Tuning in to the language channel


‘Are you a bag?’ I was once asked in Hong Kong when waiting for my purchases to be processed.  I fleetingly responded in self-reflective thoughts with ‘not that I know of’ and ‘am I?’

When the tables were turned and I needed to use Cantonese for a plumbing emergency in my Hong Kong apartment, I was heard to say ‘There’s saliva squirting every-where and I need a plumber!”

Language is a tricky thing.

Having a shot at saying something in your guest’s mother tongue is great for relationship building and my advice is to learn at least a few words of a Chinese language or two to build that bridge. 

Yet languages and dialects also provide clues to understanding people’s ancestral roots, their identity and possibly preferences for food, beverages, goods and activities while on holidays.  It may even help you understand whether your guests like to have an evening meal earlier or later.

So, the questions for the discerning hosts are ‘What languages are our Chinese visitors speaking and what are some defining features of their hometown or region?’

Beyond ‘Nǐ hǎo’

It could be easy to generalise and assume that every Chinese tourist prefers to speak Mandarin. 

China is a huge place, described by many who call it home, as a rich patchwork of languages and cultures.  Mandarin, often a second language in the home, is one of the universal threads that binds the people of this nation together. First language at home however may be Cantonese if from the province of Guangzhou (Canton) or nearby.

Working and living in the city of Adelaide provides an opportunity for me to walk around and pick up on the language spoken on our streets.  I hear a huge amount of Cantonese as well as Mandarin.

So what languages are your Chinese visitors speaking?

With increasing daily direct flights from Guangzhou in the far south of China to Adelaide, it is no wonder that we have many Cantonese speaking tourists boarding those flights. 

Cantonese is very different from Mandarin. While Mandarin is usually referred to as ‘Chinese’ or

Pǔ tōng huà, common speech, Cantonese is Gwóng dùng wá, the language of the Canton or Guangdong province.

Learn Cantonese
Image: by Faizai Ramali on Shuttercock

More than language

Over the years there has been much discussion about the north and south of China and the distinguishing features of her people.  I find that Chinese friends love to talk about their home town, their ancestral roots and language and do so with great affection.  These family connections and traditions are deep and the history of each region ancient, varied and rich in detail.

Traditionally Southern China is defined as the provinces geographically south of the Yangtze River, the longest river in China.  Guangdong province is in the far south of Southern China.

So why does it matter if I know the difference between these regions and languages?

Discerning that your visitors may be speaking Cantonese and not Mandarin may be just the thing that sets you apart.  You understand something of their unique identity.  Taking that one step further and saying a few words such as hello, néih hóu  (nay ho… often said lay ho) to a Cantonese speaker will no doubt warm this visitor’s heart.

Going beyond generalisations, having that discerning edge, acknowledging their unique identity and wanting to know about that identity more, may make all the difference to your guests’ amazing warm authentic South Australian experience.

Guest writer:Pamela Murphy is a CQ (Cultural Intelligence) Certified Advanced Professional