Every Chinese Learning Tool was Made for White People, So He Made One for Asians

For years, Cantonese Americans like Sheldon Ho have struggled to learn Mandarin, feeling like existing language learning apps weren't designed with them in mind.

By Hannah Liza Tapan

May 3, 2023

Through the Canto to Mando Blueprint, there’s a solution that takes advantage of their existing Cantonese knowledge to help them master Mandarin in a fraction of the time.

The Canto to Mando Blueprint is the brainchild of Sheldon Ho, who personally struggled for years with Mandarin learning. Not only has it helped countless Cantonese Americans reconnect with their Chinese culture, but it has also enabled them to learn more of their native tongue.

The success of this program speaks for itself – it has over 400 students and counting! It’s time for the world to take notice of this groundbreaking innovation in language learning. 

Read through as Sheldon shares more about his story and how the Canto to Mando Blueprint is changing the game for Cantonese Americans learning Mandarin.

FAILING TO LEARN CHINESE AS A KID

Growing up, I was really resentful of my culture.

I think having failed at learning Chinese as a kid made me detached from my Chinese culture and resent it. As a result, I grew up hating being Chinese and always felt it was uncool. It made me want to be “extra” Western. 

I would speak to my parents in English intentionally instead of Cantonese and as a result, my Cantonese became mediocre. I never realized this all came as a result of having failed Chinese as a kid but now that I’m older, I can see how things would have been different had I learned the language better when I was young. I would have learned more about my culture, and ancestors, and since the culture is naturally pretty cool, I would have definitely embraced it more.

AN ASIAN AMERICAN CHINESE LANGUAGE LEARNER’S PERSPECTIVE

The big thing plaguing the language learning industry is learning resources that are made for the mass market. I think that language learning businesses definitely cater to the mass market with good reason. ALL Americans Can benefit from one single Chinese learning resource made for English speakers. There’s a lot more money in that space because the market is a lot larger and they have the opportunity to help more people. Given that logic, there’s absolutely no incentive to make something for the Cantonese American market.

Another thing plaguing the language learning industry is having solely native speakers teaching the language. This is due to the curse of knowledge. It’s when you know too much in your brain and you can’t relate to your students as much anymore. They actually find it HARDER to learn from you. 

That’s why from an Asian American Chinese language learner’s perspective, I think representation is really important. I think having more Asian American teachers as opposed to pure Chinese teachers is really beneficial. 

When I was learning, all teachers were from China and while their Mandarin level was top-notch, there was a gap in their ability to relate to my struggles as a Chinese learner. This is because they have never been in my position as they grew up in a 100% Chinese environment. Employing techniques made for kids in China doesn’t work the same with us.

This is why most Asian Americans flunked out of Chinese school when they were kids. It’s made by native Chinese people who don’t understand the differences between the struggles of learning Chinese here in the West vs in China. In the same way, I also can’t relate to the struggles they may have faced learning English. I can confidently say that I’m probably not gonna be a good English teacher because I don’t understand the struggles ESL learners face. 

On the other hand, I understand very well what struggles Cantonese Americans may face when trying to learn Mandarin and improve their Cantonese. I literally went through all those struggles myself. I was the kid unable to write his own Chinese name.

THAT “YOU LOOK CHINESE BUT YOU CAN’T SPEAK CHINESE” MOMENT

I’ve tried countless times to learn Mandarin. I think I’ve had “I’m gonna learn Mandarin this year” as my new year’s resolution for like 10 years straight.

Each time I failed, I wasted MORE time but more importantly, it made me feel like more of a failure. I felt like maybe I was just too dumb to learn my language, maybe I was just too dumb overall. How many more tutors, apps, and university classes am I gonna waste time and money on?

I went through my lowest point when I was unable to talk to the family of the girl I was dating at the time. It was a really big “you look Chinese but you can’t speak Chinese” moment for me where I felt quite embarrassed.

It was a big mental hurdle that really messed with me. Things changed when I finally took time to think about how I could learn by leveraging my existing Cantonese. What if I just took my Cantonese and brought it over to Mandarin? Through an arduous process of figuring out how to do that, I finally learned Mandarin. 

Once I learned this, I realized how easy it is to learn this language for Cantonese speakers. I realized that we’ve been being taught wrong all our lives and that is the reason why we haven’t been able to learn. This motivated me to create this platform. I wanted to help Cantonese Americans finally get this Mandarin learning thing handled and hopefully through that, help them with embracing their culture.

CANTONESE AMERICANS ARE IN A WEIRD MIDDLE GROUND

I always felt that Mandarin was so hard to learn. It always baffled me that I was thrown into the same class as Craig, someone who had no Chinese background at all. 

I tried so many different learning apps and went to so many different Mandarin classes and tutors in college and it was ALWAYS the same. We always wasted WEEKS on basic stuff like “ni hao.” This felt stupid to me as a Cantonese person. I knew “ni hao.”

Cantonese Americans are in a weird middle ground. For the most part, we speak just enough Cantonese to have an advantage over people with no Chinese background – yet we can’t read Chinese, and aren’t good enough to take advantage of Mandarin resources meant for true native Canto people in Hong Kong which leverage your Cantonese. As a result, we have to stick with English resources made for white people.

So fundamentally, when setting up our program the only goal in mind was to create something for Cantonese Americans who can speak a little bit of Cantonese. We wanted to make something for the Cantonese American who spoke a little but couldn’t read or write Chinese. We’d teach them all the fundamentals while leveraging their existing Cantonese.

PLATFORMS MADE FOR PURE ENGLISH SPEAKERS CAN’T DO THIS

With our method, students improve their Cantonese while learning Mandarin. Most Cantonese speakers want to learn Mandarin but it’s also important to them that they improve in their heritage language. 

