I’ve been doing sessions with a 15-year old Hong Kong student, who needs to improve his English. On most weeks he comes over on Mondays and Tuesdays, and we play one hour of English, and one hour of Cantonese. It’s a medium problem that it’s after school, and he’s quite tired afterwards, but he’s very motivated, and so we both are steadily progressing.

Today were especially good sessions :) In the first hour, I spontaneously put up a jar of peanut butter, a tin of peanuts, and a spoon. The last English sessions had not gone so well in my opinion, mainly due to me running out of ideas on what to do. This changed during this lesson though :) First, it appeared to me that “peanuts” is a dangerous word for Cantonese speakers, as they tend to drop the “t”. Great reason to practice it! :) So first we talked about opening/closing the jar/tin, and about the colors. Then we went into materials: plastic, paper, metal, glass. After that, I asked him about some colors, eliciting “mainly” and “all”, eg. »Is this cookie box all blue?« – »No, it is mainly blue, but it is also white and red«. From there, we went to materials, like »Is this table made of metal?« »Yes, it is made of metal, but it is also made of plastic.«;

He didn’t know “spoon”, so we played with that a bit, then I added a fork and a knife. Cantonese speakers often pronounce “fork” as “frog”, so we practiced that a bit as well. Then I asked him how to make a peanut butter sandwich. In order to complete it, he had to tell me about opening the freezer, getting out the bread, opening the fridge, getting out the margarine, opening the peanut butter jar, using the knife to spread the margarine and peanut butter on the slices of bread. Great setup! :) Because we had tried to spread the margarine with the spoon, it was even dirtier than the knife, while the fork was untouched. So we played “Which one is dirtier?”

After about an hour we switched to Cantonese, and I tried to use many ideas from the previous English session. We did several materials, I learned how to ask what something is made of, if it’s the only material used, and some very interesting details of Cantonese that were new to me or that I had forgotten. I used a napkin and the dirty spoon for clean/dirty, mainly because the two almost sound the same, a great chance to practice to distinguish between the two!

In other news, we did a short session at a McDonald’s with nine people some days ago! We wanted to go to some quiet café, but it was full, and so we tried to get some space at McD, and while not perfect (table too long mainly, and a bit loud), it was amazing how undisturbed we were, playing about an hour without even ordering anything, with keys, pens, mobile phones etc. on the tables :) That session really whetted my appetite for doing larger groups, but I still have not figured out how to do these on a regular basis.


I played with Y, my current roommate, for an hour on Sunday. I had played with J before, so I tried some of the stuff learned with him on Y.

Me lei ka? — Lei tsi hai hak1 sek jyun4 tsi bat1.

Make me say “no”:

Lei tsi hai ngo5 ke hak1 sek jyun4 tsi bat1? — Mhai6. Lei tsi mhai6 nei5 ke hak1 sek jyun4 tsi bat.

Pointing to Y’s girlfriend that’s reading on the bed:

Lei tsi hai keoi5 ke hak1 sek jyun4 tsi bat1? — Mhai6. …

I couldn’t think of a good way of introducing want/have/give/take with Y (I struggled for about five minutes making him say “What do I have? — You have a black pen”), so I did about 20 minutes in English:

What do I have? — You have a black pen.

Do I have a black pen? — Yes, you have a black pen.

Do I have a red pen? — No, you don’t have a red pen, you have a black pen.

Do you want my black pen? — Yes, I want your black pen. — OK, I give you my black pen. — Thank you! — You’re welcome!

What do I have? — You have a red pen. — Do you want to take my red pen? — Yes, I want to take your red pen. — OK, take it!

Can I take your red pen? — Yes, you can take it!

What do I have now? — Now you have a red pen and a black pen.

What do you have now? — Now I have nothing! You have everything!

Do you want a pen? — Yes, I want a pen. — Which pen do you want, the black one or the red one?

(I use two fingers up for “the”, instead of one for “a”)

I want the red pen. — OK, I give you the red pen.

Do you want my black pen, too? — Yes, I want your black pen, too.

What do I have now? — Now you have nothing, and I have everything.

Back to Cantonese :)

Lei ko me lei ka? — Lei ko hai ngo5 ke hak1 sek jyun4 tsi bat1.

