Can code-mixing be a form of language that can be appreciated?

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A Hong Kong mother says to her child when she introduces her friend, “Son, call Auntie right now!” Son says to her mother’s friend, “Hello, Auntie.” (Calling someone ‘Auntie’ or ‘Uncle’ is known as a cultural custom for showing your respect for a senior who you have just met. Source: SCMP article by Luisa Tam)

When foreigners come to Hong Kong and hear us talk in our mother tongue language Cantonese in a style that is mixed with English (known as “code-mixing“), it often gives people the impression that we are international citizens who are quite used to using English in our daily lives.  But at the same time, people tend to question whether this conversation style is a good or a bad habit, as it is often seen as a way to raise one’s social status more than anything else.  Recently, I have read a few ‘rant articles’ on the internet regarding code-mixing: one written by a mainland Chinese person and the other by a Taiwanese person, who have both expressed their utter dissatisfaction at the use of code-mixing by a Hong Kong person and a Taiwanese person respectively.  This made me reflect on myself, as I am also a native Hong Kong person who attained quite a habit of code-mixing from studying overseas in Canada.  So I asked myself, “Is code-mixing really that bad and inappropriate? And if it drives people nuts, should I stop talking in this style? Because to be honest, I really don’t mix English words into my Cantonese conversation for the sake of raising my social status, but I have just gotten used to this talking style for a long time, as if this habit of code-mixing was in my blood since I was born!”

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I would like to say, “This is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put!” (Quote from Winston Churchill)

Perhaps the first thing that we should do before we make a real judgement on someone is to identify the intention behind their use of language.  But when it comes to doing such a thing, it can be extremely difficult because we may have already formed a stereotypical image of a person from their language community in our own minds, based on our past experiences.   In addition, it is very easy for us by human nature to make generalisations, whether they’re of things or people, especially when our past experiences were unpleasant.  At times, we may even manifest our feelings and thoughts solely based on those past experiences, which can lead to a whole language community being mocked or even discriminated.  As a result, the entire language community can take a hit in reputation if we spread the word to others, and those other people may spread the word to even more people, and so on.  But as we are living in year 2020 where the world has become vastly globalised compared to just a few decades ago, can we now say that we can make a fair judgement on a person solely based their language spoken?

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A classic example of code-mixing in Hong Kong Cantonese. An extra “you” for politeness! 🙂

In a place like Hong Kong where it’s famously known as an international finance centre with an influx of foreigners all the time, it makes a lot of sense that we native Hong Kongers have adopted so much foreign vocabulary in our local language, as we are very used to accommodating to speakers of other languages during a conversation.  However, it is interesting to see that our daily primary language of use is still Cantonese, even though our official languages are both Cantonese and English.  If we look at the government statistics, we can see that there is still about 88% of the population in Hong Kong that speaks Cantonese, which means that the culture of Hong Kong still primarily revolves around the Cantonese language.  Yet, compared to the other Asian communities nearby Hong Kong, we tend to be a lot more open-minded on the habit of code-mixing in our daily conversation, which one could say is related to our overall English proficiencies being higher than average.  But the question is, why do people have such a negative impression of code-mixing?

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Similar to Urban Dictionary, this is a Hong Kong Cantonese code-mixing dictionary that I have started on my website recently. (Click here to view)

In an article that I have previously written here, I have mentioned that it takes a lot more skill to code-mix than it is to utter loan words in one’s mother tongue language, as code-mixing in the strictest sense involves correct pronunication of foreign words, which requires adequate cultural literacy in a foreign language.  But the thing is, as code-mixing is a mixture of two entirely different languages, can one say that code-mixing could be a legitimate kind of language, especially if there are no rules and constraints involved?  Interestingly enough, I have recently gathered evidence of possible explanations behind code-mixing usages of Hong Kong Cantonese in my Hong Kong Code-mixing Dictionary project here.  Furthermore, code-mixing terms in Hong Kong Cantonese have already long existed back in the colonial days from our past generation, as terms such as ‘auntie’ or ‘uncle’ are ones that a person must know in order to show respect for someone that they have just met (not even for a person who doesn’t speak Cantonese!), especially when the other person is more senior and of higher authority.  Nonetheless, the most important question boils down to: should we allow this habit of code-mixing to continue or cease for the future development of Hong Kong Cantonese?  This, I would say, is at the heart of whether code-mixing can become a form of language that can be appreciated, as different people may have different opinions on how language should be developed based on their own past experiences, cultural upbringing, education background, etc.

