Niche language studies for eavesdroppers

Working up my courage, I proudly said, “一個袋唔該,” to the woman in the lime green polo shirt behind the cash register at the grocery store.

She looked at me like I’d grown a second head, said “I know what you mean” (in English) and handed me a plastic bag.

A few days later I told my hairdresser, “今日天氣好熱好曬.” He acknowledged (in English) that the weather was hot and sunny and gave me a look of pity.

Both of these reactions are similar to the responses I received from Dutch people when speaking to them in Dutch last year. The underlying question in their minds being: Why in hell’s name are you bothering to learn my rather niche language?

My answer: So I can eavesdrop on your conversations and pry into your culture.

And I am quite serious about my eavesdropping and prying.

In the Netherlands, I took Dutch lessons six hours per week. This allowed me to: (1) understand what Dutch people are saying when they shout at their children; (2) enjoy the full contents of the very odd and terribly cool food program, De Wilde Keuken; and (3) learn that the Dutch are very willing to make blush-worthy puns about testicles in children’s songs and books.

It was completely worth studying Dutch for this.

Now back in Hong Kong, I’ve recommitted to studying its own niche language (well, niche compared to Mandarin).

What has Cantonese revealed so far?

It’s still early days so my discoveries are small. I do already understand what parents are nagging their small children about. More interestingly I’ve learned that the pronunciation of “open the window” (開窗) and “open fire (with a gun)” (開槍) are exactly the same: “hoi coeng,” including the tones. I’ve also discovered the existence of a popular drink, a disturbing mixture of coffee and tea, called “jyun joeng” (鴛鴦) or “pair of Mandarin ducks.” I am already delighted with my progress.

The lesson in all of this is that if you are going to make a go of studying a non-essential, niche language you must be willing to ignore the eye rolls of native speakers and to embrace the small comprehension victories that come from eavesdropping on nagging parents.

Do you study a niche language? Why in hell’s name are you bothering?


Studying Cantonese in order to eavesdrop on whatever they’re chatting about. (Photo credit to my mom, Linda Brown.)

25 responses to “Niche language studies for eavesdroppers

  1. I think Swedish can also be considered a niche language? The longest conversation I’ve had in Swedish was with a Chinese lady from my language class, Swedish being our common language…..

    • I’d say Swedish counts: single country utility plus most of the native speakers also speak perfect English. On par with Dutch.

      Love this story about your common language with a Chinese lady in Sweden being Swedish! Little wins make it all worth it!

      How about people nagging their kids? Can you follow that now too?

  2. Haha! This made me laugh. I am making mild attempts to learn Danish – but I get the same look when I try. With only about 6 million people who speak Danish, it being a very challenging language AND there are only 5% of Danes who don’t speak perfect English – I’m not heavily motivated. But I do want to know what they’re saying at the coffee shop! Cheers from Copenhagen!

    • Maybe it’s partially not a niche language thing, but an expectation thing. So, if it’s a place where English can get by in most situations they wonder why you’d bother to try.

      Glad I’m not the one who’s gotten that response when trying to speak another language.

  3. I’m learning Hindi – though not sure that counts as a niche language. I’m also trying to teach my daughter and having no one else to converse with as not currently in India, my main Hindi practice is focused on giving her instructions (or telling her off!) – gets us some strange looks in public when I’m shouting “Mut ko ro!” (don’t do that) or “Chalo! Juldy idhar aao!” (Let’s go! Come here quickly!) at the top of my voice!
    Strange thing is, she does what I tell her much faster in Hindi than when I give the same instruction in English.

    • This is a great idea! I will apply the knowledge I gain by listening to native speakers shout at their kids to my own life my giving my own kids instructions in Cantonese. (Unfortunately because they study Mandarin in school, I suspect they will not follow. Maybe if I say it even louder in Cantonese?)

      And now that I think about it, perhaps “niche” wasn’t the right description.

  4. I’ve focused on bigger languages – French and Spanish – and I tried to pick up Portuguese, not exactly a niche language. But I think it would depend on where I was. I lived in Ghana for a few months and learned Twi, the main local language of the city I was in, which was AMAZING. Every time I used anything (good morning, thank you, etc.) I got tons of surprise and excitement from the people around me. I never got to the point of eavesdropping, but the basics I did learn were 100% worth it!

    • Such a nice story about Twi in Ghana!

      I did ask an old man directions in Cantonese today and he went from looking right through me to smiling from ear to ear and offering enthusiastic help! Great response! Only downside was that his help was all in English…

  5. I love eavesdropping in German and can now understand quite a lot, not that it’s really a niche language though! I get really mad when foreigners sit next to me on the train as I consider it a total waste of time when I could be listening to Germans!! The cofftea thing does not sound like my cup of tea 😉

    • Cofftea! Nice word-creation there BerLinda 😉

      Do you ever eavesdrop on Germans only to be disappointed that they’re all just talking about boring things when you’d hoped all along they’d been having amazing (or at least juicy) conversations?

  6. Ah, I see you’ve finally taken the plunge 🙂 Are you continuing with your Mandarin lessons as well?

    European Portuguese is my “niche” language. Very few speakers – 10 million – compared to a whopping 203 million Portuguese speakers, most of whom have real trouble understanding the EP accent (especially Brazilians).

    • I just looked up Cantonese speakers which clock in at 59 million. Much higher than EP, but surprisingly much, much lower than global Portuguese. Guess I’d underestimated the populations of Brazil, Angola and Mozambique!

      I was studying both Cantonese and Mandarin in parallel, but am currently taking a mini-Mandarin break to really jump start the Cantonese. Because they are similar languages (I’d say something like how Italian is to Spanish), I do find that studying Cantonese alone still reinforcing my Mandarin.

      Even more interesting, I find that when I’m trying to say something quickly in Cantonese I sometimes mix in Dutch (strangely rather than Mandarin): “我中意茶 maar ik 最中意咖.” (I like tea, but I really like coffee.)

  7. I had the same issue with Dutch/Flemish in Belgium, I ordered coffee perfectly but the girl gave me a wry smile and asked why I was bothering. I like it! I have no other justification.

    I’m Scottish and I’ve had a few foreign friends who’ve studied Gaelic, and there’s a part that wants to ask why but it’s actually a good thing! We Scots don’t get taught it in school so maybe it’ll be up to curious foreign polyglots to keep the language alive! 🙂

    • I feel terribly ignorant to not have known that Scotland also speaks Gaelic (or Scottish Gaelic)! Interesting! And interesting too that they don’t teach it in schools. So who speaks it?

      Belgium must be even more tricky. What to choose: Flemish, French or English?

      • No worries, it’s one of those things that’s sadly forgotten about, even in education! I think there’s still a lot* of speakers in the highlands and some schools there have classes in Gaelic. There are even road signs in Gaelic and English the further north you go! As far as I’m aware there is a Gaelic school in Glasgow but the numbers are limited and I’m sure it’s a private facility. I do wish we had been taught it from a young age, but as with everything else languages are chosen because of their “usefulness” and later earning potential -_-

        Belgium is a very interesting country and especially regarding the languages, that’s why as rusty as my French is I try to use some Flemish in Flanders just to even the balance when I’m travelling there.

    • I’m really enjoying it! A Mandarin foundation helps so much. I’m not very confident trying to speak in public yet, but I do enjoying listening in. Today I was at a children’s party and it was an eavesdropper’s delight because so much simple Cantonese is spoken with children and thus I could understand a lot!

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