Dr. LEE, Siu Lun

Senior Lecturer (Cantonese), Chinese Students Division, University Programme Section Ex-officio member, Academic Activities Division


Editor’s note: CLC is one of the few units in the world and in Hong Kong which provides systematic Cantonese programmes. Dr. Lee Siu Lun (S. Lee) is a veteran Cantonese teacher of CLC who has served CUHK for 20 years. Before, he worked in the leader capacity and headed the Cantonese Programme Division of the Continuing Education Section, the Chinese Students Division of the University Programme Section and the Academic Activities Division. Currently, he is teaching Cantonese to non-local students whose mother tongue is a Chinese language and deeply involved in teaching materials writing and teaching-related research. This issue of PEOPLE featured S. Lee who gave us a snapshot of Cantonese teaching and learning.


When did you being connected to CUHK and Cantonese Education? 

My relationship with CUHK started after I graduated from HKU and entered the graduate school of CUHK.  At that time, I started working as a tutor teaching CUHK undergraduates linguistics (including Cantonese linguistics) and applied linguistics, as well as doing linguistic and sociolinguistic research.  In early 90s in Hong Kong, there were very few tutors and teachers in the linguistic field. As a result, there were lots of interactions with students and made my teaching enjoyable. I continued with work relating to linguistics and language teaching after completed my M.Phil. I started teaching staff courses while I was working in Baptist University and understood the meanings of teaching the Cantonese language and culture to students who were interested in the language. I think teaching Cantonese language and its culture is both meaningful and interesting, then I devoted my teaching and research in the Cantonese language and its culture, especially focusing on Hong Kong culture.


Some said Cantonese has 6 tones and some said 9 tones. What is the truth?

This is an academic topic.  Most Cantonese linguistic research said that there are 9 tones in Cantonese, as a result it is understood that Cantonese has 9 tones.  When teaching the Cantonese language, 6 or 7 tones are the mainstream.  The 6- or 7-tone system had re-categorized the entering tones (syllables ending with -p, -t, -k) in the 9-tone system. The entering tones are actually included in the 6- or 7-tone system and this is beneficial to language learning.  Modern Hong Kong Cantonese has 6 tones (high level, high rising, mid-level, low falling, low rising and low level).  Some Cantonese accents in Guangzhou have 7 tones (6 tones plus high falling tone).



Introduce the historical development stages of Cantonese as a second language.

In the literature, systematic teaching of Cantonese as a foreign language started in the 19th century.  At that time In Hong Kong, officials of the colonial government learnt the language. After the economic blooms in Hong Kong since 80s, Hong Kong pop culture started to grow and Hong Kong pop songs affected other Chinese speaking areas. Hong Kong films also became world famous. Learners of Cantonese at that period were trying to learn the language in order to understand “Hong Kong culture”.  In the 90s, Hong Kong issues became an international focus because of its political and economic peculiarity during the handover period around 1997. This attracted people who were interested in or working at Hong Kong issues to learn the language.  In different periods in the history, learners of Cantonese had different reasons and motivations.  Our world is always changing.  Professional teachers of the Cantonese language should continue to improve and equip themselves in order to cope with the rapid-changing world and future challenges.  In recent years, I also work hard to help and train professional teachers of Cantonese, hoping that I can contribute to the field in this respect.



Many thought that Cantonese can be automatically acquired along with the continuous stay in Hong Kong. Cantonese Romanization is not a must. What is your opinion?

I think this question is asking about the possibilities of self-learning.  One cannot deny that most skills (including language skills) are possible to be self-learnt.  However, there are certain external factors and experience that suffice for self-learning, but not all language learners have a chance to come across these experience and external factors. When people learn some skills; appropriate learning environment, sufficient motivation for learning, suitable learning tools and ample practices are necessary conditions for effective learning. Furthermore, the foreign services departments in the United States of America and in Britain considered Cantonese as a relatively difficult language in the world (just ranked lower than Arabic).  With all these facts, most learners preferred to learn systematically and step-by-step with sufficient guidance.  Your question is similar to questions like, “do I need to learn to do sports/play in ball games?”  This reminds me when I learnt how to play tennis. Some people just picked up a racket, hit the tennis ball randomly and shouted out loudly that there was no need to learn.  On the other hand, there were people who followed some coaches or joined some training courses and practiced step-by-step.  I think if a person want to have good tennis skills, it is always advantageous to have coaches; at least the forms are correct which reduce the possibilities of injury.  Learning Cantonese (or other languages) are the same.  A systematic language programme encompasses valuable experience and research results from teaching professionals. Together with reasonable curricula and suitable teaching materials, a systematic programme can increase learning effectiveness and help learners to achieve their learning outcomes.



hat are the differences in teaching and learning between non-local Chinese and foreign learners in learning Cantonese?

