Spreading the word in Cantonese

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 December, 2010, 12:00am

The efforts of the Guangzhou authorities to marginalise Cantonese this past summer - and thus promote Putonghua - and the angry response they generated have highlighted the strength of feeling among the different ethnic groups about their dialects and culture.

The Hong Kong-born Amy Leung Man-wai, a Chinese-language teacher since 1993, is a passionate proponent of her native Cantonese dialect and culture. 'I didn't want Cantonese to be forgotten after the handover in 1997 and I'm delighted it is still so important - a vital part of Hong Kong life,' says Leung, whose new textbook on Cantonese usage, No Sweat Canto-to-go, has just been published. 'Not so many people speak Putonghua in Hong Kong, but all the locals speak Cantonese - it's a much more useful language for people living and working here.'

Leung (left) started teaching in New Zealand in 1993 after completing her university degree in commerce. She has been a corporate trainer in Hong Kong since 1995, teaching Cantonese to a broad range of students from children to senior personnel of multinational organisations. 'In Cantonese we say, 'Travel is the best education'. Learning from life is the only way - and the best way - to have fun at the same time, which is what I believe and try to convey to my students. If you have fun with Cantonese you will do well. A number of expatriates have learned to speak Cantonese fluently, which shows it is possible. The best way to learn effectively is to practise with friends or colleagues - even strangers - every chance you get.'

Leung's first textbook, No Sweat Cantonese, and subsequent No Sweat Canto-Love and No Sweat Canto-Slang, have sold thousands of copies in Hong Kong, Britain and the US. Her new book - including a CD of vocabulary, pronunciation tips and conversations - aims to help learners make themselves understood, and understand what they hear.

All her books evolved from her classes - at the urging of her students - and were inspired by the textbooks on Cantonese written by the late Sidney Lau in the 1970s (used extensively by expatriates working for the Hong Kong police and government departments) and Everyday Cantonese by Chik Hon-man (published in the 1980s).

'I felt there was a need for a modern-day reference book for studying Cantonese that did not list only the usual phrases and words, but offered explanations about grammar. That is essential if people want to understand the language and build their knowledge into sentences.'