languages

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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)

The simple life

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My life for the moment is very simple.

I get up in the morning and take our kids for their morning walks; two walks, five kids at a time.

I have breakfast and feed the kids.

I then do my vocalising (singing) exercises. I visited Peisha again in L.A. in June July this year for two-and-a-half weeks. During that time, I studied twelve lessons with her and performed one cabaret. The lessons were all recorded on my MacBook Pro, and I now repeat them almost every day. When I visited her this time, Peisha taught me a new (and tough) vocalising technique, one that I wasn't ready for back in 2006 when I first studied with her. This new technique seems to be producing a very significant difference in my singing voice and I'm enthusiastic about where it'll take me. The vocalising part of these lessons takes anywhere from half an hour to forty-five minutes. Believe me. That's enough. Any more would be very difficult to handle.

After vocalising, I vacuum the flat. With eleven kids, there is a plentiful and continual supply of hair, so daily vacuuming is necessary. Vacuuming typically takes about an hour to complete. While I vacuum, I study a new language via my iPhone. Around two years ago, I purchased Mandarin and Indonesian language courses from Pimsleur. I studied Mandarin at the Chinese University several years ago, but without using it, I've forgotten most of it. I purchased the Pimsleur Mandarin course to help me get back up to speed. I purchased the Indonesian course because I wanted to learn the language of our helpers. I was so impressed by the Pimsleur courses that in December of last year, I purchased four more courses; Japanese, Hebrew, Persian (Farsi) and Italian; but it wasn't until August of this year that I actually began using them.

I chose to study five languages simultaneously. People, even close friends, question my decision to do this, believing that studying multiple languages together will be confusing. I chose to study them all together because I believe that becoming familiar with a language requires time. The more time you spend with a language, the more familiar and natural it will become. Your mind requires time to analyse and adapt to the new language. That doesn't happen overnight. I also believe that one will not be confused when learning multiple languages even if as in the Pimsleur case, the subject matter is almost identical. The brain is a lot smarter than that. Admittedly, there are times when my immediate response to a Pimsleur narrator request is not in the language I'm learning, but a reminder from the narrator and I'm back on track again. Time is the key.

I rotate the languages, keeping a record of which language and which lesson I've completed in my iPhone (courtesy of OmniFocus), trying to complete a new lesson for each language at least once every two days. That's only possible if I complete three lessons a day, so vacuuming is not the only time I listen to a Pimsleur course. I also listen when I'm driving (which requires extra concentration because the act of driving itself requires its fair share of attention), and when I'm exercising. I'm hoping to be conversant (obviously not fluent) in these languages within three years.

In the afternoons, I go to the local karaoke to practise my singing and research songs. A typical karaoke session for me runs for one-and-a-half to two hours of almost nonstop singing. Believe it or not, that's actually physically exhausting.

Then it's off to the gym for a workout before picking my wife up at work.

Home again, and it's time to take the kids out for their evening walks; two walks of course.

If my legs aren't injured (my left calf muscle is currently recovering from a serious injury), I'll finish my day with a short run (listening to another Pimsleur course all the while).

My life is simple, but it sure is tiring; both physically and mentally. I've never been so tired. It'll be worth it though. Fit, healthy, singing well, and conversant in five, six or seven languages. That'll do.

But, as Albert (one of my good friends) so aptly noted back in my uni days, I am very much a 大隻講 (big talker) so don't assume that I'll actually complete any of these lofty goals until I've actually completed them.

By the way, did I mention that I'll be one of the MC's at this year's Vancouver Miss Asia Pageant in December?   ;-)