In this interview, I got the chance to talk with Raymond Pai, one of the newest instructors to join the University of British Columbia (UBC) in the Department of Asian Studies to teach Canada’s first Cantonese-language program available for credit at the university level. Raymond discusses why the program was created, how he approaches teaching Cantonese, and also some advice for people who may aspire to become a language teacher in the future.
At the end of this interview, I’ve also included a video of part of a short documentary that Fairchild TV did with Raymond about Cantonese education, as well as a news interview with him by Omni TV and an article by the South China Morning Post about the new UBC Cantonese program.
FTLOL: Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from and what is your working background?
RP: I was born in Hong Kong and moved to Utah after college for my graduate degrees in linguistics and TESOL (Teaching English to Students of Other Languages).
During my time in graduate school I started teaching language classes (Cantonese, Mandarin, and ESL), and also worked as a translator (Chinese-English). When I finished my graduate studies, I was fortunate to receive a job offer from the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California teaching Mandarin Chinese. I taught there for 8 years.
FTLOL: You recently started teaching in a new Cantonese language program spearheaded by the University of British Columbia’s Asian Studies Department, the first of its kind in Canada. How did you go about getting this job?
RP: I have been a member of the Chinese Language Teachers Association in the US for a few years and I regularly receive notice of Chinese teaching job openings.
When I saw the call for a Cantonese lecturer at UBC, I was intrigued. In the meantime, a few of my colleagues also informed me of the post and they thought I would be a good fit, so I gave it a try.
FTLOL: Mandarin has become a popular language to learn in the last decade, particularly with the rise of China, and Mandarin language courses are widely available at numerous universities, including UBC. Was there a specific reason that UBC decided to now create a Cantonese language program?
RP: I cannot really speak for UBC, but my understanding is that there have always been interests and a goal to have a Cantonese program at this institution.
Due to strained resources just to support the Mandarin program, Cantonese courses were not offered until the school recently received a generous donation specifically endowed for a full Cantonese program.
To me this cannot happen at a better time, as back home in Hong Kong there has been this huge debate of the use of Cantonese versus Mandarin in schools. Having a well-established Cantonese program can show people it just enriches students’ depth of knowledge in Chinese and its culture overall, instead of hurting them.
FTLOL: You’ve previously told me that you’ve also worked as a freelance translator in the United States. In another related interview that I did, I asked what this type of work typically entails. Can you tell us something about how you get translation jobs, and do you have any advice for how someone could go about entering this type of profession?
RP: Due to my full-time teaching workload most of the time, I could only afford to take translation jobs part-time as a freelancer. I became selective of the translation jobs that I can handle within my available schedule.
These days I am more of a proofreader than an actual translator since it is less time consuming and I am able to get it done rather quickly. I basically receive orders from a major translation company that I have been working with for a few years, and I can choose to accept the job or not depending on my schedule.
My advice for anyone who is interested in working as a translator would be to sign up for a few major translation companies. They always can use a pool of linguists available for the job orders they receive. Another thing I find useful is working towards getting certified by a professional organization, such as the American Translators Association (ATA). I started to receive more requests and job offers once I became certified and listed on the ATA directory.
FTLOL: Since you’re currently teaching Cantonese at UBC, and because it’s your native language, you can obviously speak it very well. Are there any other languages you know or are learning?
RP: Besides Cantonese and English, I speak Mandarin as that is my parents’ first language. I studied Italian, Japanese, Spanish, French, and German a bit as a student, but I am fluent in none of them as I don’t get to practice now.
I also know a little Indonesian as my parents are actually from Indonesia, and I have a ton of relatives there. I plan on picking up French and Indonesian again as I love both cultures particularly.
Raymond cast in the Woodminster production of Flower Drum Song in Oakland, California
FTLOL: What got you interested in teaching languages? Was there a specific event that triggered your eventual decision to do so?
RP: I have always loved learning languages but it was not until I taught Cantonese in Hong Kong as part of a church community service that I realized how much I enjoyed teaching.
I got a book of Cantonese grammar and I was fascinated by how the system and rules of my native language work. With that knowledge I could better explain my own language to my students, and seeing them make progress is the most amazing feeling one can get.
FTLOL: Do you think it’s important for students to be organized in the way that they learn a language, or can they be fairly haphazard in their approach, such as just studying here and there whenever they feel like it or have time?
RP: I guess it depends on the goal of the students if they want to learn it for professional purposes or just for personal interest. I have to admit, with too much pressure within a rigid system, it could kill all the fun in language learning.
However, in order to meet the demands of professional needs and for tests, a more structured way of learning is necessary to make sure all the essential areas of the language are covered. I would say no matter what the students want to achieve in language learning, they should feel comfortable with what they are doing.
FTLOL: I’ve heard many people complain that there aren’t enough good resources available for learning Cantonese, at least not compared to Mandarin, and especially not compared to most European languages. Are there any specific resources you recommend your students to use?
RP: It is true that there are relatively few Cantonese learning materials compared to Mandarin, but I think the situation has improved quite a bit.
Routledge and Greenwood Press have some very good Cantonese teaching materials and references in print. Many universities in Hong Kong have published books for Cantonese learning as well.
I am also a strong advocate of using authentic materials for language learning. As Cantonese is a highly dynamic and constantly evolving language, I keep searching YouTube videos and podcasts that are relevant for my lessons. Another resource is of course music and shows that would work for audio and visual learners, respectively.
FTLOL: Have there been any specific people who have influenced you in your teaching career so far?
RP: There are too many, but just to name a few, Dr. Bill Eggington, my mentor in graduate school at Brigham Young University, who oversaw my study on Hong Kong language-in-education policy, was an inspiration to me.
Dr. Dana Bourgerie has kindly offered me many job opportunities in Chinese teaching and research. Also Dr. Dallin Oaks, who was brave enough to have me as a non-native TA for his Introduction to English Language course, which turned out to be my favorite course, even though the class has about 100 students every semester.
Since then, I realized that teaching could be the best way to learn a certain subject matter. I was fortunate to have worked with literally hundreds of teachers at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, and they have all had an impact on shaping who I am as a teacher today.
And last but not least, all my students over the years are the ones who influenced me the most as I reflect daily on how my classes help them, and often myself as well, to become better language learners.
FTLOL: Do you have any advice for people who might want to become an instructor in a post-secondary environment, and particularly for those interested in teaching languages? Are there any specific or general steps that can take to get there?
RP: I would say go find any teaching opportunities one can get, be it local or overseas. The more experience one has, the more resources and tools the teacher can access to facilitate teaching itself.
I still remember that one conclusion we came to in my college Chinese teaching course was it is best for a teacher to develop a repertoire of teaching methods to adapt to different students and different settings.
Also, networking through professional organizations, such as TESOL for ESL teachers, allows us to have access to the most up-to-date information and opportunities for professional development in language education.
You can learn more about the new Cantonese language program at UBC by clicking here.
Also, check out the following video (in Cantonese with some English) of Raymond Pai being interviewed by Fairchild TV about his recent switch to teaching Cantonese at UBC. You can also watch the full video here.
The South China Morning Post also recently wrote a story on the new Cantonese language program at UBC. It can be found here.
Karen So of Omni TV in Vancouver, Canada also recently interviewed Raymond. Part of their discussion (in Cantonese) can be viewed below. Watch the entire interview here.