Confessions of a monoglot

Mark Douglas ponders a different life in Hong Kong had he chosen to learn the language.

Like many Australians I have only one tongue. As they say, if you can speak three languages you’re trilingual. If you can speak two languages you’re bilingual. If you can speak only one language you’re an Australian. Even worse, as a native mumbler of ‘Strine’ most of the English world would struggle to understand half of what I say.

Yet, in my own small and comfortable pond, I have generally been accepted as reasonably well travelled, articulate and literate and well attuned to the world around me. Since moving to Hong Kong this can no longer be said. I still eke out my living as a journeyman communicator and writer, using skills built up over two decades in various forms of journalism. Yet the truth is I have not fully engaged with my new society. Sure I eat the food. Of course I can say please and thank you and Happy New Year. And yes I can hand over a business card with two hands like I’ve been doing it all my life. But more than a year ago my wife and I started a debate on whether to learn Cantonese or Mandarin during our time in Hong Kong. The debate continues. The study never began.

Hong Kong is an incredibly easy city to negotiate for English speakers, thanks to this community’s colonial heritage, but also very real ongoing efforts and schooling and strong desire to engage the world socially and economically.


Wisely, Hongkongers have chosen not to be deaf to the world. I, on the other hand, remain mute as well as extremely hard of hearing. My information is limited to conversations with friends and colleagues most of whom are themselves monoglot expatriates, plus the worthy efforts of English language newspapers and radio. I can’t help thinking I am missing out.

I have no real idea what the hot topics of discussion are, what is being said at the water cooler, or what change is being agitated for in print or broadcast media.

To help me unlock this parallel world – the real Hong Kong as distinct to the English speaking bubble I inhabit – I sought the assistance of the professionals. Now I have a declaration of interest to make about the company I went to for help. This company, Media Monitors, employs my wife who started up an office for them in Hong Kong 18 months or so ago. They are the reason we are here. This is an Australian-born company which, simply put, monitors the media. Its employees listen to every radio station, read every publication, watch every news program and scan the internet in a growing list of countries and provide organisations or individuals with concise summaries of what is being discussed in their areas of interest plus analysis of it.

To see just how out of touch I was, I asked them to provide me with a comparison slots of what the top stories were in the Chinese media compared to the English media in Hong Kong for one random week in February. A lot of the top stories were the same – dominated, gloriously, by the saga of the Feng Shui Master Tony Chan, who claimed to be the lover of Asia’s richest woman, Nina Wang, and sole beneficiary of her multi-billion dollar will now declared forged by a High Court Judge. Fantastic gossip in any language.

But overall the results were pretty much as I had feared. By being deaf, I was missing out on a lot of the drama, the gossip, the vibrancy, the parochial heart and soul of this city. Sure I was getting the nuts and bolts, international news and overview info – but I was missing out on the neighbourhood issues, the real life which is essential to true understanding of a place, of a culture.

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If a different language is truly a different vision of life, I was, and remain, surrounded by people who will forever see this place, and feel it, differently to me. That is unlikely to change.

For now I will have to satisfy myself with the fact my pre-school children can speak more Putonghua and Cantonese than I can, and can also count and sing in Tagalog. Meanwhile I will limp along with my one tongue, hoping that Mae West was right when she said we can all speak two languages – English and Body language. Although I am certain her body was more fluent than mine.

*Mark Douglas is an Australian journalist and corporate media adviser based in Hong Kong


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