Learning Cantonese as an additional language (CAL) or not: What the CAL learners say

David C.S. Li, Shuet Keung, Hon Fong Poon, Zhichang Xu

Research output: Journal article publicationJournal articleAcademic researchpeer-review

15 Citations (Scopus)


Based on qualitative data obtained from 33 participants in four focus groups, two each in Putonghua (17) and English (16) respectively, this study shows that learners of Cantonese as an additional language (CAL) in Hong Kong experience a lot of difficulties. As a 'dialect', Cantonese has not been standardized and is not part of school literacy. A variety of romanization systems are used in commercially obtainable learning aid like Cantonese course books and bilingual dictionaries, which tend to diverge from romanized Cantonese in street signs and personal names. Independent learning is difficult while incidental learning is almost impossible. Cantonese tuition, often focusing on tones, is reportedly not so helpful. With six distinctive tonemes, the Cantonese tone system appears to be a major stumbling block. When spoken to in Cantonese, local speakers tend to switch to English or Putonghua. Inaccuracies in tone contours often trigger laughter, damaging CAL learners' self-esteem and dampening their motivation to learn and speak Cantonese. Unlike sojourners, non-Chinese residents who see themselves as Hongkongers often get upset as their identity claims are questioned or even challenged by the mainstream Cantonese society.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-22
Number of pages22
JournalGlobal Chinese
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2016


  • attitude and motivation
  • Cantonese
  • dialect
  • identity
  • tone language

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Linguistics and Language
  • Language and Linguistics


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