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Kongish and English Learning

“I need to go to Mong Kok tomorrow but will people mountain, people sea. So hoi sum.”

“You add oil la! It not big problem geh. The place always so many people. Just blow water with your fren while you wait.”

Can you understand what these sentences mean? If you have lived in Hong Kong for a while, these kinds of sentences might sound familiar to you. Hong Kong English, or Kongish, (not to be mixed up with Konglish – Korean English) refers to a variety of usages of English native to Hong Kong. As Hong Kong was a British colony for over 150 years, it is no surprise that people in Hong Kong have long used English vocabulary and elements when speaking Chinese and vice versa. 

Here are some Kongish words / phrases that have been included in the Oxford English dictionary:

  • Add oil (phrase): literally translated from the Cantonese phrase ‘ga yau’; used to express encouragement or support.
  • Dim sum (noun): a meal consisting of a selection of small dishes such as steam buns, dumplings, etc.
  • Dai pai dong (noun): a traditional street stall, typically with a small seating area, selling cooked food at low prices.

In addition to vocabulary, Kongish also mixes up the grammar of the two languages. In my experience as an educator, many students whose first language is Cantonese struggle with sentence structure or word order because they will directly translate Cantonese into English, or mix the two languages. 

For example, Cantonese does not have verb conjugation or plural forms of nouns. Hence students often forget to add ‘s’ after third person singular verbs and plural nouns. Another difference is that subjects are not necessary in Cantonese (e.g. 而家落雨啦 – literal translation: “Now is raining.”) As a result, students might leave out the subject when they write in English. 

In order to help students avoid these mistakes in their English learning, we can first raise their awareness of the distinctions between English and Cantonese. Another tip would be to encourage students to read more English books or watch English TV shows to increase their exposure to English. While Kongish has its own unique history and has become a cultural phenomenon, it is also important for students to become proficient in standard English.