OK, learning that questions are sometimes formed by using forms like “do you have/not have x?”; also, Cantonese has placeholder question words, just like lojban does. Not a coincidence I presume :)

Lei ko hai mhai6 ngo5 ke hung4 sek jyun tsi bat1 — Lei ko mhai6 lei5 ke hung4 sek jyun4 tsi bat1; lei ko hai ngo5 ke hung4 sek jyun4 tsi bat1.

I do the sign that we had used for “have” before in the English game.

ngo5 jau5 mat1 je a? — nei5 jau5 yat1 zi1 hak1 sek jyun4 tsi bat1.

Introducing word classifiers. Cantonese uses classifiers for different objects, so for round objects, go3 is used, for stick-like objects, it’s zi1. I’m thinking of using signs for the classifiers, like using the “stick” sign for zi1, forming a ball with the hands for go3, etc.

nei5 jau5 mat1 je a? — ngo5 jau5 yat1 zi1 hung4 sek jyun4 tsi bat1.

ngo5 hai mai jau5 yat1 zi1 hak1 sek jyun4 tsi bat1 — Hai. Nei5 jau5 yat1 zi1 …

ngo5 hai mai jau5 yat1 zi hung4 sek jyun4 tsi bat1 ? — Mhai6. Nei5 mou5 hung4 sek jyun4 tsi bat. Nei5 jau yat1 zi1 hak1 sek jyun4 tsi bat1.

For “mou5”, Y makes the sign for “not” and “have” from the English game before.

I now make the sign for “want” learned before during the English game.

Ngo5 soeng2 jiu3 nei5 tsi hung4 sek jyun tsi bat1.

I very quickly take his red pen :)

I do the “again” sign.

Loeng(?) zau6 la

I do the “thank you”, “you’re welcome” signs.

Mgoi1 — Msai ha he.

Now I have two pens.

Ngo jau5 mat je a? — Nei5 jau jat1 zi hak1 sek jyun4 tsi bat1 tung4 maai4 jat1 zi hung4 sek jyun4 tsi bat1.

Nei5 jau5 mat je a? — Ngo5 mat1 je dou1 mou4.

Nei5 soeng2 m4 soeng2 jiu3 ngo5 tsi hung4 sek jyun1 zi bat1 — Soeng2 a. (bei lei la).

I do the “again” sign:

zoi3 lei4 gwo3

After relocating to Hong Kong on November 5, I have now lived there for over a week, and only yesterday played my first game in Cantonese. Shame on me :)

I have been concentrating on learning a typing system for the script (called Cangjie), and picking up some (few) Cantonese words and phrases here and there. My main problems with the language are the tones (of course), because as an European speaker, I am used to modulate the sound according to sentence structure and meaning, so this regularly overrides the Cantonese tones; another major challenge is that Cantonese is the first language I learn that is not at all related to Indo-European, so there are no similarities in words that usually facilitate word retention for me.

I’ve been living with Y for over a week now, and yesterday evening we did a short session in Cantonese with his girlfriend B, and then a short English session. Both speak some English, B more so than Y. I have been speaking with Y a lot, and would guess that he understands something from 30 to 70% of what I say.

Another challenge will be to transcribe the Cantonese here :)

First, I started with B only.

I had a black pen, she had a red pen.

Mat1 je lei? — Hak1 sek bat1.

Mat1 je lei? — Hung4 sek bat1.

Mat1 je lei? — Tsi hak1 sek bat1 hai lei.

Mat1 je lei? — Tsi hung4 sek bat1 hai lei.

Mat1 je lei? — Tsi hak1 sek bat1 hai ngo5.

Mat1 je lei? — Tsi hung4 sek bat1 hai nei5.

Make me say “yes”:

Tsi hak1 sek bat1 hai mai nei5? — Hai6 ja, tsi hak1 sek bat1 hai ngo5.

Tsi hung4 sek bat1 hai mai nei5? — Hai6 ja, tsi hung4 sek bat1 hai ngo5.

There is some discussion (in Cantonese :) whether the following is correct, they decide it is.

Tsi hak1 sek bat1 hai mai ngo5? — Hai6 ja, tsi hak1 sek bat1 hai nei5.

Tsi hung4 sek bat1 hai mai ngo5? — Hai6 ja, tsi hung4 sek bat1 hai nei5.

Make me say “no”:

Tsi hung4 sek bat1 hai mai ngo5? — M’hai5 ngo5 ka.

