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Image design: Archi Banal
Image design: Archi Banal

SocietyFebruary 27, 2022

Am I a better person when I don’t speak English?

Image design: Archi Banal
Image design: Archi Banal

Speaking a second language forces you to be kinder to others, and yourself.

Growing up, the dichotomy of school and home was marked by English and Cantonese. It was wild to see monolingual friends remain the same person when they interacted with their parents. It made more sense seeing multilingual friends interact with their families in languages I couldn’t understand. “Something something Sharon something something chicken nuggets.” It wasn’t just the language, their pitch would be higher or lower, they would hold themselves a bit differently, come across as more relaxed or more serious. There was one friend who suddenly seemed 40 years old when she spoke Dutch, and another who sounded very depressed once speaking Korean. For all I knew they may have been saying something totally normal and in character, but the effect remained. In those few sentences, I saw them in their other world.

I knew I did the same thing. When I had friends over, I became a glitching Transformers robot, constantly shifting between forms, pulling in this part and that as I walked between the kitchen where my mum was and my room where my friends were. Cantonese was the language of food, household affairs, elaborate naming systems for relatives. English was the language of homework, Neopets, embarrassment. Later it would become the language of literature, profanity, sex, while Cantonese remained naïvely in arrested development. Inside, I knew my approximate self was the same, but the outer expressions were entirely different – separate languages and separate routines reinforcing each other in personality-splitting cycles.

When I moved to Hong Kong as an adult, I took that arrested persona with me. But now, this illiterate 11-year-old was no longer confined to the parental household. She was working a job, ordering drinks, haggling for produce. Everyday things became immensely fun. If you’ve ever learnt approximately one sentence in another language, e.g “orange juice, please” in Japanese, and then feel utter glee when you actually successfully order an “oranjee-juusu” in Japan, then you will understand this joy.

In English, things are too straightforward. I order an orange juice, so what? I am too aware of what society is saying, of the rituals I am meant to partake in, of when and why I am meant to feel self-conscious. It becomes boring. There’s no surprise when I go to a restaurant’s toilet and there is a sign. I can read that it says “out of order” and I understand that it means I shouldn’t go in. I do not use it anyway and flood it, and I do not end up the star of a humorous though quite disgusting episode. In Cantonese society, I can remain a happy, pee-sock-wearing idiot.

Being in Hong Kong also meant that Cantonese became a language of poetry, profanity, sex. My vocabulary tripled. It felt like a second adolescence, one where I didn’t have to deal with puberty, just world expansion. The ages of my two selves were becoming closer. For the first time I could talk to family like I did my friends, getting closer to a consistent self. I also felt like I was acting as a nicer person. Though I finally learnt swear words, I could not use them with any convincing effect. As I began to think more often in Cantonese than in English, even my own thoughts became less harsh, the kindest experience I’ve been able to give myself.

Some of these changes come from objective linguistic difference. Cantonese is very casual, round-sounding and unromantic. This makes the most serious of people unable to sound actually serious. Musicians sing in Mandarin instead, and Hong Kong’s comedies are much much better than its “romantic” movies. With six tones, musicality dots conversation while making it notoriously hard for beginners to learn. For emphasis, there are “wais” and “wors” and “aiyas”, which are as acceptable in a boardroom as in a diner, one just needs to adjust a “waaaai” to a “wai-i”.

But by far my favourite linguistic thing about Cantonese over English is the complete absence of “how are you”. I hate “how are you”. Perhaps it is okay in Finland where “how are you” inspires in a genuine reply and an opening up about a divorce or depression (or so I heard on a podcast), but in my experience of Anglo-saxon “how are you”s they are nothing but cruel, hollow courtesies. 99% of the time I don’t actually feel “good”, and 100% of the time the person asking doesn’t actually care how I am.

The closest alternative to “how are you” in Cantonese would be “have you eaten yet?’”, which is much simpler to answer. Yes, I have. Fried rice? No, I haven’t. Would you like some fried rice? Done. No need to emptily say “good”, while spiralling inside with nothing ‘good’ to get a grip on, forced to remember that no matter what you do life remains a series of unsatisfying trials with no purpose. But perhaps this is just me.

The reward for being bilingual is that a second language can be the vessel to a second life and culture. The risk is that you become alienated from both cultures, never fully participating in either. I no longer get to speak Cantonese these days and the suspicions that Cantonese me is the fun one, the better one, are high. It’s easier to wallow in her absence than try harder with the one who can write this sentence. But at least when both selves become tiresome, I can always escape with a third self, my emerging German-speaking self, who can only respond to everything with “ah, interessant” and seems to really believe it.

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