I’ve been meaning to write something on this for some time. So far on this blog, the only time I’ve spent much time addressing this endlessly fascinating topic was back in August when I discussed my own pursuit of learning Cantonese. I still use and try to improve my Canto every day, but that isn’t what this post is about. Of all the differences between the world of Hong Kong and the world of Seattle, I’d say that the role of language is the most interesting to me. Growing up in the United States, I knew that most of the world’s population didn’t speak English. And I knew that there were a whole lot of people who spoke multiple languages fluently. But I never realized how much of an anomaly American citizens are in being mostly monolingual.
I’d say the average American (with the notable exception of recent immigrants) speaks English natively and knows a handful of words in other languages, most likely Spanish. I personally studied Spanish for three years and though I was good at it, I saw it more as a high school requirement than a valuable life skill. And I believe most Americans feel the same. Why shouldn’t they? Most Americans will spend their entire lives interacting only with native English speakers, speaking only English to each other. It’s the way our society is and has been since the country was founded. The term “language” is pretty much synonymous with “English” to most Americans (and probably most Australians/Canadians/New Zealanders). Simple as that. But it couldn’t be more different in Hong Kong and the rest of the world.
In Hong Kong, the native language of the people is Cantonese. But the national language of China is Mandarin. And the language of commerce, travel, most things international, and HK’s former colonial owner is English. So when announcements are made on trains or busses, they are stated in each of these three languages. That being said, Hong Kong people have a wide variety of skill levels at each of these languages. I’ve come across Hong Kongers who can only speak Cantonese, and others who can speak all three of the aforementioned flawlessly.
Most Americans may find this unique or unusual, but I think that this is closer to the global norm than what American society is. In mainland China, most citizens speak Mandarin in addition to one or more local dialects, whether it’s an ancient village dialect or Shanghainese. In continental Europe, most citizens speak their native tongue, English and often a third or fourth language to boot. In Africa, most people speak a tribal language passed down by their parents in addition to their country’s ‘Lingua Franca’, whatever that may be. I challenge you to start Googling random countries in the world and check out the languages spoken by its people. More often than not, you’ll find a lot more lingual diversity than in the USA.
(sidenote: The increase of Latinos in the US is changing the language landscape of America, but this is a different sort of issue that I’m not even going to try to tackle)
I continue to be impressed by the polyglots I interact with all the time. And working at a school that teaches Mandarin and English to native Cantonese speakers, I encounter dozens of them every day, from teachers to students to parents to domestic helpers. Sometimes I feel a bit guilty about my own heavy reliance on a single language, but that’s not my fault; it’s the way my native society works. For now, I can only continue working on my Cantonese, and potentially other languages in the future. It’s great for the brain and it’s a surefire way to feel more like a global citizen.