Host – Nicholas Carlie – Host
Alex – from Hong Kong, China
Anne - Anne Dahl, professor at NTNU, Norway
The English language – in China and Hong Kong
Host: Hi, my name is Nicholas and I'm a former journalist for NRK. I was born in Belgium to Swedish parents who raised me in over 20 countries in Europe, Asia and South America. English is not my mother tongue. English is not my native language, and I didn't live in an English-speaking country until I was 16 years old. English is, however, my first language, but I often wonder what is English? Why can I hear the difference between an Australian, a Londoner, a Bostonian or an African all sharing a common language? The English language has approximately four hundred million native speakers worldwide and is recognised as the single most widely spoken global language. In this podcast, we will explore the nuances of English accents and pronunciation, together with five native speakers from all over the globe and a Norwegian professor of this strange and wonderful global language. Who knows, maybe I'll learn something new about my first language. Today I will be speaking to Alex from Hong Kong.
Hi Alex, my name is Nicholas. Interesting, I actually spent two years of my childhood in Kowloon.
Alex: Kowloon, ok - it's the heart of Hong Kong.
Host: Exactly. I mean, this was back in the early 80s and it was just madness. I can't imagine that it's calmed down much since then.
Alex: Oh, it's still very lively. Hong Kong's pretty vivid, I would say.
Host: Tell me where you are from exactly, and what part of Hong Kong did you grew up in?
Alex: I lived, and I'm born in the new territories in Hong Kong. So, it's more towards the northern part of Hong Kong. But Hong Kong is basically a very small city. So, there's not much difference on where you live.
Host: Yeah, because they’re very close geographically, all of these different parts of Hong Kong. How were you exposed to English? Do you have memories of this as a child? Was it through school or through pop-culture or your parents?
Alex: I actually started learning English when I was three, and I started reading English books. And then in school we also had English classes and, we had English classes from kindergarten and all the way through secondary school.
Host: Yeah, right. So, it's a very early exposure. But even in Hong Kong, correct me if I'm wrong, it's not even one kind of Chinese there. There are two variants … Mandarin and Cantonese … and this is already a big challenge.
Alex: Yeah, Cantonese is the main language spoken in Hong Kong. But in recent years, because of the increasing population of Chinese mainland migrants into Hong Kong, there's an increasing Mandarin speaking population.
Host: I understand. So, Cantonese would be more local. But then you also add English into the mix. What is the status of English in the Hong Kong region?
Alex: In Hong Kong, English is seen as superior language. And if we know English and speak it fluently, it actually gives us a better prospect in our future job career, I will say.
Host: Wow, so it will increase your social status to be an English speaker?
Alex: Yeah, it does.
Host: So, not being able to speak English as a young Hong Kong citizen might actually deny you of certain possibilities?
Alex: It's not about denial. It's just that we feel like the ability of speaking another language fluently is just a very high level-thing.
Host: I understand, as a high status in business and commerce?
Alex: Yes, and because in Hong Kong the whole industry is centred around businesses and commercial industry, and mostly the language that's used in those industries, is English. So, if you know English, it really improves your prospects later on, in your workplace.
Host: It's interesting because if I did not know you were from Hong Kong, I could still guess by your accent, with a large amount of certainty, that you were a native Asian speaker. I'm not sure why. Have you ever thought that the way you speak English tells other people where you are from?
Alex: I do recognize that my accent does that, because my English didn't get fluent until last year. And because we only speak English, we always tend to think in Cantonese and with a Cantonese mindset, Therefore we will always have this accent in some words. Words are not words in Cantonese, it's more like words for expression of emotions and that would let people recognize that you are not a native speaker, and that you're from Asia.
Host: At the same time, you know, thinking of the history of Hong Kong with England or the British Empire, I do get more of an American accent in your English. Why do you think that is?
Alex: There's not a particular accent that is taught in the education system. For me personally, I do watch quite a bit of NBA games and I listen to a lot of commentaries. So, probably I learnt my English from there and that may affect my accent. And I have an American roommate now.
Alex: There you go! Movies and YouTube changing the English all around the world. I have these words here: Chinglish and Konglish – what is Chinglish and Konglish and do you use these?
