During our visit to Hong Kong, Kimie and I met Katherine Chen, who introduced us to a sociolinguistic film she has co-produced: Multilingual Hong Kong. The film provides fascinating insights into the linguistic landscape of Hong Kong, into Cantonese-English bilingualism and into bilingual language use more generally.
The premise is simple: Katherine is filmed asking Hong Kong pedestrians to translate a commonly code-mixed sentence – “Today I must present a project.” – into Cantonese only. Most of the teenagers and young adults she speaks to are scratching their heads because they can’t do it or break down giggling because the Cantonese equivalents they come up with are too formal, too far off the mark or simply sound funny to them.
All too soon it becomes clear to the viewer that the interviewees have a hard time using” pure” Cantonese, i.e. saying the sentence without resorting to English loanwords for “present” and, particularly, “project.”. However, when asked what they think of code-switching a fair number of them say that it’s bad, that it’s a sign of laziness, that it’s disgusting or that it’s a sign that a person cannot speak proper Cantonese nor proper English.
Other interviewees, however, celebrate their code-switching and code-mixing and say it’s an expression of their Hong Kong identity. One interviewee even says that mixing Cantonese and English increases her levels of happiness!
A counterpoint to these translation efforts and beliefs about code-mixing of ordinary Hong Kong pedestrians is provided in interviews with Hong Kong linguists. One of them is Agnes Lam and she sums up code-mixing with a beautiful metaphor: mixing Cantonese and English is like wearing jade jewellery with foreign clothes.
Multilingual Hong Kong constitutes fascinating viewing for anyone interested in language and culture and in beliefs about bilingualism and practices of bilingualism in Hong Kong and elsewhere.
I would also like to strongly recommend the film as an ideal teaching resource to anyone teaching in sociolinguistics, bilingualism, language and culture, World Englishes, Asian Studies and related areas.