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City Weekend

How a phonetic app can help you tone up your Cantonese skills

A part time inventor is helping to break down the barriers of daily communications between foreigners and locals in Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 December, 2017, 10:31am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 December, 2017, 11:01am

One of the biggest hurdles for foreigners in Hong Kong is communicating with the locals. With words spelt out as Tsim Sha Tsui, it is no wonder they do not know how to correctly pronouncing it in a way taxi drivers would understand.

But, learning Cantonese is not as hard as you think, according to Dean Head, a language enthusiast. Despite it being a complex Chinese language, he believes those troubles can be tackled if the phonetic method is adopted.

This approach led to the idea for online app, Fonetic Cantonese, in 2006, which would enable the user to hear the correct pronunciation and denote the tones.

Head and his friend, Paulus Lee, spent around two years matching Cantonese words with the western phonetic system. With the help of 10 other linguistic professionals, the app became a reality.

“The process was very time intensive,” Head says. “I simplified the phonetic system that was taught in school and made it accurate to the pronunciation of the Cantonese words.

“We used a spreadsheet in the app development system and columns to input the Chinese characters, English explanations, phonetics, tone marks and the audio recording to break down all the words.”

Cantonese is deemed one of the world’s toughest languages to learn, mainly due to its tones. Words can be said nine different ways with nine different meanings, which can be off-putting to learners.

“Three of those nine tones are so similar that a non speaker would have great difficulty in discerning or saying them, so we focus on six. This is also why we put the tones above each words to tone mark,” Head says.

Released in 2008, the application now has more than 3,000 commonly words and phrases. The user types a word and all entries connected with it will be displayed. It is then possible to listen to how the word is said or play an audio recording of it.”

While it would be impossible to add a whole language, Head still wants to input more commonly used phrases, such as the street names onto the digital platform.