Can Hong Kong Cantonese become an international language?

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Hong Kong Code-mixing group

Whenever people come across my meetup group called “The Hong Kong Cantonese Code-mixing Group” that I started on meetup.com recently, they often find it quite intriguing that I am trying to promote Hong Kong Cantonese into a world-class international language, as it sounds like an idea taken to such an extreme that is beyond imagination.  It’s as if I’m giving people an impression such as “Wow!  What a grand vision this is!  I have never imagined Hong Kong Cantonese would become a world-class international language!  By the way, why the extra words ‘world-class’?”  While the words ‘world-class’ could seem a bit redundant at first hand, but if I were to answer this question precisely, I would have to say that I added the words ‘world-class’ because my aim isn’t just to promote Hong Kong Cantonese into an international language, but also one that has a prestigious status like the Queen’s English in the UK.  This may seem laughable and absurd, as there aren’t notably different accents in Cantonese that denote different levels of social class.  But from the perspective of sociolinguistics, we can see that Hong Kong people’s habit of inserting English words into their mother-tongue conversation, known as “code-mixing” in academic terms, nevertheless enacts a de facto concept of social class into the Cantonese language.  So the question is, if code-mixing has enhanced Hong Kong Cantonese to a new distinct variety that incorporates the concept of class, shall we promote this variety to gain a wider recognition, or even to a point where it can achieve a world-renowned status one day?

Cantonese tones
Graphical representation of Cantonese tones (Source: Cantonese Tones)

When people talk about the next most common language of the world nowadays, Mandarin would usually be one of those among the top of the list that people have in mind.  Without even going into the relatively lower difficulty for foreigners to pick up the language compared to Cantonese, Mandarin is the language spoken by the world’s greatest economic power, which means it has a very high practical value for those who conduct businesses.  But what about Cantonese?  What would be the reasons for people learning Cantonese other than to work in Hong Kong or in the southern part of China?  In a recent article that I’ve read on SCMP by Luisa Tam, it seems to highlight the fact that the Cantonese language is not ‘particularly gentle or pleasant on the ear’, which aligns exactly with what a lecturer used to say during my years studying for a bachelor’s degree in Translation.  Basically, it was a very similar retelling of a story about a western person who had come to Hong Kong, listened to the way Cantonese speakers spoke, and then thought, “Why are these people arguing?”  But apart from this, what I found the most amusing about the article was that the journalist gave the analogy that if Mandarin had a singsong tone like classical music, then Cantonese would have to be belted out like rap music.

Korean star Rap Monster
Rap Monster Korean star (Image Source)

So if you’re new to Cantonese and have read up to this point, you might be now wondering whether Cantonese is really worth learning anymore, especially when it seems to have an argumentative tone intrinsically attached to it.  But what if I told you that the English-mixed version of Cantonese is a new distinct variety that is not the same?  In the article that I have written on whether Hong Kong Cantonese has evolved to a new stage, I have mentioned that the younger generation nowadays are incorporating a lot more English words and phrases into their Cantonese conversation than before, and revealed that there are quite concrete explanations as to why people choose to express an item in English rather than in Cantonese instead.  Even though this work is still under progress here,  we can already see that there are many code-mixing usages that have existed for a long time since the past generation, as if they have been hardcoded into the Hong Kong Cantonese language.  In addition to the prime example of ‘Auntie’ or ‘Uncle’ from my previous article, if we were to replace a code-mixing usage such as the English word “present” (verb) with the equivalent phrase in Cantonese ‘匯報’, it would probably sound too old-fashioned and take us a whole century back!

So if code-mixing has become the norm in the development of a language, what would it mean for the status of the language?  Well, in our case, if the usage of English has become well-integrated in Hong Kong Cantonese, we can say that Hong Kong Cantonese has also become more international as it is being influenced by English.  As of now, foreigners may only sense our internationalism through our short English utterances in our mother tongue Cantonese language, but in the years to come, our language may have a chance to evolve into code-switching (the insertion of a foreign language inter-sententially) if we utilise more English words, phrases, and clauses in our increasingly globalised workplaces.  But the question is, will this evolution make Hong Kong Cantonese become more international or the other way around?  That is, when we come to think of it at a deeper level, code-switching at the sentence level may mean that the two languages are becoming more separate than before, rather than one language being influenced and enhanced by another language in the case of code-mixing.  So does that mean Hong Kong Cantonese is in a pretty good spot right now?  No matter what, let’s keep moving forward in our language development and not backwards in time! 🙂

 

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!”

code mix pic2
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?

linguistics pic

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

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

Posted on Categories EnglishTags , , , , , , , Leave a comment on 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.