Sitting on the bus just the other day, I was struck by how at home I felt. Surrounded only by people speaking Cantonese, it felt as comfortable as sitting on a bus in the UK. Having grown up with the language always in the background of my life, I guess it’s no surprise how quickly I’ve grown accustomed to life here. With Hong Kong’s colonial past and native roots from China, many people in the city are able to speak at least two or three languages. Sometimes that can be depressing, but putting my jealously aside for one second, it is SO impressive! In the UK, being able to speak English was quite enough. Here, with almost everyone I’ve met being bilingual, you do start to feel a little inferior, not to mention ashamed. I can blame my parents for not enforcing the second language growing up, or myself for foolishly not wanting to learn, there are so many ways to lay the blame, but that doesn’t help me today.
Actually, when I first came to Hong Kong I was embarrassed. I was embarrassed of not knowing the language fluently (aren’t you supposed to be Chinese?) and I was embarrassed of speaking it in public – for some reason it felt fraudulent. I know people say that locals love and appreciate it when you try to communicate using their language, but to me it feels offensive. During an inter-railing stop in Paris, I cringed internally every time my friends used ‘merci’ (guys, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry!) Maybe ‘thank-you’ comes across as ignorant or stubborn, but I feel much more truthful saying it. This can probably be attributed to the amount of random people I’ve come across in my life who have ever uttered the words ‘ni hao/nei hou!’ to me -_-‘ please… do not do that. Similarly, it goes to say that people (i.e waiters/waitresses) here also do not have the patience to listen to you rattle out your awkward Canto. My exchange friends have told me of their experiences where they got scolded for not knowing the correct word or not fully understanding (note, these people have a far better grasp of Cantonese than me!)
However, I’ve always heard it said that the best way to learn a language is to live abroad, to immerse yourself in the desired language and culture. Being surrounded by people speaking Cantonese, I can definitely say that being abroad is an enormous help. However, the problem is that many people are also able to speak English! It therefore becomes too easy to fall back on the language I’m most comfortable with in social situations – if I get asked a question in Cantonese on campus, my immediate instinct is to respond in English (must…resist). Taking Cantonese lessons helps to build upon my existing foundations (shaky though they are!) and it becomes easier for me to retrieve certain words from memory. I can optimistically say that I am able to perfectly understand roughly 90% of what is spoken to or around me, but when it comes to speaking it myself, somehow the words don’t come to mind. Maybe my problem is wanting to express myself exactly how I would in English, thus making it harder to construct sentences with the vocabulary I know. To combat this, I am regularly going to a Cantonese language exchange. As well as being a great way to practice speaking with locals, it’s also a wonderful way to meet new people as you’re paired with a different partner each time – plus everyone goes for dim sum after!
It took a trip to Japan to make me see how it truly feels to be living in a place where I do not know the language at all, to realise how familiar I am with Cantonese. Returning to Hong Kong actually felt like home, everything became understandable again! All in all, I do really want to become orally fluent, and hope that by the end of my study abroad period I am able to confidently say (maybe in Cantonese heh) that I am. Wish me luck!