Monolingual and Missing Out | Being Bilingual
Hello friends! This is a guest post by George! As with all guest posts, they're here to share some a new perspective, hot tip, or something different that you wouldn't get if you were just reading my voice all the time. All views expressed here are theirs and may differ from what you are normally used to from me. Please be kind and open - there is always something for us to learn when we step outside our normals. - Until next time, Soph!
This guest post is the second in a 4 part series titled, Being Bilingual, which aims to explore different perspectives on how language impacts our sense of self.
Part One ・Part Two
According to Wikipedia, the website that high school teachers love to hate on despite not knowing how to properly Google something, over 2 billion people speak English. Whether or not that’s an accurate statement, it would not be hard to say that it’s one of the most widely spoken languages on our blue globe. Chances are that YOU, dear reader, are someone who speaks it, or else I mean, what the hell are you doing here? But what’s it like ONLY speaking English and no other language? Especially in a place where the majority of people prefer Cantonese? An oddly specific circumstance, but it’s mine, and I’m here to tell you what my experience was for the first 18 years of my life growing up in Hong Kong.
I grew up in Hong Kong, the former British colony-turned Chinese SAR*, and its two official languages are stated to be Chinese and English, but Cantonese, a dialect of Chinese originating from Guangzhou, is very much the primary language of HK, with almost 90% of the population speaking it. As a tourist speaking only English, you would very much be accommodated by English signs, public transport announcements, and even movie theatres, but I’m not a tourist in Hong Kong. After being born to a British father and Hong Kong Chinese mother in a hospital in Kowloon, I’ve always been proud to call it my home and birthplace.
Since English is one of the two official languages, I was educated in an English-speaking school, made English-speaking friends, watched English movies, and replied in English whenever my mother said one out of the modicum of Cantonese phrases I understood. For the large part, I actually grew up unimpeded by not knowing the majority-spoken language of my home city. But that wasn’t to say I wasn’t impeded at times, and as time went on I really began to resent the things I couldn’t, but would’ve and should’ve been able to do. Navigating around in a taxi became rehearsed phrases that if unsatisfactory resulted in a call to my mom to help tell the driver where I needed to be. Ordering in local restaurants essentially became a wordless game of pointing and nodding, and talking to relatives or family friends essentially dumbed down to smiling and abashedly shaking my head when hearing the phrase “你識唔識講廣東話?” (“Do you speak Cantonese?”).
From wordlessly shaking my head in not being able to fathom the game of Mahjong, to struggling to become friends with locals, not speaking Cantonese has resulted in a lot of missing out and being left wanting. But these are rather surface-level experiences an English-only person would expect from Hong Kong in sight-seeing or meeting friends of friends.
The older I got, the more apparent the difficulties became in my experience at home, to the point where I didn’t just feel like I didn’t fit in well, but that I actively had to prove I belonged at home. Because not knowing the majority language of a country doesn’t just mean you miss out on funny insults or sayings, but you’ll be likely to find it hard to understand some very everyday portions of life. Politics, local news, cultural traditions and festivals, social norms, even commercials; all of these things are now impossible to take in at a moment’s notice, and you’ll have to rely on someone else to convey them to you. I very distinctly remember listening to the radio with my mum every day on the way to school, and not understanding a single word, instead asking what was going on and getting the summed-up version.
Not understanding these things as a by-product of not knowing the language made it hard for me to feel that half of myself.
The whole point of this was to really communicate how much culture you can miss out on when you don’t speak the primary language of that culture, and though I swept the graves on Ching Ming Festival or celebrated the Lunar New Year with a great big dinner, there was always some large part of my home that I missed out on. But hey, it’s never too late to learn, and whether you come from a multicultural background or not, I’d say to take a hard pass on being monolingual and go out there and learn another language. I think it’s easy to say it gives you a greater understanding of whatever cultures surround that language, and helps you connect to others who can speak it, or even just have some handy travel skills at hand. Regardless of how much use you’d really get from that language, knowing a second language is a great eye-opener and door-of-opportunity-opener. Even though life at home was sometimes a constant quest to prove to myself, I know that I am still someone of that culture, I just can't help but think that all of this could still have been avoided had I a little working knowledge of Cantonese.
*An SAR (Special Administrative Region) of China indicates an area of China where it largely has its own autonomy separate of China’s governmental, judicial, and economical system. An SAR can largely be considered to be almost like a separate city state from the region it is in.
About the Author
George Jolly is a half English, half Chinese mechanical engineer in London; a simple man who misses home and cooks food to forget about longing to move back. He's also Soph's boyfriend. Hi babe!