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?

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.

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

Posted on Categories EnglishTags , , , , , , Leave a comment on 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 do we need to pay so much attention to the sounds in English as ESL learners?

Posted on Categories EnglishTags , , , , Leave a comment on Why do we need to pay so much attention to the sounds in English as ESL learners?

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Why do we need to pay so much attention to the sounds in English as ESL (English as a Second Language) learners? When learning English, it seems as though much emphasis is placed on the spoken form of the language, unlike learning Chinese, where a lot of emphasis is placed on the written form of the language. Especially for those of us who are native Hong Kongers, we would not even study the spoken form of our mother tongue language Cantonese at all, but rather we would spend a lot of time practice writing out every new Chinese character that we learn in our exercise books for homework every week, starting from kindergarten. However, English seems to be very different as there is also the study of phonics and IPA (International Alphabet), where sounds are broken down into smaller categories, such as the English vowel ‘i’ being separated into the long I (i:) sound and the short I (i) sound. So for a word such as ‘income’, we would still need to practice pronouncing it with the short ‘i’ sound instead of the long ‘i’ sound, even though the listener may only hear a slight difference and may not treat it as a mistake at all. So the question is, why do we still need to spend so much time perfecting the sounds in English?

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Some people say that learning English is like learning how to play an instrument. With so many different accents to choose from, it’s almost as if we’re picking up a specific instrument to play with when we are practicing English. Even when we are practicing English writing, we still need to stick to the one type of musical language for the specific instrument that we’ve chosen, as each variety of English has its own unique written form. However, English is very interesting because there are many of those who can be incredibly good at speaking but not at writing. Yet, we still tend to admire those who are good at speaking a lot more than those who are good at writing, just like a singer performing on stage draws a lot more immediate attention than the songwriter who wrote the song. But in Chinese, it seems as though people tend to be a lot more impressed by your ability to write. Especially for a Chinese language like Cantonese, where the written language is entirely separate from its spoken form, it requires a lot of time and great dedication to improve your skill in it. So if you tell someone that you know Cantonese, it might just mean you have an ability to speak it.

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So if we know that English is so different and that sounds are more important when learning it, why aren’t we making the effort to practice them? Well, perhaps the world is now changing in a way that people don’t tend to communicate as much verbally anymore, as messengers like Whatsapp and WeChat allow people to communicate much more efficiently and conveniently. Even though there are countless resources for learning English on the internet, we are now living in an age where people are not as aware of each other’s speech sounds anymore as most of us prefer texting, compared to the past when there was no internet and people had to communicate face-to-face or by phone call all the time. So for a place like Hong Kong, even though the mother tongue policy has had a huge effect on people’s English proficiencies, people’s native language proficiencies are actually also declining due to people relying more on the internet for communication nowadays. In fact, a recent study has shown that Cantonese people nowadays use a lot less Chinese idioms in expressing themselves than they did in the past because experts believe that such expressions tend to require a real life environment to induce them.

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Nevertheless, to us Chinese ESL learners, the sounds of the English language catches our ears because compared to Chinese, English has so many different accents and there can be so much variation even for native English speakers who are living in the same country. While I was studying for a bachelor’s degree in Language and Translation at a university in Hong Kong, there was a subject called Sociolinguistics where I studied the characteristics of different English dialects, which denoted different socioeconomic classes. For example, in New York City, there once was a linguist called Labov who did research on New Yorkers and found out that the ‘r’ pronunciation was a prestigious trait, and that middle and lower classes liked to utter this sound in their dialogue, such as for the phrase ‘fourth floor’, in order to mimic a higher social class. However, in a Chinese community like Hong Kong, even though there has been a recent trend called the ‘Fake ABC’ where the situation is similar, people are mimicking the higher class through a method called ‘code-mixing’. ie. The local university students and graduates in Hong Kong like to mimic American Born Chinese people by incorporating English words into their Cantonese dialogue, in order to sound like they are of a higher social class. But have we taken an appropriate attitude towards learning the sounds of English, apart from imitating them in order to sound cool? 🙂

Why is English pronunciation important for ESL learners?

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