Languages in Hong Kong

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Skynet
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Re: Languages in Hong Kong

Postby Skynet » Sun Sep 02, 2018 8:26 pm

Adrianslont wrote:My first time in Hong Kong, in my first hour I wandered into a park and right into the middle of hundreds of maids speaking those languages, cutting hair, playing cards, sharing meals, wrapping packages to send home and generally socialising. The same phenomenon happens in Singapore.


Please tell me that you felt like a child with a sweet tooth who'd just discovered where the cookie jar was? What did you do next?
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Axon
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Re: Languages in Hong Kong

Postby Axon » Mon Sep 03, 2018 1:31 pm

Adrianslont wrote:Interesting,eh?

You might have heard so much Tagalog, Malay, Indonesian because today is Sunday. Sunday is the usual day off for domestic help. Were they all women in a certain age range? Were they gathered in parks? Or near parcel forwarding companies?


Very astute observation! They were in fact all women of about 25-40 years old, not gathered in parks but on a street with a clothing market. Not quite so many today, but I still heard quite a bit of Indonesian around. My informal Malay listening is still quite poor so if I hear something Austronesian that I can't understand, I just guess Malay. I can only recognize Tagalog by its distinctive 'k' sound and have no clue about other regional languages of Malaysia or the Philippines.

---

Day 2:

Weather: Hot. Check my log for a few personal notes on some of these situations.

At a congee restaurant, I ordered in Cantonese that was so poor as to be mistaken for Mandarin, and the rest of the order continued in Mandarin. I asked about the wifi password in Cantonese and was answered in gestures. The cashier wrote the total down and showed it to me wordlessly.

At the visa office, I handled everything in perfect Teochew. (Just kidding.)

After the visa office, I found an Indonesian fast food place/imported grocery store and chatted with the staff in Indonesian.

People in "new" shops and big chains all used only English with me, some with less ability but all with confidence. This includes a mobile phone store and a few different convenience store brands.

At a fried chicken stand, I ordered in Mandarin and the cashier clarified my order in native-sounding Mandarin. After leaving I discovered that I had been given the wrong food, and it was very bad. Would this have happened if I'd ordered in Cantonese? That'll keep me up at night.

At a medium-size grocery store, I saw a woman deftly using two phones to slowly translate Indonesian to English. I thought about offering help but decided against it as I didn't want her to know I was looking over her shoulder. At the checkout the cashier told me the total in Cantonese after I looked at her in expectant silence.

At a Vietnamese restaurant, I listened for Vietnamese in the kitchen and from the waiters but heard only Cantonese. I ordered in Cantonese and even asked a question about the menu, but was answered in English each time.

At an art gallery, I was approached in English by an art enthusiast and we later chatted with his friends in Mandarin. I was also approached by a German tourist who thought I was German.

At the central library, I asked in Mandarin if there were any materials on minority languages of China. The staff member responded in Mandarin (there weren't). As there was a modest collection of Chinese dialect resources, I took some of them into the listening lab. For this I had to get a ticket, and that transaction happened in English twice with two other staff members.

On a side street, someone was advertising their restaurant in Cantonese but stopped once they realized I wasn't a local. I asked in Cantonese to take a look at the menu, but found it not to my taste and politely declined. This was the high point of my Cantonese so far.
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Axon
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Re: Languages in Hong Kong

Postby Axon » Tue Sep 04, 2018 4:23 pm

Day 3:

Weather: Hotter.

That fried chicken encounter kept me up at night all right, but physically instead of mentally. Not recommended.

At a Japanese-style burger place, the cashier opened with Cantonese. The Cantonese that I heard coming out of my own mouth was so dreadful that I reverted to English, but he wasn't as comfortable with English. He was trying to tell me that I would save money if I ordered a combo meal, and that discussion took place in half English half Cantonese as the menu was really quite confusing. This was the first time that I felt even a little knowledge of Cantonese was here necessary for a smooth encounter - without it, I probably would have missed the savings and stubbornly paid more.

At a tiny mom-and-pop store, I bought some drinks and the owner told me the total in English. I misheard and clarified in Cantonese, which made her smile broadly and the rest of the transaction took place in Cantonese.

At a park, I watched some old men playing chess and asked in Cantonese if I could join. I was thoroughly trounced, but I count it as a victory because I understood the good-natured trash talk. "Oh, my horse is hungry! He ate your cart, and he's not full yet!" Another man came up to watch my game and said "Not long now" in English as I was losing.

