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.

What is the most effective way of learning English as an ESL learner?

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As English as a Second language (ESL) learners, we tend to hear a lot from people around us that we should read a lot of English books when we are small, in order to become fluent in English. As the term for ‘studying’ in Chinese is ‘讀書’, which means ‘to read a book’, it undeniably makes a lot of sense that studying should always be revolved around ‘the book’. So even when parents would really like to send their children overseas to study in an English-speaking environment, the Chinese term ‘讀書’ still seems to tell us that we should always stick to a book whenever we study, as if it is the ideal, traditional way of doing it. But if that is the case, does it mean that we should always spend a lot more time reading a book whenever we study? Or is studying so much more than that?

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Whenever people ask me why my English seems so fluent or why I have a native English accent, people tend to get the impression that I must have studied English in a foreign country at a very young age, as if I never needed to spend much effort in studying English, like the language was spoon-fed to me entirely. However, even though I had the privilege to study in an English-speaking environment at the age of 7, it actually took me a lot of time for me to develop an interest in books. In fact, it wasn’t until my senior years of high school when I became very interested in reading books as a hobby, such as Sophie’s World and books by Steven Hawkings. As I was brought up in a family where hardly anyone had the privilege to finish school and knew much about education, it just always occurred to me that homework was more of a chore than anything else, even though I always tried my best to finish them. So the question is, if you had the privilege to attain fluency in an English-speaking environment at a young age, does it mean that you can get away with reading books?

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While language fluency may be a God-given gift bestowed upon us, language proficiency may still be something that one needs to earn through studying hard, especially by reading books. But at the same time, one can be very proficient in English, while fluency can still be a struggle. So what is it that we should focus more on when we study? First of all, we should know that fluency comes from interacting with people because by definition, it is the ability to speak or write a language well. In other words, it is essential to have fluency in order to communicate well with others. However, a person may still be lacking in proficiency even if they have fluency, if they lack a certain level of vocabulary. So is reading books an essential thing for ESL learners to improve in English? Or is practicing English conversation a better option for developing both fluency and proficiency?

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The reality is that all education systems tend to have a ‘good student model’ that expects students to do well on tests and exams. However, in order to avoid rote-learning and to put our knowledge to good practical use, we must constantly stay connected with people around us. Thus, we can have all the proficiency we can attain in a language, but if we do not have adequate fluency, we may still fail to communicate with others. On the other hand, having great fluency to a native level can make a person feel prideful and forget about the importance of learning from books because at times, we may not be immersed in an environment where there are bright minds or teachers who know how to instill wisdom unto their students. So what is the most effective way of learning English as an ESL learner? It may be a difficult question as each and every one of us prefers a different learning style, but if we can look at all the learning styles as a colourful spectrum that is fun and appealing to explore, we may get closer to finding the answer within ourselves.

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.

試問“語碼轉換”應該被視為語言缺失,還是一種技能呢?

作為以英語為第二語言學者,當我們說英語無意地轉回說母語的時候,人們總覺得這是因為我們不能夠流利地用英語表達自己。相反,若果我們說母語時“語碼轉換”(或稱“轉碼”,在學術上指說話者在說母語時夾雜外語的詞彙。)的話,那又算不算是語言缺失呢?對於教育界人士來說,由於教育制度從來都沒有提倡過用雙語作答試題,說母語時“語碼轉換”都通常被視為不良好的語言習慣,甚至阻礙語言發展,或造成“語言污染”。不過,現時香港的中學及小學生仍然在中文口試裡中英夾雜,可說是挺有趣的現象。因此,試問若果香港的語言環境根本是有助於中英夾雜,我們應不應該把“語碼轉換”推行為香港廣東話的重要元素之一,甚至把這元素再更進一步發展呢?

對於一般香港人而言,“語碼轉換”只不過是日常所需的,務求溝通時簡潔流暢。若果我們參考一些學者的學術研究的話,例如中文大學Patrick Chu的研究,我們可以看見由於“語碼轉換”採用許多對應的英文字比中文字的字數都是較少的,“principle of economy”(意思即是“節省原則”),就是說話者“語碼轉換”的最大原因。不過,有時候“語碼轉換”的對應英文字比中文字的字數是相同的,或甚至有時候字數還是較高的。這現象可代表到中文沒有更貼切的對應字詞,或者英文的勢力本身對中文就有龐大的影響。畢竟,若果“語碼轉換”要有生存空間的話,外語必須在本地文化之中達到一定程度的接納。

