A Conversation with Dr. Candise Lin

As someone who is a Cantonese speaker, I understand how hard it is to learn the language. I reached out to Dr. Candise Lin, who has a PhD in Educational Psychology, specializing in language acquisition, and is also a Cantonese and Mandarin tutor to discuss more about learning languages and the dichotomy between the education systems in Asia and in the West. 

Introduce Yourself!

Hi, I’m Candise. I was born and raised in Guangdong, China and I came to the US when I was 13. I went to USC and got two BA’s in Psychology and East Asian Language and Cultural Studies. I got my PhD in Educational Psychology from the University of Maryland, College Park. After that, I went back to USC for my post doctorate and later became a lecturer in the psychology department. But ever since I became a mother, I gave up my teaching career to take care of my kids. Around the time the pandemic came, I became a content creator slash Cantonese and Mandarin tutor.

Can you share a bit about your academic background? Why did you choose to pursue a degree in Psychology and East Asian Languages and Culture, and eventually pursue a PhD in Educational Psychology?

I was very interested in human cognition and behavior because I took a psychology class in high school. I was fascinated by Sigmund Freud— a famous psycho-analyst, and that led me to an interest in becoming a clinical psychologist. In my sophomore year, I took a developmental psychology class. I learned about the Critical Period hypothesis which is about language acquisition. It states that if you start to learn a second language past puberty, you will not be able to achieve our native like proficiency. And I felt like it completely described my language learning experience. Although I can memorize a lot of vocabulary, I will always have an accent no matter what. Language learning is really fascinating to me. I also decided to pursue the East Asian Languages and Culture major because I was 18 and really into K-Pop. I continued to pursue a PhD in Psychology because I liked doing research.  I get to meet new people every day and since I worked with children, I also got to know their parents and have them share their own experiences with language learning. It’s just fascinating to learn about new things, doing research, and being able to contribute to society.

As someone who experienced education systems in Asia and the West, what did you feel were the biggest differences? 

The method of learning is the biggest difference. In the US, there’s a lot of hands-on activities that you learn through, and the learning process encourages participation. In China, it’s pretty much a lecture. The class sizes are huge compared to the US. Students will have to keep quiet and only be allowed to speak if they were picked after raising their hands. There’s not much participation on the students’ side. There’s a lot of repetition in the homework too, especially when learning about Chinese characters. 

There’s this Chinese expression that goes 填鴨 式教育, which translates to “stuffed duck education”. Imagine you have a duck and all you do is stuff knowledge into them, without them giving you much feedback or participating. It really stifles creativity. Whereas, there could be multiple ways to solve a math problem, but you are only allowed to memorize one formula. Both methods have their pros and cons. But I think it’s definitely less stressful for students growing up in the West, especially when it comes to homework. There’s a lot of emphasis on homework in China. And even on the weekends, children are most likely going to participate in extracurricular activities. Most of the time, it’s in preparation for a school entrance exam. It’s really competitive.

Has your cultural background influenced the way you perceived education and academia at the higher level? Did your initial perspective shift after years of being in Western academia?

Back then, I thought that good grades were everything. It gave you opportunities to attend good schools and get a good job. After spending many years in the US, I realized that good grades are not the only path to become successful. Look at Silicon Valley, where there’s so many tech success stories who don’t have a college degree. They have an idea and they will just pursue it. I think the education system in the US really encourages creativity and offers the freedom to explore other opportunities and support you. Seeing how kids are being taught here also affected my current parenting philosophy. My kids don’t have to be lawyers or doctors. The only requirement for me is that they are able to speak the three languages I speak fluently. They can be whoever they want and there’s so many ways to be successful. 

Back in China, we were also taught from a young age to not flaunt our success. It’s not good to be proud and you have to be humble. But after spending time here, I realized that you have to be proud of your achievements and share them. I used to only go by Candise, but I now go by Dr. Candise Lin. Previously I wouldn’t bring it up because I felt like I was showing off my degree but here in the US, you have to speak up, otherwise people will not recognize you.

You have to show yourself off in order to get the opportunities you deserve. 

How did you eventually venture into tutoring Mandarin and Cantonese? What were the motivations behind it?

I started making videos during a pandemic because I had a side business where I mainly sold to Chinese customers. I was introduced to Douyin from my friends in China to help promote my business and then I thought, since I’m in the US, maybe I should try making TikToks as well. I saw a lot of people talking about the Chinese or Asian experience and I wanted to share my own experiences too. I got really lucky because one of my very first videos exploded on TikTok. It was a “Funny Names compilation” that started as an inside joke with my husband when we see English names translated into Cantonese. 

