WHEN I LEARNED Putonghua, I did it the traditional way: in a classroom with teachers who shouted at me when I got tones wrong or put words in the wrong order. It was great for learning the grammar rules and getting the pronunciation right, but languages are different from maths or physics, and there is only so much you can learn in the classroom. It was only when my classmates and I adjourned to the pub that we really started to get to grips with the language. So when I arrived in Hong Kong and started on Cantonese, I skipped the classroom and went to the pub. I decided to throw the language-learning rule book out the window and tackle it head on. I made wild guesses about what people were saying. I made up words. I mumbled when I could not remember how to pronounce something. I nodded my head and smiled even though I had no clue what people were saying, hoping I would catch on before I was asked a question. Throw a child in the deep end and he will either sink or swim. For the most part, I sank - especially early on. I made a horrible fool of myself more times than I care to remember. But, in the long run, it worked. Gradually, I needed to guess less and less, and I stopped needing to mumble so often. Sometimes, people would even understand what I was trying to say. For the longest time, I was frustratingly caught three seconds behind the conversation as my overheated brain strained to decipher what my friends were on about. But over the past 41/2 years that time delay has gradually diminished. The thing to remember is that everybody who can talk has learned a language - and that is exactly the way we did it. Speaking comes so naturally to us in adulthood we forget that one day our vocabulary did not extend much beyond 'dog', 'choo-choo' and 'mama'. Starting the process again as an adult, our inhibitions often get in the way. Now, most of my friends still think I am an idiot. But at least I am an idiot they can have a conversation with.