Languages open up a world that you never knew existed before

Mother Tongues Stories

Languages open up a world
that you never knew existed before

Technically I should be trilingual by chance of birth. I was born in Ireland and went to school here so that covers Irish and English. My Dad is from Hong Kong so I should be able to speak Cantonese. Unfortunately, I’m monolingual with a smattering of other languages. 

I blame the Irish education system (and take no personal responsibility) for the cúpla focal I still have!

Nicola Yau

I always remember the teachers in primary school turning into monsters at Irish time. The activity of having to stand around the classroom and describe what was happening in pictures projected onto the classroom wall as Gaeilge still sends shivers down my spine! 


In fairness to my Dad, he tried teaching my sister and I some Cantonese. I have a distinct memory of sitting in the kitchen aged 5 or 6 looking at flashcards of characters and trying to find the right words. Sadly, neither teacher nor student had much motivation in those days. My Dad did teach us the basics and the equally useful phrase: “Excuse me, I’ve farted and it’s smelly” which went down a treat, as you can imagine, when I first met my cousins in Hong Kong! 

Whenever I was there growing up, I always felt that I was missing out because I couldn’t follow the conversations, so I decided to take a career break a few years ago to live there and learn more of the language.

Cantonese is an amazingly rich and frustrating language. You could say it has two writing systems: one that follows standardised Mandarin and another that is specific to the spoken word of Cantonese.

Basically, there could be two ways to say the same word depending on the character used. But I was willing to accept the challenge even though many Hong Kongers asked: “Why don’t you just learn Mandarin?” (I did eventually take their advice and get a smattering of that too). I took some lessons, did a lot of language exchanges and got to a level where I could have a decent conversation.
My pronunciation probably still needs a lot of work because Cantonese is a tonal language which makes it nightmarish to learn. But I wouldn’t trade those years of trying for anything. I learned a lot about the culture and traditions of Hong Kong, as well as the language. 



Languages give you different perspectives on life and words in one language cannot always be replicated in another. Your outlook on life can change just by learning a new language, which is rewarding and challenging at the same time. Sometimes it opens up a world that you never knew existed before. For example, in Cantonese there is a common saying: ga yauh (which literally means add oil) and is used to offer support or encouragement. In Hong Kong people will say “add oil” in English and it got to the stage where I was also saying “add oil” whenever someone had a lot of work to get done or had an exam to study for. I still say it now but only to people who know what it means! Those two words just describe the sentiment perfectly. 


So that’s what I’ve learned as a serial language learner. My advice for learning a second or third language is, first of all, just do it and be open to all those new worlds. Make lots of mistakes and learn from them. Pass on your language to the next generation no matter how much they protest, they will thank you eventually! You’ll share a unique linguistic world with them. And remember, learners and teachers alike, to add oil. You’ll be so much richer for the experience. 


Nicola Yau

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