Today’s blog post is all about the answer to a question which had been eluding me for a very long time:
How do I get Hongkongers who are about the same age as me (22-28) to teach me Cantonese when 1) they already speak decent English and 2) have been trained to only speak English to people with European faces?
Generally speaking, unless one’s Cantonese is very high level, and one can persistently steer the conversation back into Cantonese, in one-on-one conversations, natives generally will use English to speak to you. You sometimes have to be pushy, and that’s not a good recipe for long-term friendships.
The problem is the ‘one-on-one’ part. If you’re facing just one bilingual person (B1), they’ll look at your face and automatically use English.
However, if another friend is there (who’s from Hong Kong) (B2), B1 will speak to them in Chinese.
This then presents a social problem. B1 may feel they’re being rude by switching languages like this. You can exploit this.
All you have to do is provide a solution: speak Chinese. This way, everyone can converse happily using the same language, and no-one has to feel like a jerk.
Of course, if both speakers speak very good English, this may not work – they may continue to speak to you (and each other) in English.
Obviously, you can just meet up with people who speak worse English. Even if just one of the two doesn’t speak good English, and you keep trying with the Chinese, the conversation will drift naturally into Chinese.
An alternative is to invite more people. (No Westerners, obviously.) The more native speakers of Chinese there are at a gathering, the less likely it is that the conversation will turn to English.
It’s awkward and artificial for Hongkongers hold entire conversations with each other in English – it’s not their native language, and so they’ll quickly all revert to speaking to each other using Chinese. A language switch to talk to the foreigner (who’s also chatting away in Chinese) will be jarring: it makes the Hongkonger look a bit of a jerk. “I’m not going to let my Western friend practice his Chinese, even though he obviously has limited opportunities to speak and obviously spends a lot of time studying on his own.”
Personally, I find that gatherings with two or three other people (all of whom are native Cantonese speakers) are generally preferable to one-on-one encounters for the purposes of learning Cantonese.
As time has worn on however, I’ve found more people willing to speak to me in Chinese in one-on-one situations – but this is usually after several demonstrations of my speaking and reading ability. (Otherwise, they simply won’t believe you that you’re capable of communication in Chinese outside of ‘你好‘ or ‘靚仔’.)
Anyone else noticed this phenomenon? if so, share your experiences!