#3 Guest Episode: Pearl Low, Part 1 (English/粵語)
Cameron and Raymond chat with Pearl Low, a Vancouver-based author, artist, and animator, about their experience studying Cantonese as a heritage language. Pearl shares a number of tips on learning Cantonese in a community-focused way.
To learn more about Pearl's work, check out: https://www.pearllow.com/
Some of the resources Pearl mentions (in this and next episode):
1. Pearl's Twitter thread on Cantonese learning resources
1. 畫家 waa2 gaa1 (N) painter/artist
2. 媒體 mui4 tai2 (N) media
3. 漫畫 maan6 waa2 (N) comic
4. 動畫 dung6 waa2 (N) animation
5. 小說 siu2 syut3 (N) novel
6. 得獎 dak1 zoeng2 (VO/ADJ/N) to win award / award winning
7. 髮型 faat3 jing4 (N) hairstyle
8. 藝術 ngai6 seot6 (N) art
9. 組織 zou2 zik1 (V/N) to organize / organization
10. 社區 se5 keoi1 (N) community
11. 背景 bui3 ging2 (N) background
12.態度 taai3 dou6 (N) attitude
13. 着重 zoek6 zung6 (V) to emphasize/focus
14. 視覺 si6 gok3 (ADJ/N) visual/vision
15. 影像 jing2 zoeng6 (N) image
16. 創作 cong3 zok3 (N/V) creation / to create
17. 元素 jyun4 sou3 (N) element
ADJ - Adjective
V - Verb
VO - Verb object
N - Noun
Cameron: Pearl Low is a Vancouver based artist whose work stretches across media ranging from comics to animation to murals to graphic novels. They worked on the Oscar winning animated short film “Hair Love”, as well as projects appearing on Netflix and Cartoon Network. They are also a student of Cantonese, and today we're thrilled to hear more about Pearl's language learning journey. Our conversation has been split into two parts, so be sure to check back next week for part two.
Cameron: Welcome to Pearl, we're so excited to have you on this week, especially given all the artistic accomplishments! But one thing we'd like to ask you as one of our guests is to introduce yourself in terms of your relationship to Cantonese.
Pearl: Hello大家好！Hi, my name is Pearl, and this is actually an interesting first introduction in Cantonese because in English I would introduce myself as, “Hi, I'm Pearl Low, I use ‘they/them’ pronouns,” 不過喺廣東話, in Cantonese, everyone is 佢 (keoi5) , so it's kind of different, but… yeah, my name is Pearl Low and I am a Cantonese-Jamaican artist, I work in animation. I currently work at Cartoon Network, and I've worked for clients like Netflix and Sony. Currently I am learning Cantonese and I'm learning it because it is my heritage language.
Cameron: One thing that I think a lot of people are curious about is how to actually go about studying Cantonese. While there are some schools like UBC that have awesome Cantonese programs, there are also a lot of places where there isn't necessarily access to formal classes, and that means a lot of people have to turn to the Internet to find ways to study. And I know that you've documented a lot of this on social media, and it's been really helpful for a lot of people. So I was wondering if you could share that further with our listeners, and explain, how did you locate the stuff that has helped you the most?
Pearl: Yeah, I feel like studying Cantonese has been kind of a fragmented experience, um… in a way just because resources tend to be actually abundant. But it's something that you have to really search out, like we have programs like at UBC. I've particularly studied at Langara (College) at their night classes. I've taken some other Cantonese courses that's always been kind of like an on and off process because sometimes classes would be in session, and they would be canceled the next semester because not enough people signed up, and sometimes you would have to then fill in the blanks with online resources, and so I had to turn to podcasts, I had to turn to YouTubers who have made their channels kind of learning platforms for teaching Cantonese, and I've also had to turn to friends who wanted to connect and have conversations in Cantonese or broken Cantonese and learn that way. So it's been definitely a mixture of trying to, you know, get formal training at schools, but also trying to pull resources wherever I could find them, and also with the help of friends.
Cameron: Would you mind expanding a little bit, in terms of what it's been like studying Cantonese alongside friends? I feel like some people have this image of language learning, especially in the digital age, of just holing up in a room and staring at flashcard decks or online grammar explanations. But I think there's also a huge benefit in studying with a community, so what has that been like for you?
Pearl: Yeah I feel like when studying with friends, and community members, to—I would include that in the same umbrella—that is something that's really helpful for me, for example, learning a specific topic like going grocery shopping, or asking for directions or something like that. I currently live very close to Chinatown, and I'm able to just literally go out in the street and practice my Cantonese firsthand. For folks who don't have close proximity to a centre of Cantonese culture like Chinatown, you know, there's a really big population of Cantonese folks here, and making friends and finding out that Cantonese may be one of the languages that they speak is a nice way to one, get to know each other, and two, maybe explore uncharted territories. And I have a lot of friends who also have Cantonese as their heritage languages, and a lot of them have kind of stopped speaking Cantonese outside of their homes. But I think that through kind of having conversations about reconnecting with our heritage language and wanting to study at our own pace and in our own way and kind of reframing what it's like to study with maybe friends, instead of, you know, at Chinese schools writing characters and kind of more in a formal setting that kind of shifts our perspective and makes it more inviting to learn together. And yeah, I think that if you can also, if you're not in a community that doesn't have a lot of Cantonese learning folks or Cantonese folks in general, I would really recommend trying to find partners, conversation partners, on like Reddit pages. I follow sub-Reddit “Cantonese,” and there are tons of people, if you just post online being like, “Hey, I would love a Cantonese partner”, lots of people volunteer and are really excited to have conversations in Cantonese.
