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 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…