That's What She Said

Mythbuster: does speaking Cantonese make you a better karaoke singer?

Experts argue the importance of tones in learning Cantonese but both tout karaoke to improve fluency

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 April, 2016, 5:38pm
UPDATED : Monday, 25 June, 2018, 6:02pm

Simplest answer: depends who you ask.

Cantonese has long been considered the hardest language for English speakers to learn. Having been described as sing-song like, pronunciation is believed to be particularly difficult because of its six tones. Here lays the reason for Hong Kong’s love of karaoke?

“Cantonese music tends to follow speech tones very closely, so singing a song in Cantonese gives a good idea of tone melody of the spoken sentence,” says Dr Murray Schellenberg of the University of British Columbia.

In fact, tone language speakers often have more difficulty than non-tone language speakers telling apart pitches that are close together, says the researcher at the Interdisciplinary Speech Research Laboratory at the Canadian university.

“People who have musical training are better at hearing and distinguishing speech tones when learning a tonal language,” he says.

Hongkongers mix English and Cantonese into new language, Kongish

Dr Wee Lian-Hee of Hong Kong Baptist University, however, says speakers of tonal languages are more likely to be musically endowed.

“In my opinion, learning Cantonese at a young age may help with musical skills,” says Dr Wee, a professor of language studies.

“[However] tones in Cantonese are not as important as the general public believes.”

He explains that distortion of tone rarely affects communication drastically, with mispronunciations turned into jokes.

Tongue-twisters that baffle language students tests such abilities to distinguish tones. However, Wee says these are better used as training material, indicating rote-learning rather than acquisition of language.

Cantonese-speaking foreigners still a novelty in Hong Kong

“On the other hand, the ability to compose a tongue-twister, or create or appreciate a joke, those would require a different set of skills that are likely more indicative of successful language acquisition,” he says.

He suggests a Cantonese song about a man who is too poor to buy bread (落街無錢買麵包).

“[This] is funny precisely only if you understand the culture.”

“Fluency in any language involves more than tone. Fluency includes vocabulary, idioms, social competence, grammar, confidence, relevant knowledge or topic in conversation,” he adds.

So what is an aspect of Hong Kong culture? Karaoke!

“Singing is a great way to be familiar with culture – an aspect of fluency – so in that sense, karaoke might be helpful.”

On this, the two experts are in agreement, if for different reasons.

“Singing in Cantonese would be a very useful tool for acquiring fluency,” says Dr Schellenger.

“Karaoke would give someone learning Cantonese a great and fun way to practise both the tone patterns and the rhythm of the language.”

Perhaps a cultural important song, now relentlessly sung at protests, is Beyond’s 1993 song A Brighter Future (海阔天空).