English-Cantonese code-switching in Hong Kong and the Chinese community of Manchester

© Sandy Lo

Code-switching, defined as the juxtaposition of elements from two languages or language varieties, can be found in the Manchester Chinese immigrant community which are heterogeneous in itself (in terms of Chinese dialects spoken). Using data from recorded interviews and naturally occurring conversations, Lo's study examines how Cantonese-English code-switching is used for different purposes by the speakers in their conversations.

For example, it can be used to structure a conversation or one's speech as in example (1), in which the British-born speaker structured his speech (other people's viewpoints vs. his own thoughts and feelings) by switching between Cantonese and English (by the same speaker in the same turn).

Example 1

Speaker A was talking about his views on life and working in HK and the UK during an interview with a researcher. A was a British-born Chinese who was studying at a university at the time of the interview. He was answering the researcher's question about his views on the life in the UK (as compared to HK)

Example 1

2(1 sec)
that isthinkUmhereLPlifethat is
4obviously not compared to Hong Kong.
6But I get used to it (smiled)
that isCLCLalsosayifIdowork
umgosomebiga bitLPcitymanya bit
10So, I think I probably will go to London, and then, maybe go to Hong Kong.

Example 1 Translation

2(1 sec)
3Maybe, I, I know many people, that is, think um the life here, that is, is slower,
4obviously not compared to Hong Kong.
5But everyone thinks the life here is very slow.
6But I get used to it. (smiled)
7So um,
8that is, everyone says if I do work, find work,
9um I will have more opportunities in the bigger cities.
10So I think I probably will go to London, and then maybe go to Hong Kong.

The interviewer asked speaker A the question in Cantonese. Speaker A responded to it by first giving a filler (em) - thinking about what to answer, then followed by 1-second silence, which is understood by Speaker A as a sign that the researcher waits for a more elaborate account of his answer. Speaker A starts his answer with maybe in English (as an insertion), and he switches to Cantonese to express his awareness of the fact that many people think life in the UK is slower, as opposed to that in HK. His turn-internal switch to English is used to express his view (the adverb obviously) of the comparison of life in terms of the pace between the UK and HK. He intends to go on with but, but instead he switches to Cantonese at this point to repeat the other people's view that life in the UK is very boring, to pave the way for his use of English to introduce his (a bit contrasting) own view that he has got used to that kind of life in the UK. Then he switches back to Cantonese when he introduces other people's advice to him that there will be more job opportunities if he goes to big cities, before he reveals in English his future plan of going to London and HK.

Here the Interlocutor plays an important role in influencing the language choice of the speaker. The speaker assesses his role and relationship with the interlocutor based on his knowledge of the speaker. As the classmate of the researcher's friend, Speaker A only knew a bit about the researcher - he knew that she was studying at a university as well and so should have a certain command of English. Not sure about the language preference of the researcher, Speaker A's language choice is ambiguous as well (switch between the two languages).

Code-switching may also be used in a family conversation between a mother and a British-born child as in example (2), which is quite often found in an immigrant family. Here the mother makes use of code-switching to strengthen her request to her daughter to answer her question.

Example 2

Example 2 [Listen to example]

1M:nei5go3ngaa4jau5mou5caat3?(1 sec)
3M:Have you brushed your teeth?
6M:Brushed your teeth?
7F:keoi5sing4 jat6sai2ngaa4aa1keoi5dei6.
havenowashsurface of teeth

Example 2 Translation

1.A:Have you got your teeth brushed? (1 sec) Hey
3.A:Have you brushed your teeth?
5.C:Will do, she will do so.
6.A:Brushed your teeth?
7.C:They always have cleaning of their teeth. Have you got the surface of your teeth cleaned?
8.B:Not yet.

M is the mother and D is her British-born daughter. F is the mother's friend. They were chatting at dinnertime.

In their daily interaction between themselves, Mother and Daughter like to speak in English with each other. In the presence of other Chinese (F, the mother's friend, in this case) in a family meal, they switched to Cantonese. During this conversation, A was asking her daughter, B, in Cantonese if the latter had brushed her teeth. With no immediate response from B, after 1-second silence, A uttered a particle haa6, which serves to request B to provide the answer. Instead of giving an answer to A's question, B asked A what it was about. A then switched to English to repeat her question. This time B did answer A's question, with a short positive yeah (in English). At this point, C came to B's rescue by strengthening B's answer, saying B would brush her teeth. A was not satisfied and repeated her question in a shorter form, still in English. To satisfy A, C gave A a more elaborate answer in lieu of B, saying B and other girls always had their teeth washed, and then asked B if they had had the surface of their teeth washed. B switched to Cantonese to answer C's question. In this example, A made use of code-switching and a shorter form of her question (brushed your teeth?) to enhance her question (also to express her authority over her daughter), to get B to answer her question directly.