At a Vietnamese restaurant, I asked questions about the meal in English, saw that they weren't understood, and switched to Cantonese for the rest of my time there. I was obviously guessing about how to say things in Cantonese, but even that tiny effort went a long way in making things smooth. It helped that my guesses were pretty close :D

At a few cosmetics and electronics stores, I was greeted in English and everything went well enough in English. At one particular cosmetics store, the one with the best deals, the staff were clearly not as comfortable in English and spent a while discussing things in Cantonese before replying. I didn't attempt Cantonese because I knew my vocabulary and general fluency wouldn't be adequate there. Later I came back and tested out Mandarin, which immediately made the atmosphere much more friendly. At that point it was safe to bring out my shaky Cantonese, which helped even more.

I actually ended up asking these store attendants (in Mandarin) about their own language preferences when it came to dealing with customers. As smallwhite said, they felt that it was their duty to speak English with customers if needed, and that they obviously preferred Cantonese but knew enough Mandarin to handle whatever customers needed. They didn't feel any particular way about foreigners learning Cantonese or Mandarin, just thankful in the way anyone is when their job is made easier.

In higher end cosmetics stores, many customers came in and immediately addressed the staff in Mandarin. In every case the staff took it completely in stride, never any hesitation as there sometimes is with switching to English. Then they'd seamlessly switch back to Cantonese to talk with coworkers.
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Adrianslont
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Re: Languages in Hong Kong

Postby Adrianslont » Tue Sep 04, 2018 4:56 pm

Sounds like you are having fun - except for the fried chicken.

So much for “everyone speaks English”!

Your experience seems to be panning out pretty much as I anticipated.

Meanwhile, I’m in italy and everyone does speak English! Well, I’m sure they don’t but the standard is higher than I expected and it is pretty much universal in the highly touristed places I’ve been over the last two weeks. It took until today to find a place where Italian was all I got from my interlocutor - i enjoyed the experience immensely. I never knew I wanted to learn Italian until today!
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Axon
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Re: Languages in Hong Kong

Postby Axon » Tue Sep 04, 2018 5:40 pm

Adrianslont wrote:Sounds like you are having fun - except for the fried chicken.

So much for “everyone speaks English”!

Your experience seems to be panning out pretty much as I anticipated.

Meanwhile, I’m in italy and everyone does speak English! Well, I’m sure they don’t but the standard is higher than I expected and it is pretty much universal in the highly touristed places I’ve been over the last two weeks. It took until today to find a place where Italian was all I got from my interlocutor - i enjoyed the experience immensely. I never knew I wanted to learn Italian until today!


I don't know how much longer you're going to be in Europe, but you should start a thread! There's a defunct forum about Chinese languages with a handful of extremely interesting posts where a user goes to different parts of Southeast Asia and sees how far different Chinese dialects can get them. I found all of those fascinating, and they're kind of a model for my entries here. Same sort of thing when one of our users posted about using Cebuano in Cebu. Our Travel and Culture section is pretty sleepy, so why not add some language field reports?
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Adrianslont
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Re: Languages in Hong Kong

Postby Adrianslont » Tue Sep 04, 2018 8:33 pm

Axon wrote:
Adrianslont wrote:Sounds like you are having fun - except for the fried chicken.

So much for “everyone speaks English”!

Your experience seems to be panning out pretty much as I anticipated.

Meanwhile, I’m in italy and everyone does speak English! Well, I’m sure they don’t but the standard is higher than I expected and it is pretty much universal in the highly touristed places I’ve been over the last two weeks. It took until today to find a place where Italian was all I got from my interlocutor - i enjoyed the experience immensely. I never knew I wanted to learn Italian until today!


I don't know how much longer you're going to be in Europe, but you should start a thread! There's a defunct forum about Chinese languages with a handful of extremely interesting posts where a user goes to different parts of Southeast Asia and sees how far different Chinese dialects can get them. I found all of those fascinating, and they're kind of a model for my entries here. Same sort of thing when one of our users posted about using Cebuano in Cebu. Our Travel and Culture section is pretty sleepy, so why not add some language field reports?

I’ve enjoyed your Hong Kong thread BUT I will only be here three more nights. Not so sure my ponderings and observations in Europe would be of much general interest, anyway.
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Axon
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Re: Languages in Hong Kong

Postby Axon » Wed Sep 05, 2018 1:42 pm

Day 4:

Weather: Hotter.

