Fluency


My family friends returned from Hong Kong recently, so a requirement of their return was their coming for a visit at our house, given that Chinese New Year was also quickly around the corner. Sitting down over a table of Swiss roll cake, macaroons and earl grey tea with choice of milk and sugar, they started to talk about the changing face of Chinese.

My uncle asked me if I understood the meaning of various phrases, where he used the simple character of ‘water’ in several different ways. In one way, the character meant ‘money’, which I was aware of. In other ways, there were a handful more, none of which I can remember. Quite a few of these not even my parents can remember.

This just comes to make me realise that you can only ever be as fluent in a language as your parents are, or as the people around you are. If I were someone who was engaged with the community in Hong Kong somehow, or had ties with Cantonese students here in Sydney I might have a better opportunity to extend my Cantonese and pick up more current Cantonese slang.

However I’ve been conditioned by Australian schooling systems to mostly use English outside of the home, and tend to only use Cantonese with my family which is why how fluent I can ultimately be lies with how much I interact with my family and how much of the modern slang they in turn know.

Indeed, in an article I read lately, the writer questions whether we can be truly fluent in a language at all. Language is a living, breathing thing which means it is constantly evolving, such that it can be extremely hard to keep up. You can be a native of a language, such as I am, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you are fluent in it either, given that I likely would not understand a great deal of the slang used today.

It’s an interesting perspective and really opens my eyes. Given the opportunity, I would like to go and live in Hong Kong one day and truly immerse myself in the language and culture there. Australia is home yet not, it has never truly felt like home in the sense that I’ve never really been free while here. Maybe while I’m there I’ll pick up more Chinese characters too - at least that’s what I hope. Because whatever I know will be all that I can pass on, unless that child is determined to really pick up where I’ve fallen short.