Cantonese hurts?

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I visited Doctor Nasseri again today for one last check up before I return home to Hong Kong. The news wasn't great, but it was revealing.

Over the last week or so, I have been listening to my Pimsleur language courses again. With nothing to do outside of my daily lessons with Peisha, I spend a lot of time walking from place to place listening to the courses. I'm currently learning five languages as a hobby. I realise it has been and will be difficult to learn five (or six) languages simultaneously, and that's ok. I'm not in a hurry, but last Christmas when I damaged my vocal chords, I stopped learning the languages and didn't start again until last week; an 8-month hiatus.

So I started listening to the lessons again, taking care not to speak too much. Sometimes however, it can be difficult to restrain yourself when you're having fun, and on Wednesday in particular, I spoke more than I should have. In addition, I chatted with a couple of friends for an hour or so. Whoops!

My voice felt really rough last night, and today when I saw Doctor Nasseri, the endoscope showed significant swelling in my throat. The doc was not impressed.

In my conversation with Doctor Nasseri, the subject of Cantonese came up, and the conclusion of our little discussion and my personal analysis from years of experience is that speaking for any length of time in Cantonese may hurt my chords and strain the muscles! The challenge with Cantonese is that the nine tones (some institutions now only teach seven) cover a rather wide dynamic range with the lower tones dropping quite low for men.

At TVB all those years, I was very aware that if I didn't drop the pitch of the lower tones, I would automatically generate a foreigner's accent, so I strived to drop that lower tone. But the natural range of my vocal chords is not that low, and over the years, I have developed the damaging habit of talking at a pitch lower than ideal for my chords, producing sound from deep down in my throat instead of projecting resonate sound forward as normal people do. I know from experience that if I partake in an interview that goes for an hour or so, my voice will be non-existent at the end.

It's also true that Peisha's lessons are strenuous, and she has told me more than once that if on any day I do one of her lessons, that I should not sing for the rest of the day. It would now appear however that I shouldn't talk for the rest of the day either! And that includes my language lessons.

But these are almost certainly not the source of my vocal problems. Rather, they're probably indicators that my method of vocalisation is wrong. I have thought long and hard about this, and I have come up with a few possible causes of my difficulties. First, I like to learn languages and sing, and I will quite often vocalise these even when I'm in public, on the MTR for example. To avoid disturbing the people around me and to avoid embarrassing myself, I learnt to vocalise very softly, often internally, which is the exact opposite of how we are supposed to vocalise.

In addition, my lifestyle for the last ten years or so has me at home most of the time where I say very little. Without exercise, my chords have probably weakened. A sudden trip to the local karaoke to sing for two or three hours without prior training, warmup or preparation is definitely prone to damage the chords.

So how do I fix everything? First, practise speaking at a higher pitch, at least two musical tones higher, especially if speaking for more than just a moment! Speaking higher is much easier on my chords. I also need to re-learn to project sound correctly. I will be making a few visits to my friendly speech therapist in Hong Kong to accomplish this.

Next, continue working with Peisha's lessons, but absolutely remember not to speak or sing for the rest of the day. Only then will the chords have a chance to heal and strengthen. When the chords are strong, the muscles won't need to work and the strain will be forgotten.

But before I do any of this, I'll take a two-week vocal rest to allow my chords and throat to fully recover. In the meantime, if you run into me on the street and I don't say much, please understand :-)

Make no mistake. The developments of the last few weeks have hit me hard. At times, it's very depressing because certain dreams and passions have to be put on hold, and you're left wondering if you'll ever conquer the problems allowing those dreams and passions to eventuate. But then you remind yourself that this is also a great opportunity to begin afresh with correct technique. You remind yourself that this 'end' is in fact the beginning of a new journey in life, a journey where those dreams finally become a reality.

By the way, there is a weird phenomenon with learning languages where if you take a break from learning a language for a period of time, the next time you come back to it, the language will seem clearer. Happily, that has happened for me. I can now clearly hear most of the sounds in the languages I'm learning; Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Hebrew, Farsi, Indonesian and Arabic. I have a long long long way to go before I can converse in any of these languages but the progress is encouraging. It's also a great boost to enthusiasm when you encounter people who speak the languages you're learning. In the past weeks, I've encountered people speaking Spanish (no surprise there), Hebrew, Italian and Farsi. It's especially fun to encounter Farsi people and surprise them with a few words because they almost never expect to hear Farsi from a non-Middle East person.