Ok, I was trying to say “Is this my red pen? — No, this is not your red pen; this is your black pen”, but this seems a bit strange in Cantonese (as it is in English), so it’s not Obviously! enough. Better use “Is this a red pen?” or “Is this your black pen? — No,… not my black pen, … your black pen”.

Tsi hak1 sek bat1 sin(4) hai ngo5.

No idea what this is saying :)

At this point, B left for a short time, and Y took her place. This is a little bit confusing, because he of course uses different ways of expressing the same things. For starters, he uses a different word for “yes”.

Tsi hak1 sek bat1 hai nei5 ka.

Tsi hung4 sek bat1 hai ngo5 ka.

Make me say “no”.

Tsi hung4 sek bat1 hai mei ngo5. — M’hai6. Tsi ….

Because of the aforementioned confusion “but this is not a red pen!!”, we did a short English game.

They would rather use “this” instead of “that”, so we switched to this.

What is this? — This is a black pen. (me)

What is this? — This is a red pen. (Y)

What is this? — This is a rock. (B)

B, the better speaker, always says “yours black pen” :)

What is this? — This is my black pen. etc.

Is this my black pen? — Yes, this is your black pen. etc.

Make me say “no”:

Is this your black pen? — No, this is not my black pen, this is your black pen. etc.

Or you could say: No, this is not mine, it is yours. (I tell them this because of B’s using “yours” all the time)

I shortly give them “want, have, give, take”, in part so I don’t have to riddle them later in Cantonese :)

I use the “is” sign with a “D” right hand for “do”.

What do I have? — You have a black pen. etc.

Do i have a red pen? — No, you don’t have a red pen, you have a black pen. etc.

1:00am, B has to go to sleep, so we finish for the day, after about one hour of play.

Again an English session with my Persian friend, this time went a little better. We did maybe 40 minutes, and I had thought a bit (a minute :) before what to do, so I had a rough plan on what to cover. That really helped staying within the setting.

Again we used cups, and did some trading. After trading a full and an empty cup, I asked what had happened, and she then told me. Example: »I give you my empty cup, but then you have to give me your full cup.» … »What happened?« »First, I had a full cup, and you had an empty cup. Then you gave me your empty cup, and I gave you my full cup. Now, I have an empty cup and you have a full cup.« We did chunks of this, for example »First, I had a full cup«, until she had it, then the next chunk, and I guided her with signs, so she knew what to say. She’s not easily frustrated when playing, so I just tell her »start again :)« every time she for example says »I had full cup«, until it’s right enough.

Persian does not have articles, so they get lost all the time. I introduced a sign for “to” (eg in “I have to go”, or “I want to go”, which is btw pretty confusing :), so sometimes I don’t do all signs, and just let her talk, but throw in the signs for “to” or “a” when I’m anticipating she’ll forget them. Later at some point, she had the full cup as well as the empty one, so then she said »Now, I have two cups«, where the “have two” sounds exactly like “have to”. I’m still sneaking in meta-information from time to time (eg when I tell her that there are “there”, “their” and “they’re”), but that seems to confuse her, so I try to minimize this.

During a session, we only talk English, and I’m still deflecting her requests of translating from German to English. However, I’m often then talking about something else, and sneak the English equivalent soon after, however she doesn’t notice that and often doesn’t understand what the new word means in the context I set up for this. I guess I’ll have to get better at building context. For example she asked »What does “gleich” mean?« (which btw has some very different meanings in German), and I talked about something else, but after a minute or so told her that »I have to leave soon«.

A very obvious case of why translating can be useless is when she asked »what does “ab” mean?« “ab” can mean a lot of things (apart from Persian آب “water”), so the single word makes no sense. But I recognized that she was trying to define a time range, so I asked her about the course she is about to take next week, and asked her at what time it starts, and when it ends, and then told her, »ah, so it’s from 8am to 3 pm?«.

Today I again started a 90 minute session with my Persian friend, in English. However, after maybe 8 minutes of playing with two cups, I broke out of the limit, asking if she is thirsty, and from there it moved on to a casual conversation, of where I saw now way to get back to the table. So I let it go, and we talked for an hour in English. But I was thinking what it was that kicked me out. I think the main reason was that I was not sure how to proceed much farther than we had come last week, and at the same time I did not feel that I knew how to keep her engaged. So, I will now look at some online material and the LH kit, maybe I can pre-walk a good path for next time.