Alex: I never heard of Konglish before – I don't know where that comes from. But Chinglish – definitely yes. Chinglish is basically based on English and when we speak English, sometimes we don't know what's the direct translation of certain words in Cantonese. Then we just put it into English. Therefore we end up speaking English with some Chinese in it and a lot of Cantonese expressions, or expression words, yeah.
Host: So, it's a bilingual language that can only be used by bilingual speakers?
Alex: Yeah, Chinglish would be pretty exclusive. It's not really a dialect I would say, but for someone who doesn't know Cantonese but only speak English, they'll be able to understand most of the context and what's going on. But then there will be some nuances, like some expressions that they will not understand.
Host: How much of a conversation, percentagewise, would actually be English, do you think?
Alex: In daily life conversation? Actually, I think in a lot of conversations we won't use English. We generally use Cantonese, but it's very common that we mix it. I would say 20 percent of the time there would be English words popping up.
Host: When you speak English to me, do you take special care to leave out certain parts of your natural English, so that I can understand you better?
Alex: What's natural English?
Host: Like with your friends, your bilingual friends or the guys you grew up with. They obviously would use more Cantonese. But when you speak to me, do you have to make a conscious effort to only use English?
Alex: Yeah, definitely. If you want me to speak in the Cantonese English accent at the end of the podcast, I'll be able to do so…
Host: Oh, I would love to hear that right now, actually. I would love to hear some local dialect!
Alex: Or some local Hong Kong English, ok ... (speaking with an accent) so, this is how Hong Kong people speak Eng-a-lish. It's more like the Cantonese accent, and then you put it in this when you're speaking "Eng-a-lish", you know.
Host: Yes, that's right. So, English becomes a three-syllable word?
Alex: Yeah, "Eng-a-lish", like that.
Host: And you're very clear and you're pitching your voice differently as well.
Alex: Yeah. Because that is how Cantonese works. That is our accent, yes.
Host: Wow, that's fascinating. And also, recognizable. There's been a lot of huge Asian actors, especially in the martial arts films. Are there any ambassadors of the Hong Kong English that we would know about?
Alex: The issue is, I personally don't watch a lot of films and movies, so I don't really know. I do know Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee, but then I don't really watch films.
Host: Everybody knows Jackie.
Alex: Yeah, he's an icon.
Host: How do you see your accent in the world? Do you have any impressions of how it is perceived? Does it tell people that maybe you're more intelligent, that you're better at school ...?
Alex: Like perceptions? I think people have perceptions more because of my race rather than my language – how I speak it. Because there are just typical stereotype of Asians being smarter, they study hard, and so and so.
Host: OK, so it's not specifically connected to your accent, it's more of a general perception of Asian people in education and work. I see. I really like this Hong Kong English of yours. When would you use that?
Alex: Well, my friends are interested in the Hong Kong accent. So, I would just talk in the Hong Kong accent right in front of them and they would crack up, laughing.
Host: So it's like a party trick?
Alex: Yeah, it’s kind of a trick to impress people, you know.
Host: It was really fun talking to you. I'm really, really going to get into that Cantonese English. It is a good party trick, isn't it?
Alex: Yeah! Have you watched Uncle Rodger on YouTube?
Host: Yes, I've seen some of it.
Alex: He's talking English with a Cantonese accent!
Host: Yeah, he is – that’s right. Well, is that something that you find funny or are you afraid that maybe that's going to give some misconceptions about Chinese speaking English?
Alex: I just think that's just a misconception on how Asians speak English, because I found out that people outside of Asia have a hard time distinguishing people from Asia. Like Chinese, Vietnamese or Taiwanese ... We're very different in our culture and how we speak and stuff. These kinds of videos can cause a wrong perception that all Asians speak like that.
Host: But do you find it more entertaining for your own self, or slightly insulting?
Alex: I definitely find it more entertaining because this Cantonese accent is definitely fun, and I enjoy listening to it and it cracks me up.
Host: Thank you to Alex from Hong Kong. Next, I will be speaking to Anne Dahl, Associate Professor from the Department of Language and Literature at NTNU, about the English language in Hong Kong and Asia in general. Hello, Anne!
AD: Hi, good to be back.
Host: So, in my conversation with Alex, he spoke two variants of English, one that was natural for him, and then he broke into the Cantonese English accent. What's going on here? Which one of these Englishers’ is the real one?