Stay well people. Khoda hafez.

(edited twice, the last edit being made on Sep 4)


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10 Responses to “Cantonese hurts?”
  1. Eva says:

    Hi, I'm also learning Italian right now =D. (The verbs are so hard to remember).
    In regard to Cantonese, it's understandable if you have "foreigner accent". Don't push yourself too hard into the pronunciation. Your Cantonese is already very impressive.

  2. Stephen Lew says:

    I have never thought of a language hurting one's vocal cords. Being a Chinese, I speak both Cantonese & Hakka. In addition, I speak English fluently and sometimes I play with accents, especially the British accent. Needless to say, sometimes I'd read in mind using the British accent and even so, my throat would feel weird after a while. I'm sorry to hear about your pain and as a Chinese, I'm honoured to have a foreigner speak my language fluently to a point where he also reads & writes. Kudos.

  3. Jo says:

    I'm surprised that you've hurt your voice from speaking Cantonese because I always assumed it was to do with how a person is used to speaking as opposed to it being a physiological thing. Sometimes I see ABCs who sound foreign because of their higher tone, but their 'natural' voice should be Chinese so I thought the higher tone was due to the way they have formed a habit of speaking, in which case, changing a habit shouldn't actual damage anything? I'm probably completely off-base though, since I assume your doc knows what he's doing!

    On an unrelated note - I tried to unsubscribe to the new-article email updates but it keeps sending them. I did it last week after I received some updates and I kept getting them so I tried again but I'm still getting them? I've added it to my RSS feed so I don't need the email updates anymore.

  4. 河國榮 says:


    You are correct. Vocal mechanical pronunciation is part of the problem; how to speak the lower tones by projection rather than pulling them out from deep down in the throat. A little (lot) of speech therapy might help, but the lower tones really are at the edge of my dynamic range (I'm a tenor) and that makes it hard to speak those tones without sounding like a foreigner.

    It would be nice to be able to speak the lower tones without strain though, so I'll visit my speech therapist in Hong Kong to see what they say. Perhaps a liitle training will allow me to speak Cantonese without strain? Time will tell.

    I will also be paying attention to others around me to see if they're using the same dynamic range. If I discover men with a higher range, I'll know that it's ok to move my pitch up a tone or two :-)

    And I'll take care of your Subscription problem.


  5. Ko Bo Bo says:

    Dear Charles,
    Looks like you are inserting a lot of pressure on your vocal chords! I really don't know much about maintaining and improving voice, although older generations always have ideas about taking chinese herbs or honey liked natural stuff, but not sure any can help, especially for professional voice like yours!! So I would just cross my finger and hope your voice can come back and that you can use it to achieve your dream!! By the way, I think 'hand signaling' could be fun to learn as a new language too, are you interested? When I completed my Deutsch course, I might want to give it a try too!! haha.. Your positive energy and unlimited enthusiasm always impress me! Keep it up mate!!

  6. capedecathryn says:

    Hi Greg,
    It is a great surprise to see that you are back. You look quite different and red suits you. You have been away for ages and now you are back so keep blogging OK?

  7. Michael 施培忠 says:

    Hi Greg,

    Haven't talked to you in ages. I have been checking out your blog though every once and a while. The whole low tones issue was one of my biggest hurdles in learning Cantonese. Similar to your situation, I basically realized that I had to speak in a lower than normal tone to somewhat resemble native speakers of Cantonese. The funny thing is that when I come down with a cough, I can suddenly speak Cantonese totally at ease, no extra strain and effort to speak in a lower tone. I have a friend from Beijing that owned a factory in 佛山, he speaks excellent Cantonese, but that wasn't always the case. He recalled an incident in which his workers commented on how his Cantonese had suddenly improved, which he later attributed to a mild cough, having heard my own experiences. I wonder whether or not my own vocal cords have been damaged due to speaking Cantonese. Greg, I like the way you can see the silver lining in this situation. It will certainly help to boost your recover and attain your aspirations. 國榮哥,祝你早日康復,心想事成,步步高升,係噉先。


  8. Jonathan L says:

    Hey Gregory.

    Get more rest.
    Hope to see you more on television.
    I love your acting.

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  10. Jonathan L says:

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