I played English for an hour with my Persian friend. Before that, we just talked in English, for about ten minutes, and it became obvious that she knows some words, but has almost no correct grammar (For example, she does often say stuff like “she go” or “two dog”). That’s interesting, as in German, which she has now lived in for 25 years, she has a very big vocabulary, but still makes quite many grammatical mistakes. As I found no good way yet to get her to un-learn the bad aspects of her German grammar, I at least wanted to make sure that she learns good English grammar from the start, and Language Hunting is probably the best method for that.

She is now more accepting of not being able to translate, so that she has to stay in the language.

We played with two spoons, one big one small. At first we played some simple want/have/give/take, then we traded spoons (if/then). When i told her, »If you give me your small spoon, then I give you my big spoon«, and she gave me hers, I very proudly said “Now I have two spoons”. I had hoped that she now took the initiative to get her rightful big spoon, but she seemed quite content with the “deal”, so I introduced “must”: »Now I must give you my big spoon«.

Then I asked her “what happened?”, setting everything in the past, which led to irregular vs. regular forms (want/wanted, have/had, give/gave, take/took). We found out that the past of “I must give you” is “I had to give you”, so I told her that “have to” and “must” are very similar, and that “have to” is different from “have”.

I at one point said »I want to take your small spoon«, and when she ok’d it, i took it. But then I said »I want you to take my big spoon«, which gave her a very hard time. At this point I suspected that she kept translating to German in her head, where the “you” makes no sense. I told her that it’s not helpful to translate, because every language is different, and this way she will only learn the parts that are very similar, while missing out on the interesting parts, the ones that are particular to the target language. Then I tried it with doing first »I want that you take my big spoon«, emphasizing the “that you”, then »I want you to take…«, emphasizing the “you”, explaining her in English that they are about the same. But with the “that you” of course the “to” of the “to take” isn’t there, so that was probably a bit too much for her.

I often tried to make her “mirror” my sentence, like in »I want you to take my spoon« – »Oh, you want me to take your spoon?«, but that didn’t work too well, probably also because she had not really slept the night before, so she was quite tired. The “rested” part of “Warm/Rested/Willing/Safe” turns out to be not a minor problem, as people tend to have a full day, and then try to do it (me included) after a full work day. It would probably be much better to just lock a bunch of people up for two weeks to play to fluency in one language. I’m working on that ;)

The signs for “want” and “[you] give [me]” (and also “have”) seem to look pretty similar for some people, she got confused by this quite often. Maybe I’ll switch to the German sign for that.

Earlier today I was sitting in a bar with a Persian friend (the one I learn Persian from, and I sometimes polish her German, sometimes teach her English, which she speaks only very fragmentarily), eating lentil soup. She always tries to translate from/to German, so today for the half hour I lost my ability to understand German, forcing her to describe what she means in English, or non-verbally. I do it in a very friendly way, »Sorry, “Fahrrad”, what’s that?« And then I help her, casually throwing concepts into the conversation that might help her explain it to me. I think that’s really important to get rid of “speaker’s block”, a frequent phenomenon in language students that either want to speak “perfect” or not speak at all, eg out of embarrassment. I come from this “school” too, and am myself only slowly learning to navigate a conversation when many patterns/words are missing.

At one point she tried her translation game on me using French :), asking »what does “voyage” mean in English?«, which was nice as my Grandma suddenly realized that centuries of French occupation of the land of her language ancestors had finally paid off. Grandma understood this word, but explained to her that a “voyage” is quite an undertaking, while what she was describing was merely a “trip”. I guess that is part of my “Etymological Brain” getting the upper hand again, and I’m not sure yet on how to integrate this into Language Hunting. Where does it help, where does it get the wind out of the hair of accelerated learning?

I tried to Limit the conversation to what was on the table (spoon, fork, plate, noodles), but then started to prioritize new words over language structure, which I don’t feel is the best way to spend precious playing time. I did re-incorporate quite a lot, using some phrases in a slightly different context some minutes after using it first, but I could have emphasized the closed game setting more.

What I’m really looking forward is what it will be like to play in English with her once she’s accepted that translating will not help her with me, so that her English brain can get all the light, water and fertilizer of the moment. I’ll try to keep an eye on this development.