Language, as the primary means of communication, plays an integral part of people’s lives and interacts with other aspects, such as their assimilation into a cultural group and our identity formation. For the Thai-Chinese interviewees, their language choices actually have an influence on how they integrate into Hong Kong as well as the Thai community.
While some of the old generation speak Thai and Cantonese, especially the father or mother from Thai tradition, it is found that the second generation has an overall lower frequency of speaking Thai. Instead, their language choices are substituted by Cantonese, English, or a mixed form of both languages. Thus, a slight language shift is observed in the targeted families. Could it be assumed that the second generation experiences relatively higher social integration and assimilation with local Hong Kong people? On the other hand, could it be supposed their difficulty in connecting with Thai community?
1.1 Language is not the sole factor of assimilation
Despite their different extents of using Cantonese in daily contexts, both generations feel strongly connected and assimilated with Hong Kong people. The father from the first family speak Cantonese sometimes/rarely when he is at home (50%*), work (10%*), church (15%*) or with friends (15%*), yet he told us that,
“Although I am a Thai, I feel like I am a member in the Hong Kong society. I love this city and would like to help other Thais assimilating into Hong Kong.”
The Thai mother from the second family who mainly speak Thai at church (80%*) also noted that,
“I enjoy living in Hong Kong. Here I have my own family. In Hong Kong, there is not much discrimination against ethnic minorities. I feel like I’m one of them.”
Likewise, for the second generation in all cases, none of them has experienced discrimination. They have received education in local schools and made friends with Cantonese-speaking peers. They are highly assimilated with the local culture and lifestyle (e.g. dressing style, language use) which makes them appear like local people. Given that their mother tongue is Cantonese, they can speak and understand it as a native. These second generation Thai-Chinese mostly communicate in Cantonese (sometimes mixed with English vocabulary) in Hong Kong due to its dominance in their social lives. As a result, speaking Cantonese helps them integrate into local environment successfully and effortlessly.
1.2 Assimilation influences language use
Comparing the two generations, it is found that language choice is not the only factor affecting immigrants’ social integration. Other factors, like the attitude of local people and the cultural differences, are also influential. Since the second generation Thai-Chinese are raised in Hong Kong, they are totally assimilated with Hong Kong culture. However, although the parental generation feel they are part of the Hong Kong community, they still try to maintain some traditional habits of Thai (e.g. going to a Thai church). In these occasions, they prefer speaking Thai to Cantonese even though they are able to speak both of the languages. From their language shifts between daily situations and habitual Thai events, the generation assimilates themselves to both Hong Kong and Thai communities by flexibly shifting their language uses.
It is noteworthy that while their language choices partly influence their extent of assimilation, it is also true that their choices are affected by how much they want to be assimilated. For example, the brother in first family uses 100% Cantonese code mixed with Thai when he goes regularly to a Cantonese-speaking Christian church. Since his parents are pastors in another church for Thai community, he knows a lot of religious terms in Thai. However, when he goes to his church, he uses mainly Cantonese mixed with some special terms in Thai. On the other hand, his sister goes to a Thai-speaking church so she speaks 65% Thai during religious activities. Since there is a Cantonese-speaking group in the assembly, she uses Cantonese mixed with English that allows her to join the discussion of the group. Otherwise, she may be isolated from this Cantonese-speaking group.
2.1 Language plays an important role in assimilation
From above, it is illustrated how Thai-Chinese families are assimilated with Hong Kong. How about their integration in Thai community? Indeed, speaking Thai makes one more easily integrates into the Thai group. The father in the first family who speaks Thai very often has made himself part of the Thai community in workplace, social space and church. It is the same family which speaks most frequent Thai at home among all three families. The brother and sister in this family are taught well with Thai that they can not only understand but also speak it. This increases their assimilation with Thai community such as making Thai friends, working in a Thai company and going to a Thai church. As an Italian-born American educator mentioned, language is an intangible heritage, “a racial memory and a nationality symbol.” (Covello, 1939) In this way, to speak a language means to share a cultural memory and a sense of belonging within a group of people (Covello, 1939).
In the other two families, speaking less Thai makes them less connected with Thai community at school/work and social circle. The brother in the third family could not speak Thai at all. Even though he could still maintain a little relationship with his Thai relatives, language barrier has been the greatest obstacle for him to assimilate into Thai community. As he commented,
“If I have a chance to learn Thai in the future, I could communicate with my Thai relatives and make Thai friends more easily.”
Covello, L. (1939). Language as a Factor in Integration and Assimilation. The Modern Language Journal, 23(5). Pp. 323-333