One of the questions that I get asked most often about my adjustment in Hong Kong is “how is the language barrier?” At this point, I usually laugh and say “well it’s complicated.” It’s complicated because the local Chinese population speaks Cantonese, my co-workers and the migrant community speak Tagalog (the language in the Philippines) and/or Bahasa Indonesia (the language in Indonesia) and the expats speak English. Thus, the language barrier is both tremendous and almost non-existent. Overall, one thing has struck me about trying to navigate this language barrier and raised serious questions for me as an English-apeaking American.
I am always continuously impressed by the number of languages my co-workers, the migrants and locals can speak. The majority of the people in Hong Kong can speak two languages, generally Cantonese and English. The schools teach English, Cantonese and Mandarin. Many of my co-workers can speak three, if not four languages! As I stand amazed that an event is taking place in English, Cantonese and Bahasa, and simultaneously being translated for all to follow, I am struck by how language-deficient we are the in the US. And then I ask myself, what are we afraid of?
If schools in the US have a foreign language requirement, it’s a non-intensive few years, so you learn fairly basic vocabulary, sentence structures, etc. (Note: I know that many high schools have excellent language programs. I took French throughout middle and high school and graduated with a high level of ability. However, I have grown to realize that this is the exception, rather than the rule. My point is that foreign language acquisition should become the norm for US students). I firmly believe that a lack of foreign language skills stunts our growth and development as a nation. How can we expect everyone else to know English when we don’t even try (for the most part) learning other languages?
To me, Americans seem to think that speaking another language will make us somehow less American. Although we don’t have an official language, and millions of Americans speak other languages besides English, we systematically expect all people in the US to speak English.
This fear doesn’t exist in Hong Kong. People speak many languages because they don’t really have a choice. I know that the US is much, much larger than HK, but how many New Yorkers or Washingtonians know two, three or four languages? If you didn’t speak English fluently and came to the US for a study tour, can you imagine trying to navigate the NY subway system?
As we fight over immigration and school budget cuts, maybe we should consider “the other” because as someone who has been navigating one of the weirdest language barriers, being unable to understand people is one of the most frustrating and lonely experiences.