Monday, August 15, 2011

Towers of Babel

Language is a very complicated facet of life in Hong Kong. The Chinese language is singular only in the sense that the characters are the same no matter what dialect one speaks (though even here there is conflict between those who prefer traditional vs. simplified forms). But while the characters are the same for everyone, each dialect pronounces them differently.

The result is that someone who speaks Mandarin Chinese and someone who speaks Cantonese Chinese can both read the same book but would be unable to have a conversation about it. (One benefit of this situation is that television programming can be subtitled in characters and everyone can read it, no matter what dialect the actors actually speak.) What makes this fact even more complicated is the Chinese government’s decision to make Mandarin the official dialect, known as Putonghua, or Modern Standard Chinese. This decision is reflected in one important way: all children are now taught Mandarin in school.

In a place like Guangdong (i.e., Canton), this means Cantonese is spoken by everyone, but many people, and everyone under a certain age, also understand Mandarin and can speak it with varying degrees of aptitude.

Hong Kong, being adjacent to Guangdong and populated to a large degree by its emigrants, is dominated by Cantonese. And, since it was handed back to China in 1997, it also falls under the edict of using Mandarin as the official dialect. This, as I described, makes things complicated. However, what really thickens the plot is the legacy of British rule up to 1997 and the place of the English language here. The goal as I understand it is for Hong Kongers to be bilingual (Cantonese and English) and triliterate (add Mandarin). Figure that one out.

All of this leads to some oddities and many frustrations. First, as I mentioned above, Cantonese TV programs get subtitled in characters, rather than English, making broadcast television worthless to us. Second, the train stops are announced three times, once in Mandarin, Cantonese and English. Third, 98% of the printed/graphic t-shirts you see on Chinese people have English words on them. Like I said, it’s complicated.

We came under the impression that English was very common and that we could always rely on Mandarin, to the extent we could use it. (This extent is not very extensive, given that we have been working through Rosetta Stone for only a couple of months.)

However, we quickly realized English is not that common up where we live in the New Territories, away from the downtown areas. Our first attempt at eating out was in the canteen on campus, our thought being it would be a “safe” way to start. We thought it safe because Lingnan University, like all the public universities in Hong Kong, conducts all of its instruction in English. Well, apparently this concept does not apply to the canteen, as the cashier did not understand a lick of English. Thankfully, some students saw our problem and provided translation services. Even so, we ended up with minced pork on our spicy noodles.

And, speaking of English instruction, even this facet of university life is complicated. The faculty (many of whom speak only English) teach in English and the syllabi and assignments are in English. But the students, though they understand and can read English, are not that accomplished at speaking it. Simply, they don’t get much opportunity growing up to practice. This makes class discussions difficult. From what I understand, often the students will switch to Cantonese, have a great discussion amongst themselves, then switch back to English to report to the professor what they discussed. Add to this tension the new gravitational pull of Mandarin exerted by the billion-plus people above Hong Kong on the mainland.

Since I like to make a good attempt at using the language when interacting with foreigners, made all the more necessary here by the lack of English literacy, I started out using some basic Mandarin for the essentials like hello (ni hao), thank you (xie xie) or goodbye (zai jian). But this felt weird, given that the people I was interacting with don’t really use Mandarin. So, within a day I realized I needed to brush up on some basic Cantonese words and phrases. All the confidence I had from a couple months of Mandarin study dissipated. I was back to square one.

In any event, we’ve been able to muddle by with a combination of all three languages, much gesturing and a bit of impromptu translation. It can be frustrating, and one can’t help but see the giant skyscrapers rising up amid the mountains as modern-day Towers of Babel.

Well, that’s all for now: good bye; zai jian; bai bai.


  1. So does that mean two people, one speaking Cantonese and one speaking Mandarin, could theoretically text each other or pass notes, but not speak to each other?

  2. Doug

    Loved the analogy. Good luck in the next few weeks and once you all have become adjusted you will start picking up the language. Hopefully?

    Love reading all the posts

    Aunt Trish

  3. Take one day at a time and they will start evening out. Your descriptions are really riveting. A little unsettling, but so very interesting. Hope to speak face to face time soon.

  4. @Lindsay: that's our understanding of the situation. But keep in mind how onerous typing is around here. You can use pinyin (using the Roman alphabet to approximate the sounds), but I don't think most people know that. Thus, it requires multiple key strokes/mouse clicks to type a single word. There's probably some system that the youngsters have developed to get around this, but we've yet to figure out how that works.