*For a thorough explanation of my recent language project on Hong Kong Cantonese, please go to: https://www.megaexplorer.net/hklang.html

Has Hong Kong Cantonese evolved to a new stage?

Posted on Categories CantoneseTags , , , , , , , 5 Comments on Has Hong Kong Cantonese evolved to a new stage?

Hong Kong code-mixing

Code-mixing, an academic term that refers to the insertion of foreign words into one’s mother-tongue conversation, has always had a bad rap in the eyes of educators. Yet, it is an emerging trend among the younger generation nowadays due to globalisation at workplaces and the abundance of English learning resources and media in English medium on the internet. Not only do people code-mix words nowadays, but phrases and clauses are also beginning to be more common in Hong Kong Cantonese speech. So can we now say that English is well integrated into Hong Kong Cantonese such that it is now imperative that you should know how to code-mix English words into your Cantonese conversation as a Hong Kong person? And if our new form of Englishised Cantonese is representative of who we are as Hong Kongers, how shall we convince other nations that it is indeed ‘the language’ that we speak?

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In the realm of linguistics, all languages are equal. As long as the popularity of a language rises to a point where there are enough language users, a language can become nativised and turn into a new distinct variety of its own. An exemplar of this would be Singaporean English, where it has not only become nativised, but also a part of people’s everyday life conversation. So this begs the question: Can a code-mixed language become nativised? This question may seem absurd and laughable, but there are countries where code-switching (switching between languages at the sentence level) has become a part of people’s everyday lives, such as the Philippines. However, compared to code-switching, code-mixing may only seem like a mere embellishment of a language, especially when the language user is only utilising English to display a high social class. In other cases, it could even just be as result of necessity at the globalised workplaces in Hong Kong today. Nonetheless, it has become quite the trend of the way young people speak nowadays and if this defines who we are as Hong Kongers from a linguistics perspective, should this code-mixed language be promoted to gain a wider recognition, or even taken further for development to incorporate even more English words and phrases?

Hong Kong code-mixing dictionary

If we were to imagine that our code-mixed Cantonese language became a legitimate kind of language, one that would be used in formal writing or even in government documents, what would it look like? First of all, there would need to be grammarians, linguists, and other language experts to come up with rules and constraints of using this language. In addition, we would have our own dictionary with entries on how to code-mix each English word into our Cantonese language, as well as precise descriptions on the inferred meaning which should be different from the same thing being expressed in Cantonese entirely. This could be hard, especially when the speaker is merely code-mixing English words to display a high social class, and sometimes, code-mixing could only be as a result of language deficiency of the speaker not knowing how to say something in Cantonese entirely. But is it worth taking a look at this language phenomenon anyway, as there have already been code-mixing phrases brought down to our Hong Kong Cantonese language from our past generation since the colonial days?

Hong Kong code-mixing lingua franca

While one could say that the Hong Kong Cantonese language was just largely due to the influence of the English culture, we can see that there are words taken from the English language in order to maximise communicative efficiency, as Hong Kong is a fast-paced urban city. For example, we use generic words such as ‘suppose’ and ‘expect’ to take the meaning of different Chinese verbs, and nouns such as ‘case’ and ‘project’ to take the meaning of different Chinese nouns. Moreover, there are features that are exclusively available in English that can make the speaker sound more formal and indirect. For example, the word ‘prefer’ can allow the speaker avoid from saying ‘I like this item more’ directly, the adverb ‘somehow’ can allow the speaker avoid from saying “I don’t know why” to save face in a formal situation, and the verb ‘depends’ can also make the speaker sound more formal and seem less hesitant in making a decision. Nonetheless, code-mixing is still a very complex phenomenon, as the speaker’s intention for incorporating English words into their mother-tongue conversation can be different every time, depending on the context. But the question is, how shall we explain to foreigners that our Englishised Cantonese language is not merely due to the influence of the English culture, but also has a degree of logic and pragmatism, and most importantly, matches our cultural identity as Hong Kong citizens? This may not be that difficult, if we gather our strengths to analyse as many code-mixing samples as possible, in order to uncover the existence of a code-mixed language.

