Multilingual Hong Kong

Multilingual Hong Kong (Katherine Chen and Gray Carper, 2005-2007)

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.

Running time of Multilingual Hong Kong is 30 minutes. A 4-minute preview of the initial segment is available here. The whole film is available through Yuefilms or by contacting Katherine Chen.

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
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  • Shiva

    Dear Ingrid,
    Thank you for such a fascinating post! Very interesting! And interestingly, the same is true in Persian as well! 😉

  • khan

    Thanks Ingrid for an interesting post. Just to share a thought, all of us know that code-mixing and code-switching is an inevitable reality of our globalised world. However, it is still contested. For some ” poor language competence” or ” ill manners” and for other “valuable resource”. Those who understand the importance of having the ability to use two codes in stead of one for a variety of purpses never leave such opportunties. In fact they put in great efforts, money and time to get two valuable resources. We all know very well that such langauge practices are very indexical. In case of Pakistan, if you can switich in and out of English with ease and fluency, you immediately construct a different social identity for yourself with loads of positive social meanings easily tranferrable to economic and other benefits.

  • vahid

    Sounds really interesting. Thanks for sharing. best, vahid

  • We are having a Bangkok premiere tonight. My students from Intercultural Issues at Assumption University will be watching the film as part of their classroom activity – a cool way of finishing this year! Thanks, Katherine and Ingrid!

  • Xiaoxiao Chen

    Thanks Ingrid for sharing the multilingual Hong Kong! In mainland China, such code-switching is also something common, especially among young people. I’m not sure about how pedestrians here view code-switching like this; personally I don’t think code-mixing of Chinese and English is a great way of expressing oneself. However, I should acknowledge that such code-switching seems to be unavoidable in cases when we cannot find proper Chinese words to express the same ideas as the English words, e.g. the words “present” and “presentations” can hardly be expressed in pure Chinese. Ingrid’s post has informed me that this film will also provide insights into practices of bilingualism in mainland China. I’m looking forward to seeing it soon!