AD: Oh, that's a good question. Well, in most countries where English exists alongside other languages – like in Hong Kong of course, where most people also speak Cantonese – you will find this layer of different types of English, where most speakers can speak a relatively standard English, by international standards. A standard English, which can be easily understood by other speakers of English who don't know the local languages. But then they also tend to be able to switch into modes of English that are more mixed with their other languages and may use words and expressions, and even intonation and phonology from the other languages.
So, it's kind of similar to for example the situation in many places in Africa, where a speaker in Nigeria can speak a relatively standard English, which most people will understand, and then they can switch into a Nigerian English, which you can't understand unless you know the local context. With Cantonese English or Hong Kong English it's kind of the same thing. You can speak Hong Kong English, which is relatively standard, and you can use it internationally. But then English is a local language in Hong Kong, used in Hong Kong among people in Hong Kong. And naturally, because it's living there close to another language, that means people will tend to switch also sometimes into a variety that is more mixed with Cantonese.
Host: Explain quickly, Professor, what you mean with the word phonology.
AD: Phonology is how you pronounce the sounds of the language, so how you pronounce your vowels and your consonants. But also, things like where you put stress in a word and also things like intonation. And when you're speaking English influenced by Cantonese, it’s not really surprising that intonation is one thing that really changes, because intonation is very different in the two languages. Also, what we call tone, is important in Cantonese in a way that it isn't in English. So, I'm not surprised that this happens when you speak in a more Cantonese type of English.
Host: You mentioned local contexts. What kind of role does slang play in these local variants?
AD: There is typically a lot of language use which is called slang, and which definitely is a big part of why outsiders might find them hard to understand. Because two things tend to happen in a language variety like that. One is they will use words and expressions from the other languages. So in Hong Kong, when speaking English to each other, they will use words and expressions from Cantonese that most people in Hong Kong will know - even people who maybe don't speak fluent Cantonese will know them. But also, a lot of times you'll find what we call coinages. So, they might use expressions that sound completely English, but have taken their own meaning in the local context.
Hong Kong, of course, is an example of a British colony, and it was actually a British colony until 1997. So that's relatively recently. And it was only transferred back to China then, but it still has a special status. So, that's the reason why people use English there. And Asia, like Africa, is a continent where the British Empire had a lot of colonies. The obvious big example is India. It has a huge population, and as far as I know they actually publish more English language newspapers in India than any other country in the world. Just because there are so many people, and India was a British colony until 1947. And like so many other countries, they've decided to keep English as one of their main languages after that. The other big, big language in India is Hindi, and some people say maybe they should have just picked Hindi and gotten rid of English, gotten rid of the language of the colonizers. But the thing is that India has more than 400 languages and 22 of them have some kind of official status. And Hindi is mostly spoken in the north, not in the south. So, a lot of people in the South prefer English to speak to people who don't share their other languages. That's one reason why India has kept English.
And then you have Singapore, for example, which was also a British colony, and it has four official languages. Three of them are Asian languages, and then there's English. People there just speak English as one of their languages. In Singapore, it's very much become their own language because, in fact, they have this variety that they call Singlish, which is kind of a mix of English and other languages in Singapore.
Host: For me, I know Jackie Chan was huge when I was growing up and was perhaps the first big Hollywood star who spoke Asian English. What do you feel about Asian English representation in pop-culture today?
AD: I'm your age, so I have the same frame of reference. East Asian English - Chinese, Japanese and Korean - have usually been spoken by people who are characters, who are martial arts experts, such as Jackie Chan. Also, very often bad guys. So, you know, I grew up with Lethal Weapon and with Jet Li as a really bad character in one of these films. I think traditionally there's been this stereotype of speakers of Asian English being, you know, martial arts experts and bad guys and maybe not to be trusted. And also, there are often Asian English speakers who are somehow connected to Chinese mafia and so on, and again, we're talking mainstream American movies. I don't necessarily think that's gotten a lot better. I can't think of a whole lot of characters more recently that are more real, actual Asian English speakers. So, at least as long as you keep your eyes on the American movies, I think you're still stuck with quite a few stereotypes.
Host: Thank you so much, Professor Anne Dahl.