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  • Peter Kam Fai Cheung SBS

1st & 2nd Languages

Can you master over 60 languages in speech and writing like Emil Krebs (1867-1930) - a German lawyer and diplomatic interpreter believing Mandarin was the hardest one. His preserved brain, analyzed by German neuroscientists in 2002 indicated that his brain's speech center differed from that of most monolinguals. What is the upper limit of one's ability to learn, speak, write and use first, second and foreign languages?

My first language or mother tongue is Cantonese, but I am still learning how to write Cantonese which is different from formalized written Chinese. I began learning, speaking, writing and using Mandarin at six and English at eight as second languages in Hong Kong. I have a Final Diploma from the UK Institute of Linguists specializing in legal translation (English - Chinese) and am trying to learn foreign languages such as French and Japanese.

Cantonese and Mandarin as varieties of Chinese are not mutually intelligible, due to the differences in pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary. In a 1991 conference in France, I had to communicate with my mainland Chinese counterpart face-to-face by exchanging written notes to the amazement of international participants. Although the look of written Chinese eg a classical poem, is the same, the way it is pronounced in Cantonese and Mandarin is very different.

Anyhow, I use my first and second languages to express and construct my identity, to build my relationship with the world and to share vision for the future. In particular, I write songs and insist on using conversational Cantonese as lyrics, in addition to Mandarin and English. Apart from testing the upper limit of my language ability, I hope my practice could maintain and sustain the Cantonese cultural legacy!

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