Language Challenge Series

Type of Media: Video Series
Completed: Ongoing
Produced by: Stephen Richards (longzijun:

This is a new series featuring our exchange students. It is a kind of language exchange in which students visiting from overseas teach our students a few words and phrases of their mother tongue and then our students introduce the same words and phrases in Cantonese. I plan this to be an ongoing series. We have finished the first two videos (Cantonese vs Italian) that feature Michela and Amanuel and have recently finished shooting footage featuring Katarina. These videos will focus on Cantonese and Finnish.

As Cantonese is a tonal language, even if you say the correct sequence of sounds, if you don’t use the correct tone, you are likely to say a completely different word. Cantonese is particularly challenging because it has six distinct tones (with an additional three variations based on the final consonant). For more information, you can refer to the Wikipedia page on Cantonese phonology:

Language Challenge 1: Italian and Cantonese (Part 1)

Words and phrases introduced:

English Italian Cantonese
Hello Ciao 你好 (Nei Ho)
Goodbye Arrivederci 再見 (Joi Geen)
I Love You Ti amo 我愛你 (Nga ngoi nei)
Friend Amico 朋友 (Peng yau)
Beautiful Bellissima 靚 (Leng)

During the 2014-2015 academic year, Michela was an exchange student at our school (SKH Lam Woo Memorial Secondary School). Michela is from Italy and came to Hong Kong on a student exchange organized by AFS Intercultural Exchange ( Her friend, Amanuel, an Italian exchange student at another local school, came to visit and we shot the footage for this video. The video highlights several language issues:

1. Hello
The phrase ‘Nei ho ‘ (你可) literally translates to ‘you good’. The first few times Michela and Amanuel said this phrase, they got the tone wrong on ‘ho’, and used the tone for ‘can’ instead.
You may have noticed that the first time one of the Hong Kong students say the phrase in the video, she says ‘lei ho’ instead of ‘nei ho’. ‘Nei ho’ is the correct pronunciation, but many (if not most) Cantonese speakers often use a simplified kind of pronunciation when speaking. In Chinese, this is referred to as ‘懶音’ (lan yum), which literally means ‘lazy sound’. Most Chinese teachers would consider this kind of simplified pronunciation to be incorrect.

2. Goodbye
For speakers of languages without a rolled ‘R’ (the sound is called ‘erre’ in Italian), it is a challenge trying to pronounce words like Arrivederci. Here is a video on how to pronounce the sound: Learn Italian Pronunciation – Lesson 13 – How to roll R in Italian (

It took a while for the Italian speakers to get the tone write for Joi Geen (再見). The way they pronounced Geen, it sounded more like one of the particles used before some nouns in Cantonese. These particles are called classifiers. For example, when speaking Cantonese, instead of saying “three books” one would say “three + classifier + books”.

3. I Love You
We were quite surprised that one of the Hong Kong students knew the Italian phrase—Ti amo—already.

When introducing the Cantonese phrase Ngo ngoi nei, the first pair of students used the ‘lan yum’ (lazy sound) pronunciation for all three words (o oi lei). The second set of students used the more formal (or many would say ‘correct’) pronunciation.

The ‘ng’ sound at the beginning of Ngo and Ngoi is quite unusual for English speakers. It is more or less the same sound as at the end of ‘sing’ and ‘long’; the only challenging part is that this sound never goes at the beginning of a word in English, so it is rather strange to start a word with it.

4. Friend
There were problems with inaccurate tones on the first part of ‘Peng yau’. With Amanuel saying Bun yau 笨友 (stupid friend) and Michela
Peng yau 貧友 (poor friend, with ‘poor’ referring to a lack of money.)

5. Beautiful
As the Hong Kong students are quite advanced English learners, they can pick up rather complicated multi-syllable words fairly easily.

Additional Credits
Italian Speakers Michela & Amanuel
Cantonese Speakers: Yuni & Sally; Yuki, Kirsty & Patsy; Winnie & Angel
Assistance with Translations: Joyce, Mabel, Kelly, Gigi, Serena & Eunice
Camera Operator: Tim Varday

Language Challenge 2: Italian and Cantonese (Part 2)

Words and phrases introduced:

English Italian Cantonese
Apple Mela 蘋果 (Ping guo)
Strawberry Fragola 草莓(Cho mui) & 士多啤梨 (Si do bea lei)
Stink Puzzi 臭 (Tsao)
Tower Torre 塔 (Taap)
You are boring Tu sei noiosa I am boring: 我好悶 (Nga ho moon)

The Italian and Cantonese speakers did well on this word.

Though Cantonese and Putonghua are mutually unintelligible and despite it’s long history, Cantonese is generally considered to be a spoken dialect, with Modern Standard Chinese being the standard written form. With some words, when writing, you should use one form, while when speaking you can use a more informal form. Cantonese has also developed its own slang and variations in grammar and vocabulary. Consequently, there are two words for strawberry. One is the form that should be used in writing and can be used when speaking: Cho Mui (草莓). The other is a a loan-word, the transliteration of the English word Strawberry, and this is the word that most Hong Kong residents commonly use when speaking: si do bea lei 士多啤梨: .

Puzzi is an informal Italian verb for ‘reek’ as in ‘Tu Puzzi’ (“you smell bad”). It’s equivalent in Cantonese—tsao (臭)— can be used as an adjective (like ‘stinky’), but can also be used as noun (like ‘stench’) or a verb (like ‘smell’ or ‘stink’). The Cantonese word is quite difficult because the initial consonant sound is not in English or Italian. It rests somewhere between a ‘ts’ and ‘ch’ sound. Another challenge is that there are a lot of similar words in Cantonese, so if you are not careful, you may end up saying a word such as ‘go’, ‘sleeve’, ‘wine’, ‘slim’ or ‘thin’.

Our first set of Cantonese speakers misheard ‘tower’ as ‘towel’ and gave the Chinese word for that: mo gun (毛巾). The Italian word for tower, ‘torre’, with its rolling ‘r’, was predictably challenging.

You are boring
The Cantonese speaker misunderstood the question. Therefore, she responded with ‘I am bored’. In Cantonese the same word—Moon (悶)— is used to express both ‘bored and ‘boring’. The listener should be able to guess the meaning from the context.

Additional Credits
Italian Speakers Michela & Amanuel
Cantonese Speakers: Yuni & Sally; Yuki, Kirsty & Patsy; Winnie & Angel; Sharis
Assistance with Translations: Gigi, Kelly, Kitty, Yui, Connie, Lisa, Theresa, Kelly & Tiffany
Camera Operator: Tim Varday


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