When foreigners come to Hong Kong and hear us talk in our mother tongue language Cantonese in a style that is mixed with English (known as “code-mixing“), it often gives people the impression that we are international citizens who are quite used to using English in our daily lives. But at the same time, people tend to question whether this conversation style is a good or a bad habit, as it is often seen as a way to raise one’s social status more than anything else. Recently, I have read a few ‘rant articles’ on the internet regarding code-mixing: one written by a mainland Chinese person and the other by a Taiwanese person, who have both expressed their utter dissatisfaction at the use of code-mixing by a Hong Kong person and a Taiwanese person respectively. This made me reflect on myself, as I am also a native Hong Kong person who attained quite a habit of code-mixing from studying overseas in Canada. So I asked myself, “Is code-mixing really that bad and inappropriate? And if it drives people nuts, should I stop talking in this style? Because to be honest, I really don’t mix English words into my Cantonese conversation for the sake of raising my social status, but I have just gotten used to this talking style for a long time, as if this habit of code-mixing was in my blood since I was born!”
Perhaps the first thing that we should do before we make a real judgement on someone is to identify the intention behind their use of language. But when it comes to doing such a thing, it can be extremely difficult because we may have already formed a stereotypical image of a person from their language community in our own minds, based on our past experiences. In addition, it is very easy for us by human nature to make generalisations, whether they’re of things or people, especially when our past experiences were unpleasant. At times, we may even manifest our feelings and thoughts solely based on those past experiences, which can lead to a whole language community being mocked or even discriminated. As a result, the entire language community can take a hit in reputation if we spread the word to others, and those other people may spread the word to even more people, and so on. But as we are living in year 2020 where the world has become vastly globalised compared to just a few decades ago, can we now say that we can make a fair judgement on a person solely based their language spoken?
In a place like Hong Kong where it’s famously known as an international finance centre with an influx of foreigners all the time, it makes a lot of sense that we native Hong Kongers have adopted so much foreign vocabulary in our local language, as we are very used to accommodating to speakers of other languages during a conversation. However, it is interesting to see that our daily primary language of use is still Cantonese, even though our official languages are both Cantonese and English. If we look at the government statistics, we can see that there is still about 88% of the population in Hong Kong that speaks Cantonese, which means that the culture of Hong Kong still primarily revolves around the Cantonese language. Yet, compared to the other Asian communities nearby Hong Kong, we tend to be a lot more open-minded on the habit of code-mixing in our daily conversation, which one could say is related to our overall English proficiencies being higher than average. But the question is, why do people have such a negative impression of code-mixing?
In an article that I have previously written here, I have mentioned that it takes a lot more skill to code-mix than it is to utter loan words in one’s mother tongue language, as code-mixing in the strictest sense involves correct pronunication of foreign words, which requires adequate cultural literacy in a foreign language. But the thing is, as code-mixing is a mixture of two entirely different languages, can one say that code-mixing could be a legitimate kind of language, especially if there are no rules and constraints involved? Interestingly enough, I have recently gathered evidence of possible explanations behind code-mixing usages of Hong Kong Cantonese in my Hong Kong Code-mixing Dictionary project here. Furthermore, code-mixing terms in Hong Kong Cantonese have already long existed back in the colonial days from our past generation, as terms such as ‘auntie’ or ‘uncle’ are ones that a person must know in order to show respect for someone that they have just met (not even for a person who doesn’t speak Cantonese!), especially when the other person is more senior and of higher authority. Nonetheless, the most important question boils down to: should we allow this habit of code-mixing to continue or cease for the future development of Hong Kong Cantonese? This, I would say, is at the heart of whether code-mixing can become a form of language that can be appreciated, as different people may have different opinions on how language should be developed based on their own past experiences, cultural upbringing, education background, etc.
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.
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?
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.
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.”
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.
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?
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?
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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。
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?
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.
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?
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…