Has Hong Kong Cantonese evolved to a new stage?

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?

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?

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?

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.

Why is Hong Kong English not considered as a proper form of English?

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Out of all the different varieties of English, the earliest varieties of English, namely British and American, still seem to have the highest status in the world and being taken as a model for English as an Second Language (ESL) learners to this very day.  However, English has also branched out into other native varieties such as Australian, Canadian, New Zealand, etc, as well as non-native varieties such as Singaporean and Indian.  But when English spreads into Asia, it seems as though English can hardly integrate with the Asian languages.  As such, Chinese English is often labelled as ‘Chinglish’, Hong Kong English as ‘Honglish’, Japanese English as ‘Japanglish’, and so on.  But does that mean these Asian varieties of English can never develop into a nativised form like Singaporean English or Indian English?  At present, even though English is an official language of Hong Kong, English does not seem to be a language that Hong Kong people regard as a huge part of their cultural identity, as the daily primary language of use at work and home is Cantonese.  So the question is, if our English proficiency has a direct correlation with our association with a particular culture, does that mean Hong Kong English can never become nativised unless we incorporate English culture into our daily lives?

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Whenever we are being evaluated of our English proficiencies, we are often judged harshly in each and every way, from grammar to accentuation to conversational tone, style, formality, etc, as English is the international language through which foreigners communicate with us.  But what makes Hong Kong English sound so improper that people would not accept it as a proper form of English?  First of all, the sound system of Cantonese is fairly limited, and we do not have different forms of a word such as adding ‘ed’ for past tense or ‘s’ for plural, etc.  Hence, whenever we make such grammar mistakes, people tend to treat it as improper, as if we are too lazy to add those particles to the ends of those words.  But why do these things matter so much if we are still able to get our message across to the listener?  After all, it is just a social impression that we generate, and yet, it is something that people judge us by.

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Perhaps the first thing that we should ask ourselves is that if language is just an impression, then why does impression matter?  For instance, impression is when you go to work and get yourself dressed properly.  Impression is when you present yourself well when you first greet somebody.  Impression is when you show good table manners when you have a meal with somebody, and so on.   So if the secret to learning a language is in generating an impression, then should this be something that we focus more on, rather than the technicalities of speaking a language?  This may sound absurd, but if we were to imagine that this were the method of attaining proficiency in a certain variety of English, such as the Queen’s English in the UK, how would it be taught?  I can imagine the teacher giving instructions such as “In order to attain this English accent, you have to have your head held high.  Real high.”

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So if learning a language were entirely abstract,  what would it mean for students who are pursuing their English studies in a non-native English speaking country?  Would students be hopeless if they learn English from a non-native speaker?  For one thing, we must be aware that there are still other countries where English is commonly used, even though the sound system still more or less adheres to that of the local dialect, such as in India and Singapore.  So if people from such nations can be proud of their English variety, why can’t we be?  We may be criticised in terms of tense and mispronunciation, but if we never use or practice it enough, our form of English can never develop.  Nonetheless, the popularity of a language boils down to the extent we associate ourselves with the language’s culture, as language and culture are often interwined.  So can English be more than just a workplace language in Hong Kong?  If the answer is that language and culture cannot be separated, and that speaking another language will make us become more like someone from another culture, such as following another set of beliefs and value system, then maybe speaking a foreign language can only go so far in becoming a small part of a local language’s culture.

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.

Why does English sound like an upper class language for ESL learners?

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When it comes to learning the English language, it seems as though it is not only the difficulty of it that creates a barrier for people, but also there seems to be the notion of social class attached to the language, as many people have varying degrees of proficiency and speak in different tones and accents, generating different social impressions, with some considered as more prestigious than others. Even among our own friends and relatives, we may often hear English words inserted within their conversation, as if uttering them can help display a person’s social class and intellect. But for our mother tongue Chinese language, it seems as though the notion of social class is not so conspicuous to the point where people would want to acquire a certain accent in order to achieve a similar effect. So if English is the only language that provides me the opportunity to enter a world of social hierarchy, does that mean I am never able to raise my social class if I am not able to speak English well?

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The reality of speaking English is that most people can already tell a lot about you from the way you speak it, such as where you have lived before, what kind of culture you grew up with, or even what kind of house you live in! But for our native language Chinese, it is not as noticeable because unlike English, we do not have vowels that can sound very different, depending on where a person comes from. For example, the vowel ‘a’ in ‘awesome’ sounds very different in American English than it is pronounced in British English. In fact, the vowels in English are the most difficult to master for ESL learners. However, English does allow people to have a lot of room for mistakes or mispronunciation, which is why most people can still understand you if you only have a basic grasp of English.

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But isn’t it really awesome that English is so accommodating that we don’t have to make the effort to speak so standardly most of the time? When foreigners learn our mother tongue language Cantonese, it’s so much more difficult for them because it’s either they get the pronunciations correct or incorrect, with almost no room in between for mistakes that are acceptable. Even for people who are living on the same continent as us, such as people from mainland China, Cantonese is still very difficult for them because of the number of tones in Cantonese – nine compared to four in Mandarin. What makes it even more difficult is that Cantonese has these abrupt consonants at the end of a character called stops (入聲) or checked syllables. In essence, it’s as if we do not much room for outsiders to learn our language, as mispronunciations in Cantonese, such as pronouncing the tone of a character wrong, can result in words having a different meaning, leading to misunderstandings for the listener. So let us imagine for a while that if English were a language like Cantonese, how much more frustrated would we be when we are learning it?

