'Kongish' speaks to hearts of Hong Kongers

A reflection of pedestrians crossing a traffic junction at Causeway Bay in Hong Kong.
A reflection of pedestrians crossing a traffic junction at Causeway Bay in Hong Kong.PHOTO: ST FILE

City's brand of English catches on amid fears over drop in standard of proper English

In an e-mail urging his students not to drop his course, one Hong Kong university lecturer wrote: "If you want to give up this course, I encourage you. Don't give up.

"If (your parents) know that you will need to defer (graduation), their hearts will be very sad. Retrospect, when you were a baby, especially you were sick, your mother father took care of you whole night. Do you still remember?"

A snapshot of the heartfelt missive - an apparently genuine one - was posted on Facebook page Kongish Daily, which called for "pity skydown teacher's heart", a literal translation of a Chinese phrase to sympathise with all teachers for their efforts.

The page chronicles and celebrates what it calls "Kongish" - the way Hong Kongers use English colloquially. Kongish, it says, is different from the long-existing Chinglish - a hybrid of English and Chinese.

Instead, it is "Hong Kong English for Hong Kong people" with literal translations of Cantonese lingo. So it is not just "add oil", a popular English term here to encourage someone, but "pay bill real hon zi" - which means that a real man keeps his promises, and "what spring are you upping" - an impolite way of asking what you are up to.

Like Singapore's Singlish, it is mostly unintelligible to outsiders and even locals not familiar with English or the latest Cantonese slang popularised in cyberspace.

But Kongish has obviously struck a chord among Hong Kongers, at a time when the young especially are keen to highlight the city's uniqueness vis-a-vis mainland China.

  • HK'S LINGUISTIC LANDSCAPE

  • MULTI-TONGUED

    Besides Cantonese, English and Putonghua (Mandarin), there are 24 other languages spoken by at least 1,000 Hong Kongers. These range from Sze Yap (a dialect from Guangdong) to Urdu.

  • MORE MANDARIN SPEAKERS

    In 1991, less than 30 per cent could speak Putonghua. Now, nearly 70 per cent can.

  • A BIT OF A SECRET...

    In contrast to oral English, respondents tend to under-report their proficiency in Putonghua.

    About two-thirds have English names.

  • IN SCHOOLS

    About 47 per cent attend schools where Chinese is the medium of instruction, compared with about 30 per cent for English.

    For the latter, nearly 80 per cent use British English, 13 per cent Hong Kong English, and the remaining 8 per cent North American English.

    • Source: Social Sciences Research Centre, HKU

Like Singapore's Singlish, it is mostly unintelligible to outsiders and even locals not familiar with English or the latest Cantonese slang popularised in cyberspace.

But Kongish has obviously struck a chord among Hong Kongers, at a time when the young especially are keen to highlight the city's uniqueness vis-a-vis mainland China. Since the page was started four months ago, it has garnered 31,000 likes. Its surging popularity comes as the city's establishment and commentariat lament over a purported drop in English standards.

A recent flurry of studies has roused concerns over whether the city dubbed "Asia's World City" understands and is understood by a world in which the global lingua franca remains English. Some of these surveys are less rigorous than others; one, by commercial education provider Education First, which ranked Hong Kong 33rd worldwide, down from 12th just four years ago, is based on a self-selecting group of test-takers online.

Other studies have prompted some concern. The Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority for instance, noted some candidates' struggles with "Chinglish" and "limited vocabulary".

Another, by the University of Hong Kong (HKU), finds that Hong Kongers' ability to code-switch - from the local lingo to a standardised form of English - could be compromised. Just 6 per cent of respondents speak English well and 1.5 per cent have a "native-like" command of the language, according to its assessments. About 27 per cent have "a broad functional proficiency" in oral communication.

The number with "high-level proficiency, it concluded, is still relatively small, which hampers the high level of communication needed in executive level communication in business and government".

All this has led Education Secretary Eddie Ng to acknowledge in the legislative council two weeks ago that "there is room for improvement". He added that his bureau is studying the possibility of boosting an "important" tool to improve standards - the hiring of native-speaking English teachers, currently present in over 80 per cent of the city's government schools.

In response to queries, the Education Bureau said this could mean adding an extra teacher in every school. No timeline was given.

However, while anecdotes of falling English standards abound, there is no clear evidence this is the case: Results of standardised primary and secondary school tests show no discernable drop, at least in recent years, notes Dr Andrew Sewell of Lingnan University's English department.

What is more likely is that as English becomes more widespread in Hong Kong rather than being the sole preserve of the elites, it is used to less-than-perfect standards - thus the rise of Chinglish and now Kongish.

So forget native speaking standards, says Dr Sewell. What the government should be focusing on is proficiency in terms of real-world communicative ability.

What is clear is that the issue of language in Hong Kong is an emotive - and politicised - one. The former British colony has long branded its proficiency in English as a distinct advantage in the region. After the 1997 handover, English remains an official language alongside Chinese (of both the Cantonese and Mandarin varieties).

Given its status as a financial hub, language proficiency remains a "a critical economic policy issue", as the HKU researchers note. But beyond that, Hong Kong is also a community with "strong feelings of language loyalty".

This means that perceptions of falling English standards often set off alarm bells about so-called infiltration of mainland influence in the city and the diluted identity of Hong Kong in the post-colonial era.

Conversely, critics - including in mainland state media - will point to it as evidence of the city's faltering competitiveness.

In that sense, any conversation of language in Hong Kong is never just about that, notes Dr Sewell.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 14, 2015, with the headline ''Kongish' speaks to hearts of Hong Kongers'. Print Edition | Subscribe