@candiselin86

Reply to @bobbymarrtin a good name ending to have #funnynames #fyp #cantonese #bobby #abby #gabby

♬ Monkeys Spinning Monkeys – Kevin MacLeod

I didn’t expect it to get so much attention and then I started switching my focus to TikTok. I thought that I could make more content about Cantonese, since there aren’t many creators focusing on the language. And that’s my specialty— education and language acquisition. I started making a lot of videos about Cantonese culture and I guess it resonated with a lot of people. Then, people started asking me if I tutored Cantonese or Mandarin and I started making lessons for students who were interested. There’s not many tutors or resources for learning Cantonese out there. There’s YouTube videos at most, but it’s really hard to learn from a video because language is meant to be spoken and communicated. Since my background was in language transfer, I was able to teach my students based on their native language. It’s so different teaching an English-speaking person Cantonese, compared to a Mandarin-speaking person. I think my academic background gives me a unique edge for tutoring.

Do you feel that there is a lack of formal Cantonese education since it is considered a dialect? Conceptually, what are some ideas about Cantonese/ Cantonese speakers that non-Cantonese speakers may have, in both the West and Asia?

One thing I want to mention is that I don’t believe that Cantonese or any other Chinese “dialects” are dialects.

The Chinese government labels these dialects as 方言, which actually translates to “regional speech”. These dialects are not dialects in the way we define them because they have their own grammar systems, vocabulary, phonology systems and are mutually unintelligible from Mandarin. The difference between Mandarin and Cantonese is even bigger than the difference between Romance languages like Spanish and French. Linguistically speaking, Cantonese is a language itself. 

I understand the perspective of China’s government in labeling these languages as dialects as they want language unity, but I would like to tell my students to be proud of what they’re speaking and learning. I always tell my students to be proud that you are learning a language and it’s a hard language; it’s even harder than Mandarin given that it has anywhere between six to nine tones depending on the particular dialect of Cantonese. There’s also so much slang in Cantonese because it’s mostly a spoken language. It’s very colloquial, so I mainly teach speaking and listening. 

But if you get past the tones, the grammar system is actually really straightforward. It’s not a gendered language like English and we don’t have to indicate whether something is plural or singular. Everything is based on context. The vocabulary is simple and straightforward. For example, delicious is just “good to eat”. One misconception non-Cantonese speakers have is that Cantonese is hard to learn. Cantonese is actually not as hard as you think once you get past the tones.

Why did you start using social media as a tool to promote Cantonese? Beyond that, you also include cultural commentary on your page, why do you think it’s important to share such content on your platform?

A lot of the younger generation learn through social media. It’s a very powerful tool to teach Cantonese because that’s where kids get information from. With Cantonese, a lot of children are not taught the language especially if you’re from an immigrant background and trying to survive in a new country. A lot of young people and students that I know have told me that their parents never taught them Cantonese but they would like to speak Cantonese. 

I also want to promote Cantonese so that people are proud of their language and heritage.

As we’ve talked before, many people call Mandarin as Chinese. But Chinese is more like an umbrella term because there’s so much ethnic and linguistic diversity in China. Calling Mandarin Chinese is not accurate. While it is the official language of China, it doesn’t represent all the languages spoken by Chinese people. A fun fact is that there are 80 million Cantonese speakers around the world, more than the number of Korean speakers. But given the popularity of K-POP around the world, a lot more people are aware of Korean. But when you talk about Cantonese, some people don’t even know what it is. I feel that by making relatable and interesting content about Cantonese, it will help spread the knowledge about it.

@candiselin86

Reply to @flomillishiiz did I offend anyone? #chinese #learnchinese #fyp #cantonese #learncantonese #beauty #prideanthem

♬ Pieces (Solo Piano Version) – Danilo Stankovic

Besides exposing the West to the language, the cultural commentary videos are a way for me to help them understand China without Western propaganda.

Many people have misconceptions about the country and the Chinese people because of its portrayal by Western media.

I would read the same piece of news from both sides and the words that they choose to describe the event are so different. They will try to paint China as this evil, authoritative country out to dominate the world. But that’s not how regular Chinese citizens are. They just want to live peacefully without any trouble, not be this evil, dominating force. As someone who can read Mandarin fluently and understands both Chinese and Western culture, I want to bring a more neutral perspective without putting any additional color on it. I want to present matters in the most neutral language possible so that my audience can make judgments for themselves. I often get a lot of negative comments on my videos about China. While I know it’s hard to change someone’s mind, at the very least, I want to offer a fresh perspective.

 

Fun Rapid-Fire Questions!

Favorite Asian food:

That is so hard! I will have to say Cantonese cuisine. To be specific, I really like Dim Sum

Favorite place to visit:

I love Hong Kong and Paris

Favorite holiday:

Mid-Autumn festival because I love mooncakes. In terms of holidays, I love Chinese New Year and especially because I used to get red envelopes when I was younger.


Dr. Candise Lin was born and raised in Guangdong, China and immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 13. She earned her Ph.D. in Educational Psychology from the University of Maryland, College Park. She has published a dozen papers in academic journals focusing on second language acquisition and bilingual development. Now she’s a mother, content creator, and tutor for Cantonese and Mandarin. Follow her on TikTok (@candiselin86) and Instagram (@dr.candiselin). For more information about tutoring, please visit her website www.cantonesetoday.com.

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