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But after all, once we have grown up and got ourselves to working life, it’s extremely difficult to allocate time to learn something unless we have to. Apart from the major factor of difficulty, learning a language also involves a person’s inclination, such as emotional attachment and cultural preferences, as people often find it much easier to talk comfortably and make jokes in their native tongue than in a foreign language. Moreover, language constitutes a huge part of our identity, and even if there are class differences between languages, we may just find it a lot more natural to talk in a language that belongs to us than any other language. In the end, speaking a language is about being true to who we are at heart, and not trying to speak another language just for the sake of displaying to others your social status. But how shall we nurture the young people of our current generation to survive in this world that is becoming increasingly globalized and multicultural? Perhaps we can take it a step at a time, like climbing a ladder…

Why should we ‘immerse’ ourselves in learning English as ESL learners?

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Why should we ‘immerse’ ourselves in learning English as ESL (English as a Second Language) learners? The concept of ‘immersion’ may seem strange and foreign to those grew up under the Asian education system, as the traditional way of learning has always been through a cognitive and written approach, like the way we learn Mathematics or Science by memorising facts and figures from textbooks and practicing what we know by doing written exercises. In addition, Chinese itself is quite a cognitive type of language, as all of us spend a lot of time every week practice writing out every new Chinese character that we learn in class in our exercise books, as if knowing the written form of a character is a very important in helping us understand and remember the character, which it is indeed. So the question is, since most of us Chinese ESL learners are so used to the cognitive and written approach of learning, shouldn’t this also be the most suitable method for us in learning English?

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When it comes to learning a foreign language, experts say that the best way is through immersion, which means that you will most likely have to place yourself in a foreign country where everyone speaks the language. However, even when we are just practicing speaking English in class, most of us are still very afraid, as if immersion to us is like diving into a pool of water. In addition, immersing ourselves to speak English like a native English speaker may mean that we have to lose our own cultural identity, in order to truly speak and sound like one. After all, as ESL learners, shouldn’t our native language be the primary language that we speak? Also, why should we bother so much about sounding like a native speaker, especially when it means being just like a foreign person?

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So as a former ESL learner who has now reached a native level in English, what do I have to say about ‘diving into the pool of water’ when it comes to learning a foreign language? After having seen other ESL learners who have had the same opportunities as me in immersing themselves in an English-speaking environment, it seems as though it is not easy for an ESL learner to bother climbing out of the pool once they have immersed themselves into it. While I was studying Translation at a university in Hong Kong, my classmates used to have commented that I sounded like an ABC when I spoke English, even though I still spoke Cantonese with them daily. But what about those who don’t speak their native language anymore? Not only would they sound like outsiders, but also what would their parents think of them? This may be the one danger that a person needs to be aware of when immersing himself to learn a foreign language.

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In linguistics, there is even a theory or hypothesis called Sapir-Whorf, which is that the language that a person speaks determines the way they perceive reality, or the language that one speaks determine the way they think, feel, and act, which means your whole brain could be ‘rewired’ as a result of learning a foreign language. At the greatest extent, a person may even lose touch with the habits, cultural traditions, and world views of their own native language, which could mean that they have become an entirely ‘different’ person. Nonetheless, immersion is the most effective way in learning a foreign language because it trains all four areas of our language capacities – listening, speaking, writing, and reading. But perhaps there is still a way to stay conscious of who we are as a cultural being, which is by keeping our heads out of the water by learning how to swim during the immersion process.

Why do we easily get affected by our mother-tongue language as ESL learners?

Why do we easily get affected by our mother-tongue language as ESL (English as a Second Language) learners? The short answer to this question is that if we are learning a language spoken by a different ethnic group, it is almost as if we are trying to speak a language of a different species if we were in the animal kingdom. ie. If I were a cat species, how can I get myself to talk like a pig species? However, whenever we come across people like ABC’s (American Born Chinese) who are able to speak English like a native speaker, we can feel like we are not competent enough, as if our own species can even be better than us. So the question is, is it actually a normal phenomenon when our English expressions are being affected by our mother-tongue language?

Throughout history, we have seen how countries have tried to preserve their own local culture by preventing the invasion of foreign values and culture. So if culture and language cannot be separated, what happens when English words try to enter the brain? Well, the brain reacts the same way a country does when it senses a security problem, then drives away all that is associated with foreign culture in it. In other words, if an English word were a foreign person entering the brain to find a place to settle down, the brain would yell out something like “Here comes an intruder!” or “Let’s put him in custody for 3 days!” Then maybe the person (English word) will be executed afterwards.

So from the perspective of culture, the brain may already have a defense mechanism that guards against foreign cultures by making sure that its local culture stays well-intact and remains predominant. So how can we speak English like a foreign person if we do not even have the culture and lifestyles of a foreign person? This is why experts say that the best way to learn a language is through immersing yourself in a real life language environment. Yet, most of us still hit a brick wall in our language learning process because we are so used to the lifestyles and culture from our mother tongue language. We may still continue to improve ourselves in vocabulary knowledge of a foreign language, but never be able to reach the fluency of a foreign language’s native speaker.

So how should we feel about ourselves whenever we leave a hint of our mother tongue language when we speak English? For one thing, our brain has a natural response to different cultures other than our own, and even if we try hard to memorise words, our utterances are nonetheless indicative of where we come from. Even though we still tend to admire native English speakers very much, we should never forget that we also have our own heritage to be proud of and to be admired by foreigners. We may try to sound like native English speakers through various methods such as learning IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet), but have we completely forgotten what colour we are on the inside? 🙂