* For my latest project on code-mixing in Hong Kong, please go to: https://www.megaexplorer.net/hkdict.html

Should code-mixing be seen a sign of language deficiency or rather… a skill?

Posted on Categories CantoneseTags , , , , , , Leave a comment on Should code-mixing be seen a sign of language deficiency or rather… a skill?

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As English as a Second Language (ESL) learners, whenever we speak in English and inadvertently switch to speaking in our mother-tongue language, people tend to get the impression that it is as a result of us not being able to express ourselves in English. But what about code-mixing (an academic term that means the speaker inserts words from a foreign language into their mother tongue conversation)? According to education experts, code-mixing is often regarded as a bad habit or even ‘language pollution’ because it is understandably ridiculous that students are not to be encouraged to speak or write in dual languages in tests or exams. However, an interesting phenomenon is that Hong Kong local primary and secondary school students are having such a habit of code-mixing in their Chinese oral exams. So the question is, if the environment of Hong Kong is conducive to code-mixing in the Hong Kong Cantonese language, should code-mixing be promoted as an important characteristic of the language, such that we should even take it further for development?

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Most Hong Kong people would say that code-mixing is just a necessity, which is as a result of attaining communicative efficiency in speech. If we take a look at some research papers written by scholars, such as the one here by Patrick Chu from Chinese University of Hong Kong, the “principle of economy” has been shown to be the major reason behind the choice of using English words over Chinese words, due to a lower number of syllables in English. However, there are also cases where both the Chinese word and English word have the same number of syllables, or where the English word has a higher number of syllables than the Chinese counterpart. This means that English has either a strong influence over Chinese or there just isn’t an equivalent word in Chinese that can express the same thing in English. But one thing that has to remain true for code-mixing to happen or exist is that a foreign language must have gained a certain degree of acceptance in the local culture’s dialect.

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But why do we not ever consider code-mixing as a legitimate kind of language? First of all, the speaker remains in the same language medium as though nothing much is changed. Secondly, the syntax and grammar adheres to that of the mother-tongue language, making the foreign language appear more of something like a salad dressing, than it is really being integrated with the mother-tongue language. So unless we code-switch inter-sententially (an academic term that means the speaker switches from speaking sentences from their mother tongue language into a foreign language, and then back and forth) and utilise more expressions from the foreign language, the speaker might just appear pretentious when he or she only uses common English expressions for code-mixing, such as “I mean”, “I prefer”, “basically”, “generally”, “I suppose”, etc. In fact, the recent fake ABC phenomenon in Hong Kong is an exemplar of how code-mixing using common expressions in English can be exploited for the sake of displaying a high social status, rather than utilizing the foreign language’s vocabulary to explain a complicated concept, along with inferring a genuine sense of integration with the foreign language’s culture.

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So should code-mixing be encouraged for those who lack cultural literacy in a foreign language? No matter what, we should realize that code-mixing should also involve proper pronunciation of English words because unlike loan words, which are borrowed and taken from a foreign language and became fully integrated into the mother tongue language, code-mixing should follow the sound system of the foreign language entirely. Eg. ‘Sha lup’ should be pronounced as ‘shut up’, ‘cervix’ as ‘service’, ‘peen’ as ‘print’, ‘fan’ as ‘friend’, etc. The same applies for English words that are integrated into the Cantonese sound system rather than the original English pronunciation such as ‘tay屎’ (taste), ‘high卡屎’ (high class), ‘穿屎’ (twins), ‘煙科屘唇’ (information), etc. Hence, code-mixing is actually not such an easy skill because the speaker requires a certain degree of literacy in the foreign language in order to attain proper pronunciation of the foreign words. So shouldn’t code-mixing be seen as an improvement or enhancement of your mother tongue language as it requires some skill to be done properly? As for now, people don’t tend to see it that way, but maybe some day when the world is globalised to a much greater extent, they will.