In an out-of-the-way Western style cafe with perfect written English on every sign, I asked a question about the menu. I'm starting to get a feel for who may not be able to speak English, so I asked slowly and clearly and repeated (not rephrased) myself when asked. Clearly the message wasn't getting through so I switched to Cantonese, which solved the problem. Another waiter then came up and clarified my order in English.

At the visa office, I was so relieved to finally get my visa that I babbled my thanks in Mandarin to the visa agent. It was taken well.

At two separate places (restaurant and mall), I was addressed in such confident English that I just continued in English.

In a small shoe store, I opened with Cantonese but eventually reached the limit of my ability and switched to Mandarin. The clerk didn't mind and switched right along with me. When I remembered how to say things correctly in Cantonese I did, and each time she followed my lead for responding. Excellent study partner, not so great shoes.

At a Cantonese-style restaurant, a waitress saw me having a hard time with the Chinese menu outside and brought me an English one. I asked a question in Cantonese and she answered first in Cantonese, then asked a follow-up question in Mandarin without me ever saying anything in Mandarin. Did she detect a Mandarin accent in my Cantonese and therefore assumed I spoke it? Was my Cantonese so bad that it just sounded like Mandarin to her? Big questions here.

On the trolley, I saw a guy watching a news report about Typhoon Jebi. I asked in Cantonese where that was and he replied first in Cantonese, then before I responded switched to English to tell me more about it.

At the hotel, I waited in line for another group to check in. One of the women in the group spoke only Mandarin to the others and the hotel clerk, but clearly understood Cantonese. The clerk spoke to her in Mandarin and to the others in Cantonese, and while their card was processing she spoke to me in English. Very efficient, practically unconscious language-switching.
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Axon
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Re: Languages in Hong Kong

Postby Axon » Fri Sep 07, 2018 3:38 pm

Day 5 (belated):

Weather: Hotter.

At a small congee restaurant, I ordered as best I could in Cantonese but couldn't get my message quite across so switched to Mandarin. The server tried Cantonese for every subsequent interaction first, and some of these ended up switching to Mandarin.

At a Mexican restaurant, I was greeted in native-like English and responded in kind.

At the airline check-in counter, the clerks switched rapidly between Cantonese and Mandarin when speaking to different customers, and I approached them in Mandarin.

At the duty free shops, I overheard a range of ability in English and Mandarin, as it seemed relatively few customers came up speaking Cantonese.

---

And that's that! I have some more short thoughts in general, but that'll come tomorrow.
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Axon
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Re: Languages in Hong Kong

Postby Axon » Sat Sep 08, 2018 12:27 am

In general, I didn't encounter anything that went against the predictions of Adrianslont, tarvos, Lawyer&Mom, or smallwhite. I would say that a couple of people did in fact expect me to understand Cantonese, or at least understand the general message that they were conveying using Cantonese.

Someone going to Hong Kong on business or a tourist just aiming for big-brand shopping doesn't need to speak Cantonese at all. But if you're the type to dash into a supermarket and grab a bottle of water because the air feels like blankets, or the type to head to a quieter restaurant off the beaten path, or even the type to check out smaller shoe stores - knowledge of Cantonese or Mandarin becomes a very helpful tool.

Written Chinese was a little bit surprising. Although I'm not fabulously literate in Chinese, I can get by in China and I have some knowledge of traditional characters from six months of college classes two years ago. However I found menus quite difficult to read, either because of the characters themselves or because the style of menu writing differs from the style used in China. I would say literacy in Chinese is a good asset, but realistically there's enough English that it's not necessary at all.

Sometimes English speakers think they might be insulting other people's English if they speak a different language. Even Ari, known speaker of good Cantonese, mentioned that feeling. However, based on what I saw and heard and said, people don't feel that way. I'm sure some of them did feel embarrassed when they weren't able to communicate with me in English, but it certainly didn't seem that I was making them feel worse if I used Cantonese. Of course a lot of that is dependent on your attitude in the situation. By the way, quite a few people didn't care one way or another - I never got outright praised for my Cantonese the way some people in China heap praise on you for speaking even a little Mandarin.

I hope my short language travelogue can be helpful for others! And I would be very interested to read similar writeups by other travelers :)
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Re: Languages in Hong Kong

Postby Bluepaint » Sat Sep 08, 2018 1:04 pm

Axon wrote:Our Travel and Culture section is pretty sleepy, so why not add some language field reports?


I like this idea!
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