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 English pronunciation important for ESL learners?

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Why is English pronunciation important for ESL (English as a Second Language) learners? For ESL learners, there seems to be many words that are very difficult to pronounce, and even when we pronounce them correctly, we may not get the word stress on the right syllable in an English word. Eg. Hamburger is a word that Hong Kong children like to pronounce with a stress on the second syllable, instead of the first syllable. However, when I was studying for a bachelor’s degree in Language and Translation in Hong Kong, a linguistics professor once said that certain Chinese style of English are beginning to be accepted due to popular use, such as omitting the ‘s’ in verbs that follow a third person pronoun, and that eventually, ‘Chinese English’ (note: don’t confuse this with Chinglish) will become nativized and have its own set of grammar rules and vocabulary, just like Singaporean English. So the question is, what is the correct model for learning English pronunciation?

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To answer this question, I would like to share an experience from my childhood with everyone because surprisingly, I can still recall vividly an English conversation that I had with a Canadian flight attendant on the airplane when I first flew to Canada from Hong Kong at the age of 7. As a child, I was often quite lazy to get things for myself, but I remember there was one time my mom said to me on the airplane that I should order the apple juice by myself. So after she taught me how to order it in English, I said to the flight attendant, “Apple juice with no eyes”, which I mispronounced ‘ice’ as ‘eyes’. Then the flight attendant giggled and said ‘No eyes?’ I didn’t know how to respond to her question and looked absolutely innocent, but then she smiled in a friendly way and passed me the cup of apple juice.

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So as you can see, before I even attended school in Canada, I already had the privilege of being corrected in English. Even though the flight attendant corrected my English in a friendly manner, I am pretty sure that pronunciation in this case seemed very important because it could affect the meaning of a word entirely. But what about cases where mispronunciation does not really affect the meaning of a word, such as omitting an ‘s’ at the end of a verb that follows a third person pronoun? This seems to be a mistake that only an English teacher would tell you, but not from someone who you talk to casually in daily life. After all, it’s not such a cute mistake like ‘no eyes’, is it? 🙂

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So to what extent should we care about pronunciation in English? If it does not affect the meaning of what I am saying or as long as another person understands what I am saying, should I even care about proper pronunciation? But perhaps, we should think about how we look at foreigners when they speak our native language improperly, especially when they are also Asians, looking just like us, but from a nearby country. The reality is that we are also often quite harsh towards outsiders who speak our native language, as it is the other way around. Therefore, if our native language contains a sound that is also available in the English language, we should definitely make the effort to utter the sound when we pronounce an English word. Otherwise, we can probably pronounce ‘language’ as ‘langage’, which was actually consistently being heard throughout the lectures given by the linguistics professor I met at university…