABCs (Australian Born Chinese) as well as other overseas-born Chinese are usually most fluent in English (or the dominant language of their country). Most  do speak some level of Cantonese, which could range from basic conversation to reading and writing fluently, this being the result of having grown up in Cantonese speaking households, being in touch with the local Cantonese community, and perhaps being brought up on a diet of TVB dramas. And weekend classes. Yet, many ABCs face unique issues when trying to teach Cantonese to their children. 

Here are some possible reasons that are specific to Cantonese speakers born overseas:

1. Cantonese is a challenging language for English speakers

  • the linguistic dual nature of Cantonese (Diglossia) means that there are two varieties – the vernacular –  Colloquial Cantonese/ Spoken Cantonese/ Oral Cantonese (口語), and the formal Cantonese / Standard Cantonese / Written Cantonese (書面語). This basically means how you read and write is not how you speak.
  • the tones are difficult to master for someone not used to them
  • many words sound the same but mean different things.


2. Lack of formal schooling in Cantonese

Many speak Cantonese conversationally, but were not taught formally. Speaking comes instinctively to them, and yet it is hard to teach a language when you were not explicitly instructed in it. 


3. Lack of Fluency

Many have a depth and breadth of vocabulary limited to the topics one used to converse in Cantonese. I struggle to discuss politics and economics in any language other than English, as I have never made an attempt to do otherwise. These were just not topics that my parents were interested in discussing with me. Parenthood brings new terminology that one must learn in Cantonese, and perhaps even in English. “Craddle cap”, jaundice”, “sterilizer”, “croup” were new words that I had not come across in Cantonese before becoming a parent. I am more familiar with terms for cataract, arthritis, etc, as these are what my parents and relatives are currently discussing.


4. Difficulty in reading many Chinese characters

The standard of Cantonese for most ABCs is most likely lower than those who have been through the education system in HK. In fact, some may not even know how to read much Chinese. Unlike alphabet based languages, you cannot read a word phonetically. Most books from Hong Kong will not have any phonetics.


5. The need to translate from Standard Chinese to Colloquial Cantonese

Even if you can recognize Chinese characters, what you read out is not how you would speak. For many ABCs, who may not have a lot of formal learning in Cantonese, this may not be immediately apparent, until they to read Chinese books . Indeed, it took me quite a while to figure this out too. This is a unique problem for ABCs, and many who migrated to Australia (and other countries) much later, do not understand this struggle, as they were taught both Colloquial Cantonese and standard Chinese in school and can alternate between the two seamlessly.

Hence the strategy that non-fluent Mandarin speakers adopt – reading the Zhuyin or pinyin is not going to work here. So, reading books, a key way to keep the minority language alive, is not as easy as it sounds, for Cantonese.


6. Lack of relevant Cantonese resources

Most Cantonese learning resources for adults are targeted at beginners, probably those who are either moving to HK, or travelling to HK. Cantonese learning resources for children, are usually from Hong Kong focus on standard Chinese, and Hong Kong kids are already in an immersive Cantonese environment.


7. Unsure if it is a Cantonese phrase or a Standard Chinese phrase

When learning new vocabulary, it is hard to tell what is in Colloquial Cantonese or Standard Chinese. Colloquial Cantonese lists are often hard to find online. Looking at a Chinese dictionary or at Pleco, one is never sure whether it is Colloquial Cantonese or Standard Chinese. Where do you find lists of Colloquial Cantonese vocabulary? Scattered on the internet, and similar to many things found on the internet, they may not be very accurate.


These are some of the difficulties you might face, in addition to the usual challenges of teaching a minority language  – finding a community of speakers, finding resources, persevering when your kids prefer to speak the community language. 


Looking forward

Many ABCs have expressed the same struggles that I have, but not everyone will face the same issues, as everyone has a different standard of Chinese. What is true for me, may not be true for you.

Being able to articulate the difficulties apply to you might help you tackle them. 

And remember it is not doom and gloom. All over the world, there are many people who are developing resources, playgroups, writing songs and so on to pass on this beautiful language to the next generation. What I hope to do with this blog is to compile and collate various resources that I have found useful, in my attempt to improve my Cantonese and to teach my kid Cantonese. I hope these free resources will be of use to you too. 


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3 thoughts on “Why it is hard for many ABCs to pass on Cantonese?

  1. Hing LUN Lok says:

    Hello, I am a British Born Chinese. And yes its very difficult to learn Cantonese let alone teach it to my child. She attends a Chinese Sunday school to learn how to read and write Chinese. Shes doing well, I think. We struggle with the homework – I can speak it but cannot read or write except the very very basic stuff – but as we struggle I have definitely found that writing is not the same as speaking! I have found the word for “and” in the written form is pronounced “wor”, but before my child attended Chinese school, I had never heard this word at all! Still…Learning all the time, which is good. Good luck, all!

  2. Pam says:

    Thanks Manny for this excellent blog. This site is a hidden gem! Some of the resources you’ve put together are not only practical but also inspiring—from a linguistic point of view. Can’t wait to show my boy and hubby who both want to learn more Cantonese. By the way you maybe aware that there is now Saturday Cantonese class offered by VSL (Victorian School of Languages) in Melbourne? Maybe it’s time we brought back Cantonese to TAFE and our Saturday schools.




    • Cantonese For Families says:

      Hi Pam,

      Thank you for your kind words. I am so happy to hear that the resources are useful for you. This is the reason that I blog, that it might help others to learn Cantonese. Thanks for sharing about VSL. Yes, hope there are more resources and lessons for people who wish to learn Cantonese!

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