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Speaking To The ♥️ The Benefits of Talking to Someone in their Native Language

Hong Kong is a city with a split personality, juggling its rich Chinese culture with a colonial past and modern-day importance for trade and business.

As a heritage speaker of Cantonese, learning the language through exposure at home rather than at school, I have come to realise that the language which you choose to use has an enormous impact on the extent to which you can connect with other people.

While I spent much of my childhood in Hong Kong speaking English (due to being mixed British Chinese and attending an international school), during a recent trip back to the city, I focused on immersing myself fully in Cantonese.

This allowed me to engage with a whole new side to the city where I have spent half of my life. The differences between English and 廣東話 gwong2 dung1 waa2 (Cantonese) began on the flight to 香港 hoeng1 gong2 (Hong Kong) with different flight attendants addressing me in different languages depending on what I can only assume to be the vibe they were getting from me.

Orange juice or 橙汁 caang2 zap1? Doesn’t matter, I can do both.

This feeling immediately evaporated once I landed in Hong Kong and met my mother (for the first time in eight or nine months) and could not remember how to speak. The next six weeks were a steep learning curve of immersion and grappling with feelings of belonging.

However, the main take-away from my time in Hong Kong was that the more I was able to say in Cantonese to native Cantonese speakers, the more I was able to connect with them.

The most outstanding example of this was the day that I 搭船 daap3 syun4 (took a ferry) to 長洲島 coeng4 zau1 dou2 (Cheung Chau Island) to explore a cave where the famous 18 th -19 th century pirate Cheung Po Tsai was rumoured to have kept his treasure.

While there, I met two guys who could not speak English and were visiting the same cave. This put the onus on me to connect with them in Cantonese.

我係張保仔洞附近遇到佢哋,同佢哋傾過偈。ngo5 hai6 zoeng1 bou2 zai2 dung6 fu6 gan6 jyu6 dou3 keoi5 dei6, tung4 keoi5 dei6 king1 gwo3 gai2. (I met them near Cheung Po Tsai Cave, and had a chat with them).

今次係佢哋第一次嚟,但係我已經嚟咗三次. gam1 ci3 hai6 keoi5 dei6 dai6 jat1 ci3 lai4, daan6 hai6 ngo5 ji5 ging1 lai4 zo2 saam1 ci3. (This was their first time coming, but I had already been three times).

So, I acted tour guide.

In Cantonese.

And for the first time, I felt that my Cantonese was at a high enough level, even if it was still only conversational, to truly connect with other people.

We sat on the rocks, laughed, and took photos with each other. None of this would have happened had I not ventured out of my comfort zone to engage in Cantonese.

This experience was a valuable reminder of the emotional benefits of addressing someone in their native language. The meaningful level of engagement which this allows for gave me an extra motivational push to continue putting work into my Cantonese.

About The Author: Rene is an Olea Ambassador (Team 1.0, March - Sept 2023) and an undergraduate student of Modern and Medieval Languages at the University of Cambridge.


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