但是為什麼我們從來都沒想過“語碼轉換”能夠成為一種得到認可的語言呢?首先,說話者留在同一個語言頻度裡,彷彿沒什麼變動。另外,語法和句子結構都跟從母語的模樣,使外語顯得像醬汁加上沙律一樣,不能夠真正融合在母語中。因此,除非我們“句外轉碼”(意思:在學術上指說話者在說母語時由一句母語轉換到另一句外語。),使用更多外語的詞彙及表達方式,說話者很可能只會顯得比較做作。例如,”I mean”、”I prefer”、”basically”、 “generally”、”I suppose”等等的日常英語,若果字詞沒帶有什麼特別的西方文化,為什麼不用母語中文來表達呢?其實,近年來香港大學生群出現的偽ABC現象正是描述得到“語碼轉換”能夠被說話者濫用至極,務求用英語來突顯自己的高尚身份和氣質。不過,對於真ABC或者真正從外國回流的人士來說,“語碼轉換”就能夠使用得非常自然,並且會傾向於用英語來解釋較複雜的概念或帶有外國文化的東西,使聆聽者感覺到說話者真正地融合到外國文化。

歸根究底,若果說話者沒有外國的文化素養,我們應該還提倡“語碼轉換”嗎?無論如何,我們要意識到“語碼轉換”其實利用到規範的英語,不像借入的外來詞彙,和母語完全結合成一體。例如,“sha lup”的讀音應該發成“shut up”,“cervix”應發成“service”,“peen” 應發成“print”,“fan” 應發成“friend”等等。同樣地,我們不應該再把某些英語字詞發成我們母語的聲調,猶如 “tay屎”(taste)、“high卡屎”(high class)、“穿屎” (twins),“煙科屘唇” (information),等等。因此,由於說話者的外國文化素養要達到一定程度才能夠把外語字詞標準地發音,“語碼轉換”其實並非一種易精通的技能。那試問“語碼轉換”應不應該被視為母語的改善和增強版呢?雖然現時人們都好像比較注重純正的語文,但是當未來變得越來越全球化的時候,人們對“語碼轉換”的印象可能會有所改變。

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…

為什麼英語聽起來好像一種高級階層的語言?

當我們學習英語的時候,除了難度是一個重大的障礙之外,由於英語世界裡有許多人擁有不同的口音、音調和語言程度,說話時對人們產生出不同的印象,種種的英語類別彷彿也能夠分成不同的社會階級。即使在我們的朋友和親戚的圈子中,我們也時常聽見許多英文字加插在日常對話之中,彷彿這樣說話能夠表現自己的社會階級和智慧。不過,在我們的母語中文裡,由於有較少的口音類別,社會階級的概念就好像不太著顯。所以問題就是,若只有英語是一個存在社會階級觀念的語言,若我不能夠說流利英語的話,這就代表我不能夠表現自己在社會的等級嗎?

在現實世界中,當我們說英語時,人們就已經能夠憑你的口音猜出許多關於你的資料,例如你在哪裡生活過、在什麼文化和環境長大,甚至你住過什麼類型的屋子!但是在我們的母語中文裡,我們就好像沒有那麼多種類的口音。相比英語來說,中文是沒有類似英語的元音那麼變化多端的,還會因應一個人來自哪裡而發音不同。例如,“awesome〞(意思:“很厲害”)這個英文字裡的元音“a”,在美式英語和英式英語比較之下,發音的差別是很大的。其實,對於以英語為第二語言的學者來說,英語裡的所有發音之中,元音可說是最難掌握的。不過,由於英語有較大的發音空間,即使你發音不太標準的話,人們都能夠聽得懂你在說什麼。

因此,由於英語的發音空間那麼大,能夠容納不同能力的學者,英語算不算是一個很厲害的語言呢?當外國人學習我們的母語時,由於廣東話是一個聲調語言,發音不準確會令字詞意思扭曲,學習的難度可說是很高的。即使是住在同一個國家的內地中國人,由於廣東話比普通話有較多的聲調,學習廣東話也是非常之困難的。另外,廣東話的最困難之處就是有許多“入聲”的字詞。概括來說,由於發音錯誤可令字詞的意思扭曲,廣東話本身就好像沒有太大的空間給外來者學習。若我們試想一想英語就像廣東話是一個聲調語言,我們學習的過程會不會變成更加痛苦呢?

儘管如此,當我們長大成人出來工作的時候,除非我們必須要學會一門技術而為了賺錢生存,我們就很難分配時間去做一些與工作無關的事情。除了英語有相當的難度之外,我們的語言發展總是傾向於我們平時喜愛的文化和嗜好,猶如我們平時都比較習慣說母語,因為用母語和別人溝通和說笑話都比較自然得多。另外,語言亦是我們的身份。雖然說流利英語能夠顯現一個人的高尚氣質,但是我們用母語說話時卻是最自然和出自於自己本身的文化身份。最終,和別人溝通時利用的語言應該出自於自己的本身,而不是為了顯現給其他人自己在社會的高級身份。不過,我們怎樣才能夠培養我們年輕的新一代,在這個越來越全球化和多元文化的世界裡生存呢?或許,我們可以一步一步來,彷彿爬梯一樣…

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? 🙂