When English Meets Cantonese: A Melding of the Minds

James Zhan

English is non-tonal, meaning no matter how you change the tone of a word, the word’s meaning will not change.

I was born in Canton, China, where Cantonese is the primary language, but my mother raised me bilingually with English and Cantonese. No one did that in my hometown, but my mother was learning English before, during and after I was born, so I was exposed to it daily; when I was picking up on Cantonese, my mother started teaching me English as well. These two languages are now my primary languages, the ones I alternate between depending on where I am living. Since my earliest years, I have always been fascinated by how vastly different they are, both in terms of speaking and writing. In many ways they are the exact opposites: they exist on polar ends of the tone versus non-tone spectrum. I grasped this instinctively growing up bilingual but now, reading through the literature on the topic, I have come to see how the differences between Cantonese and English affected my acquisition of both.

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