Cameron: You just mentioned this distinction that I've also heard other heritage speakers bring up in terms of a difference between speaking or learning the language at home versus doing so in other environments or contexts. Would you mind saying a little bit more about what those differences have been like in your experience, and maybe what you've learned about speaking Cantonese in different contexts?
Pearl: Yeah hmm... that's a good question, and I think that there are differences between heritage speakers who are perhaps second-generation Canadian for example, and folks who are maybe first generation. I feel like, for example, a lot of folks that I know who are my age who speak the language at home, speaking it outside of the home seems kind of like an extra step, like an extra piece of effort that they have to do, because it's we live in an English-speaking society and we tend to just default to English. I think that in contrast to maybe somebody who has come from Hong Kong and has been immersed in that type of like Cantonese speaking environment, speaking Cantonese all the time, any context outside of your home, might be more comfortable and more familiar and more common than maybe CBCs, Canadians, Chinese-born Canadians here. That's not everybody, but from the people that I know, that's part of the puzzle piece. I also think that, not everyone again, but there can be a lot of, how can I say, shame attached to speaking Cantonese outside the home. Not because of feeling shame for speaking Cantonese, but because perhaps we’re not as fluent as our parents or our loved ones wanted us to be. And so speaking it outside with aunties or uncles who are very fluent, and sometimes we get reactions like, “You don't know how to speak, I don't know what you're saying,” sometimes that can be an obstacle and something that discourages us from wanting to use it outside of the home, outside of a comfortable environment where—maybe not so comfortable, but a familiar environment—where, “OK my parents know my broken Cantonese I speak here,” but outside maybe I won't dive into that territory as much because I'm not as comfortable.
Cameron: I know that in addition to Cantonese, you've also been studying Japanese and French. Has studying these three very different languages at the same time affected how you think about each of them, or has learning one of those in turn affected how you thought about another one of them?
Pearl: I think that on a surface level, I've learned that listening skills fluctuate between different languages that I'm learning. I find that Cantonese speakers speak really quickly. And so listening to Japanese in contrast, not that Japanese folks don't speak quickly, but I just feel like I can distinguish different words from other words easier because when Cantonese speakers speak, with those six tones, and you know, some words that are similar, I feel like that skill has kind of provided me with different perspectives of languages and how I received them in different ways. I think also on a deeper level, learning Cantonese has kind of shown me how much language matters. I think that before, I thought learning a language was, you know, just for fun and whatever, which it is. But I think that especially because you know, the erasure of languages is very real, and it’s very real for Cantonese, that I kind of reframed language learning in general, and because I do have a particular connection with heritage, this language, Cantonese as my heritage language, I think that it's given me a perspective of every different type of language as a tool to connect community and a tool to understand people on a deeper level, culturally, and just like on a human level, yeah.
Cameron: I'm also curious because you know we've been talking about sort of sound and parsing what we hear. But your artwork is visual and I'm curious if there are ways in which, sort of paying more attention, or studying language recently has affected the work that you do visually.
Pearl: It's a really interesting question, and I don't think I've ever thought about how language learning has influenced my art on a visual level. I think perhaps I've got a couple of comics, for example in Cantonese, and I think that it's been interesting to see how I… like what parts of storytelling I'm focusing on, because I want to convey what I want to say in another language. I think that's interesting what I choose to omit, or include. I feel like because my language skills in Cantonese are still fairly basic. I feel like my art reflects that in a way where it's to the point, and it is clear just from kind of like, “if you just look at it for two seconds you would understand the meaning” kind of thing. So I think that's how language learning has influenced my visual art so far. I'll be paying attention to that question and keeping that on the back of my mind and moving forward, because I'm curious how that would continue to affect my visual art.
Cameron: Do you have any plans to work on more Cantonese language projects in the future?
Pearl: I would love to create cartoons with heritage speakers in mind. I think that if I were a kid and I watched cartoons that were catered towards kids who spoke this language in their household or it was their second language or whatever, that I could watch a kind of show that would cater to my level, that would be something that would be really helpful. I think there are a lot of cartoons that have, like you know, dubs in complete fluent languages, but I think it would be an interesting thing to try to play around with cartoons that cater to trying to teach kids how to speak their second language in a palatable way, and in a way where at the end of each episode, they can come away with a couple of terms, or know how to suddenly say a sentence or whatever. I think that's something that I'm really interested in just because I work in the world of animation. But also doing more comics too, I have a really strong urge to make Cantonese language book comics, like Cantonese language comics, but for adults. I think there are a lot of learning resources for children, but there aren't too many learning resources for adults that talk about, you know, kind of culturally relevant things that adults take in. You know, bringing your partner home, maybe we're different cultures. You know, those kinds of things and learning about terms that would describe that type of situation. I feel like I would really want to write about that.