Because Mandarin and Cantonese have such similar structures – if you know how to leverage them, you can improve on both languages at the same time. This way, as your Cantonese gets better, so does your Mandarin, and vice versa.

Platforms made for pure English speakers can’t do this since they’re not made for Cantonese speakers. The next thing is the speed at which you learn. Our students start speaking literally from day 1 because we’re essentially just teaching you how to bring your Cantonese over to Mandarin in the beginning. 

There are a lot of tips and tricks that make things a lot faster. For example, the Cantonese ‘G’ becomes a Mandarin J about 80% of the time. This takes away a lot of the memorization work when it comes to learning Mandarin. 

So the main difference is just the speed of learning. It’s a lot faster. I don’t want to say the other apps or university courses don’t work because of course they do. But when you have to wait months for marginal results it’s really easy to get discouraged. That’s why we made it a PRIORITY to get people speaking from Day 1 so they see results right away.

With our method, students improve their Cantonese while learning Mandarin. Most Cantonese speakers want to learn Mandarin but it’s also important to them that they improve in their heritage language. 

SHELDON HO

SUCCESS STORIES

A large portion of our students happens to be in healthcare. There was this nurse who often felt ashamed at work. Chinese patients would reach out to her because she looked Chinese but when she couldn’t reply in Mandarin – she would feel sad for being unable to help her own people. This is what made her reach out to me and within the first couple weeks of doing the program, she shared with us how good it felt to be able to communicate with Chinese patients, and that was a big win. 

Another success story is about this girl who wanted to surprise her parents with her Mandarin. She started texting them on day one of the program, and it made them really happy.

But my favorite story is about one of our students who had been dating her Taiwanese boyfriend for 10 years. Each time she hung out with his family, it’d be in English. She would have very basic and shallow conversations with her boyfriend’s mom. Note that it’s been 10 years!

Recently, she told me that she had a full Mando conversation with her boyfriend’s mom and that she was so excited that she could finally speak Mandarin. If I could put it in her words, it was like the mom went from being almost mute to being the most talkative person in the world! Excitement grew on her face and she said “OMG I can take you to Taiwan now and show you everywhere!”

IT’S WHAT I WISH I HAD

What we have is a program and curriculum specifically designed for Cantonese Speakers to leverage their Cantonese (no matter what level) to learn Mandarin and improve their Cantonese. 

Along the way, we have tutors for support who are fluent in BOTH Cantonese, Mandarin, and English. From my experience, oftentimes, Mandarin tutors only speak one language. They speak Mandarin amazingly – but the lessons aren’t conveyed in the best way in English. They can’t convey certain concepts to English speakers. We make sure our tutors are able to do that, as well as in the Cantonese perspective. Lessons are all given with the Cantonese English Perspective in mind.

The truth is, in most cases, Mandarin tutors are overqualified in the wrong thing. Cantonese diaspora don’t need someone who studied classical chinese literature and classical chinese to teach them Mandarin. They just need someone who can speak good Mandarin, and understands how to convey that effectively in English to them.

We make sure our tutors have that. I took big a part in training our tutors on how to view things from a Cantonese-American perspective. 

I’ve been through the journey myself as a Cantonese Canadian who learned Mandarin. I pretty much know what each student will struggle with, where the pain points will be, and what type of questions everyone will have. I’ve poured that knowledge into the program and poured that knowledge into our tutors. 

An example is the simple understanding that Cantonese Americans can speak a little bit of Cantonese, but can’t read or write Chinese. How do you tailor-make something for that person? That’s what we sat down for months to figure out. It’s what I wish I had.

HOW THE COMMUNITY HAS RECEIVED THEM

The Cantonese American community has been really thankful to have something made for them.

A lot of people dealt with the same struggles I dealt with so I’ve received a lot of comments from people thanking our team for what we’re building as well. 

From the broader language learning community, there’s been a lot of intrigue about seeing a course that dives this deep into linguistics. We really dug into textbooks to find information like how Cantonese tones map to Mandarin and at what percentage. For instance, it’s really fascinating to know that you can map your Cantonese tones to Mandarin with about 80% accuracy. This means that Cantonese speakers can essentially skip memorizing Mandarin tones and still be right about 80% of the time. This is knowledge that takes YEARS off the Mandarin learning curve.

PROGRAM TAKEAWAYS

Three things that I hope users will take away from using our platform and learning Mandarin through our program:

  • How beautiful Chinese culture is and how great it feels to reconnect with it. If they can get a deeper sense of belonging and more interest in their roots, that’d be incredible.
  • A deeper love for Cantonese. Through our program, students will also improve their Cantonese. As they learn about the differences between Cantonese and Mandarin, they’ll see that Cantonese has its own writing system that makes it really unique. Through this, I hope they feel more pride as Cantonese speakers. I grew up resenting my Cantonese side because Mandarin is more popular – but ironically, as I learned more Mandarin, I grew to love Cantonese more and more.
  • A renewed sense of confidence in their ability to learn. A lot of people feel traumatized as kids because Chinese school was so ineffective. We feel that we’re failures because we couldn’t learn our native tongue and then make memes on subtle Asian traits to feel better about ourselves. I can confidently say that the way they teach Chinese in the West is not the best. I want to help people recover and feel better from that Chinese school trauma.

MANDO TO CANTO

I was surprised by how many Mandarin speakers are interested in learning Cantonese so I’m excited to share that the next big project we’re working on is Mando to Canto! We’re currently in the R&D phase.

CONNECT WITH SHELDON

For when you want him to help you learn Mandarin and improve your Cantonese.

Instagram: @sheldonhoho