Chinese – whether in Cantonese or Mandarin form – is a tricky language to learn.
That’s something Robin Homer figured out on his first day at work in Asia, when he mistakenly admitted a passion for running around stark naked.
He’d been quizzed about his Chinese name. Though a combination of dodgy advice from a Cantonese-speaking friend and tricky nuances in pronunciation meant his cheeky Mandarin-speaking colleagues heard a word, meaning streaker.
“That was a total surprise – but it got a laugh from them,” said the 28-year-old, who has since returned to the Isle of Dogs.
He’s now founded the Canary Wharf Chinese Language Exchange in West India Quay.
It’s a platform for both Cantonese and Mandarin-speaking Wharfers who want to chat in their native tongue, as well as offering the chance for them to improve their English.
Those like Robin, with skills in either variation, can also join in.
He said: “My Chinese had got to a low level intermediate and I couldn’t leave the country until I could hold a conversation. I was worried I would lose it. So I stayed another six months.
“I love speaking Chinese and there isn’t a group on this side of town, so I thought it would be good to set one up.
“The first session was perfect, there was a mixture of Chinese and Taiwanese, British-born Chinese and English guests.”
He admits for those aspiring to speak either Mandarin or Cantonese from scratch, a lack of cognates, presence of pictures and confusing verbs pose the biggest obstacles.
“When a word is similar to English I make a picture of it in my mind,” he said.
“It’s hard to do that with Cantonese, as the syllables are different to how you would pronounce them normally.”
The next meeting is today (Thursday) at The Ledger Building.