Lost for words

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 January, 2011, 12:00am

Perhaps it's coincidental, but the day last week that I got lost, in a part of Hong Kong I thought I knew like the back of my hand, was the same day that I had started reading a book about the demise in importance of English. I had thought that my mother tongue and the smattering of Cantonese I had picked up from 22 years of living here would be enough to see me through any situation. Yet, there I was, a sightless man floundering to find his way back to the familiar and unable to communicate with the only people around, whose linguistic utterances were in Putonghua. It's given me reason to finally do something about my ignorance of the national language.

Hours earlier, I was wading into The Last Lingua Franca, the latest volume by British linguist Nicholas Ostler. In it, he contends that English will wane in importance as Anglo-American influence declines. But there won't be another global language, he argues: technology, through computer translation, will put paid to that. With such aids at their disposal, 'everyone will speak and write in whatever language they choose and the world will understand'.

I'm sure that if I had had an iPad and Google translator on hand, I would have been back on track in no time. Alas, I didn't, nor did the three people who separately approached me as I wandered aimlessly beside what I presumed to be the Happy Valley racecourse. Therein would seem to lie a flaw in Ostler's argument: that all the world's people will one day have the required technology at their fingertips. It's possible in the most developed of places, such as Hong Kong, but I'm not so certain that it will be anything but a dream for those who aren't affluent.

I've no idea how wealthy the people who tried to help me were. We weren't at any time able to communicate. To each, I said in English, then Cantonese, where I wanted to be. They, in turn, took hold of my white cane and led me to where they thought I would be better located. Eventually, I ended up at the front of the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Leighton Road, Causeway Bay, where a fluent English-speaking Hong Kong native set me in the right direction.

My bewilderment and frustration over, I vowed from now on to be technologically better prepared. But I have also decided to make learning some Putonghua basics a priority. It's not the first time, after all, I've felt out of my depth because of my lack of knowledge. The sea of tourists from the mainland in our midst is the best of reasons.

Trying to buy a jacket for my son before Christmas in a department store jam-packed with mainland shoppers was a near impossibility. The HK$2,000 I was hoping to spend was of little consequence to the piles of top-of-the-line clothes being eagerly stacked on counters. All around me reverberated Putonghua; not a word of English or Cantonese could be heard. Eventually, a sales assistant approached, but if I had been able to shout, 'I am also from mainland China' in Putonghua, I am sure that service would have been swifter.

Circumstances from my perspective aren't going to improve. The number of mainland visitors to Hong Kong increased 27 per cent last year to 22.5 million, 63 per cent of total arrivals. Visa restrictions are increasingly being relaxed; last month, authorities made it easier for 4 million migrant workers in Shenzhen to visit. Shops, restaurants, attractions and hotels that are raking in the benefits are prepared, so there's no reason why I shouldn't also be better equipped.

But, by this, I'm not simply referring to finding help when lost or getting served in a busy shop. Rather, it's the cultural understanding that comes with being able to speak a language. There's no better way to see how others think and feel than through their words and expressions. I should have realised this sooner with Putonghua; until I picked up some Cantonese, I was in a bubble detached from the society around me.

I'm no linguist; I'll never be having deep conversations in Putonghua. But, in a Hong Kong that's each day more a part of China, my deficiency can't be ignored. Even learning a few dozen words will lessen misunderstanding and increase sensitivity.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post