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

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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? 🙂

Why is it so difficult to adapt to speaking English as an ESL learner?

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Why is it so difficult to adapt to speaking English as an ESL (English as a Second Language) learner? From the most basic standpoint, if we are not in an environment where everyone speaks English, it can just be very difficult for us to feel natural about speaking a language that has foreign culture embedded within it. So if the problem is that if we have to be in an English speaking environment in order to learn English well, then what can we do about this? To answer this question, I would like to share an experience of my own of how I have adapted to speaking English in my childhood when I just moved to Canada.

Surprisingly, I still have some vivid memories of myself when I moved to Canada from Hong Kong at the age of 7. I can still remember what it was like when I entered the grade 2 classroom on the first day of school at a public primary school in Toronto. When I walked into the classroom and the teacher asked me something that I could not understand, I simply said ‘I don’t know’ over and over because they were the only words that I knew at that time. All classmates were looking at me and I felt kind of embarrassed. Then through out the course of that year, I remember I did not speak much English and only hung around with Cantonese friends who were just like me and moved to Canada from Hong Kong. When it came to doing a presentation homework, I can even remember the teacher asked us to do it in Chinese instead of English. So as strange as it may seem, we actually wrote out our scripts in Chinese and read it out in front of the class. As I look back now, it just seemed incredibly hilarious.

For most of you who must be wondering whether that experience I just mentioned was real or not, I can tell you that I am wondering about the same thing too. Even though I can now speak English in a Western native accent and have had people asking me whether I was an American/Canadian Born Chinese(ABC / CBC), the truth was that it really took some time for me to adapt to the English culture when I was small. So even though I did well in school and was even the form representative back in the local primary school in Hong Kong, I was transferred to a Catholic primary school afterwards, due to my poor overall academic performance that year. Since then, there was an ESL teacher who nurtured me in English and I started speaking English ever since.

So if most of you are thinking that I was lucky enough to transfer to a better school with better teachers, I’d say you might be right. But as I look back now, the real reason why I did not speak English in the first place in the public primary school was that there was no Chinese person speaking English at all! There were a few smart Chinese kids in the class who spoke English, but the problem was that they did not speak Chinese and were most likely born in Canada. So it wasn’t until I met the ESL teacher in the Catholic primary school that I finally started speaking English because not only was she Chinese, but also she actually gave me English tasks that catered to my needs.

So what is my bottom line as to how a person adapts to speaking English? There are certainly different factors that affect a person’s willingness to speak it, but as a child, I didn’t want to speak a foreign language because it seemed weird for me to do so if other Chinese people don’t do the same. Also, if no one made me work hard, I’d probably just continue playing with my Chinese friends. Moreover, common sense told me that I better not listen to someone who doesn’t look like me! In other words, which planet do these people with blond hair, blue eyes, and white skin come from? They all seemed friendly, but they had completely different physical features, which made them looked like complete strangers to me. But as I look back now, I’m really glad that I had a teacher of my own descent who nurtured me in English because it is actually a very useful international language, especially now that we are living in a world that is getting a lot more multicultural, where bilingualism seems to be the base requirement for jobs.

Why is it so difficult to gain confidence in speaking English as an ESL learner?

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For most ESL (English as a Second Language) learners, the first barrier to learning the language, above all else, is probably the difficulty in uttering the sounds of English words correctly and confidently. As a person who used to be an ESL learner, I can still remember how nervous I was when I spoke in front of the class in primary school when I just moved to Canada from Hong Kong years ago, even when it was just supposed to be a small sharing session. (you may refer to my earlier post) So when it came to a real presentation where I was being assessed, you can imagine how nerve-wracking it could get. Also, the best that I could do was to have the entire presentation script memorized, making sure that I included every point possible to attain the marks. As I look back now, I actually have this thought: “Was anybody even listening? I seem to have left the audience out of my equation entirely!”

It seems as though for those of us who grew up in an Asian classroom setting, we had all been programmed to answer questions in a way to attain the highest marks as possible because if we don’t, we tend to get the image of getting a “big cross” (大交叉) or a “zero chicken egg” (零雞蛋), as translated word-by-word from Cantonese. Most of us ESL learners seem to forget that doing a presentation is also about connecting with the audience and establishing a rapport with them. But why do we often forget about this? Perhaps, we tend to think that the phrase for “studying” in Chinese (讀書) means “to read book”, and hence we may often get the idea that we should focus on “the book” in our studies.

But the question is, “Is our mode of studying, that is – focusing on the book, really not such a good idea?” When it comes to doing a presentation, we may not sound as natural and confident as the native English speakers, but we certainly sound a lot more pertinent when answering questions because we had all been programmed to do such a thing through rigorous written exercises. However, that is not to say that native English speakers like beating around the bush, but the reality is that most of us ESL learners were expected to keep silent throughout the lessons in our Asian classrooms, and seldom had opportunities for academic discussion. Thus, when we give a presentation, we tend to jump straight to the point of delivering our answers to the presentation topic, without spending much time to relate to the audience, which can be like jotting down bullet points for an essay but not writing in paragraphs to express what you want to say.

So what can we do about this? Are most of us really stuck at gaining confidence in speaking English? As already mentioned in my previous article, different education systems and cultures have their own strengths and downsides in shaping the character of a student. So if the Asian education culture is superb at nurturing discipline in students, we ought to be proud of ourselves if students really grow up to respect seniors and not have too much personal opinion when working in a company in the future. However, it is still probably extremely difficult to define what is considered as an ideal, talented individual. But for now, we should definitely realize that the two Chinese characters “讀書” (to read book) is not the entire picture of the word “studying”, especially in the Western world. Perhaps, “進修” (to advance studies) is a better phrase to use when we refer to studying, as it takes our eyes off the book and focus more unto the real world…