There are of course many differences between expatriates and Mainland students learning Cantonese.  Their mother languages, cultural backgrounds, learning motivations and learning habits are all different.  I have discussed some of the similarities and differences in my academic writings.  In fact, both expatriate learners and Mainland students give me lots of fruitful memories.  The saying, “Speak more and listen more when one is learning a language”, has been reiterated for decades. However, this is very useful for all language students.



Being a pioneer of eLearning in CLC, what is your opinion to the e-Learning development of the Centre?

The research area of Computer Assisted Language Learning is very board.  It includes linguistic theories, general learning theories, information technology studies.  I have been editorial board member and reviewer of international journals for some years and have a chance to read quality journal papers and research reports concerning Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL).  Different countries, different institutions have different interpretation and views concerning computer assisted learning/e-learning.  There are also different reasons behind that drive the implementation of computer assisted learning.  Different reasons create different targets and thus affect the e-learning designs.  I think the fact that human beings use language to communication with each other is the foremost important function of language. Language education can or of course should make good use of the edge-cutting technology to assist teaching and learning; however computer assisted learning should consider the teaching and learning targets set forth as well as available resources of the institution.  The most important aim of computer assisted language learning is to help learners to learn the language effectively and to communicate using the target language with available technology, but it is not used to train students sitting in front of computers or watching their smart-phones spending more time with “virtual friends” than with their friends in real life.



What is your plan in academic development for the upcoming 1 to 2 years?

I am writing a set of teaching materials for Teaching Cantonese as a Second Language for the Cantonese programme of the Centre.  The teaching materials will be published.  This set of materials is different from previous textbooks in the sense that the major focus is on pragmatic language use.  The concept of language for pragmatic use can help learners to use Cantonese actively in various real life situations.  As for research, I am working on issues in Cantonese Applied Linguistics as well as in Language and Culture research.



Serviced in CLC for 20 years, any unforgettable stories?

The most memorable period is the time working during the SARS period (2003) in Hong Kong.  SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) was one of the major crises for Hong Kong.  Fortunately, we still had students who insisted to stay in Hong Kong; waiting for re-start of schools and continued their studies.  At that time, all teachers needed to take care of students’ psychological stress and be aware of crisis management apart from the ordinary teaching and administration work.  It was a difficult period. However when I saw students’ enthusiasm and their love to Hong Kong, the teaching and administration work as a teacher and administrator became extraordinarily meaningful.

Every student has given me good memories.  Every student has his/her own stories, experience and reasons for learning the language.  One thing that is the same is that they are passionate about the Cantonese language, devoted to Cantonese culture and in love with Hong Kong. This has generated lots of energy and support to me who is working hard to pass on the cultural heritage of the Cantonese language and culture.



Any more advice to Cantonese learners?

I have mentioned, “Speak more and listen more when one is learning a language”.  It is always true.  However, how to “speak more and listen more” needs teachers and students to work together.  Teachers should guide students to tackle various difficulties and problems when learning the language. Students should try to find learning and training styles that are suitable to themselves.  It is relatively easy to talk about these theories; however it requires continuous efforts of both teachers and students to put these theories into practice.



What is your favorite pastime?

Recently I like cooking.  It is a pity that there is no chef recommendation.  I am still learning by trials and errors.  The only wish is to learn step-by-step and get some progress.  Right!  Cuisines encompass cultural values, traditions and habits of different countries and regions. Oh no! we are coming back to issues concerning culture and language.  Anyway, let’s remember healthy-eating is one of the many good aspects about cooking.



**Special thanks to Miss HO Cheuk Yan, student from the School of Communication and Journalism in assisting the interview production.






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