Posted by: JohnHo | August 24, 2009

Codeswitching in Hong Kong

Code switching in Hong Kong is very common and is mostly intra-sentential – switching within a sentence or clause.

For example:

When someone ask someone opinion, it is common to say “Good 啦” (It’s good),

In the afternoon, we would say “食lunch啦” (Let’s have lunch)

or one may ask “supermarket 幾點close“ (When does the supermarket close)

One interesting point I would like to mention is that sometimes we use code switching to avoid embarrassment. There are some words we always say it in English, such as “underwear”, “toilet”, and “I love you”. Those words, for me, are  more comfortable to say it in English instead of Chinese.



  1. I worked at an Australian company in Hong Kong were English was the formal language of the office and the language of the handfull of managers while Cantonese was the native language of most of the staff. Most formal exchanges were conducted in English, but if something went wrong then the staff would switch to Cantonese, I assume as a way of making a space to solve the problem concealed from the gaze of the bosses. None of the native Cantonese staff were willing or able to crack jokes in English, though all were hilarious in Cantonese. There was one exception to this, a native speaker of Cantonese who had migrated relatively recently from across the border in Guangdong, and was funny in English. I guess that the reason that he was able to be funny in English was that he was a recent migrant, and hadn’t absorbed the full colonial-era distinction between English as the language of the bosses and Cantonese as the language of the workers concealed from the gaze of the bosses.

  2. Diglossia in Hong Kong is complicated. It is expected we can speak and write in English, Chinese (Mandarin) and Chinese (Cantonese), but they usually appear in different situations.

    I would say that, in the sense of formal to informal:

    English > Chinese(Mandarin) > Chinese (Cantonese)

    In the sense of superior to inferior

    English > Chinese (Cantonese) > Chinese (Mandarin)

    English, it is a language always appears in formal documents (legal or commercial documents). It is a formal language uses in higher education (High school and university). It is a language, which I think can be describe as “higher class language”, since English speaker in Hong Kong are always having a higher social status.

    Thus, the reason that Cantonese speakers are not willing to crack jokes in English is because English for them is a “serious” language which is formal and cannot be play with.

    Antoher reason I guess is that we are taught to be written and spoken in formal English but do not enourage to use informal English.

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