22 October 2016
The Putonghua of young Hongkongers has been improving. Photo: CUHK
The Putonghua of young Hongkongers has been improving. Photo: CUHK

Exceptional Hong Kong becoming a trilingual city

In a major speech to the sixth Central Tibet Work Conference in Beijing in late August, President Xi Jinping said one key policy was to promote the use of Putonghua and simplified characters.

He was repeating the words of every Chinese leader, Nationalist and Communist, since the Xinhai revolution of 1911.

All have seen the promotion of guo yu (the national language) as essential to unification and modernization.

As a result, many languages and dialects in China, like Manchu, Mongolian and Naxi, have all but disappeared.

Who can resist the domination of an official language used in education, government and business?

Hong Kong is the exception.

Eighteen years after the handover, Cantonese remains the dominant language in daily conversation, school classes, the media, the courts, the Legislative Council and business that doesn’t involve the mainland or foreigners.

At the same time, fluency in Putonghua, especially among young people has greatly improved, a survey published by the University of Hong Kong’s Social Sciences Research Center last month showed.

It found that 70 per cent of young people can speak English and Putonghua, up from 50 per cent and 12 per cent respectively in 1991.

Professor John Bacon-Shone, director of the center, said that learning simplified Chinese and speaking Putonghua did not come at the cost of other languages.

“Acquiring languages is not a zero-sum game,” he said.

We could look to India and European countries like the Netherlands, Switzerland and Luxembourg, where millions of people are fluent in two or three languages in addition to their mother tongue.

So how has Hong Kong avoided the fate of Zhuhai, Shenzhen and other cities in Guangdong where Putonghua dominates and new arrivals do not have to learn Cantonese to operate comfortably in daily life?

The first reason is that Hongkongers are proud of their language and the history and culture it brings.

When my mother-in-law recites Tang poems, they rhyme perfectly in Cantonese – but not in Putonghua.

“Cantonese is a purer form of Chinese that has been handed down over the centuries,” she said.

“Mandarin contains many words introduced by the Mongol and Manchu rulers of China.”

Second, Cantonese is spoken as a mother tongue by at least 60 million people around the world – more than those who speak the national languages of many countries.

It is not marginal.

Third, Hong Kong is different from other cities in China where schools must use Putonghua as the language of instruction.

Here, Cantonese remains the majority choice, although there are English-medium schools and Putonghua is taught as a separate subject.

In the 1950s and ’60s in Taiwan, teachers criticized children who spoke Taiwanese in the school playground and made them wear a placard saying, “I must speak guo yu”.

Beijing has not imposed Putonghua in Hong Kong’s schools as it has in the rest of the country.

If it did, there would be fierce resistance.

And, unlike Mongolian, Tibetan, Uighur or Naxi, Cantonese uses the same characters as guo yu and is Chinese.

Those other languages represent a different history, culture and way of thinking from the one presented by the central government, so they must be marginalised.

Tens of thousands of schoolchildren from Tibet and Xinjiang are taken to schools in other parts of China for secondary and university education in Putonghua; this is a key part of their sinicization.

Tibetan and Uighur are becoming languages for old people, the rural population and monks – not the mainstream of life.

Hongkongers have risen to the challenge.

Since the handover, the flood of mainland visitors and increasing importance of business with mainland companies have spurred them to improve their Putonghua, through formal classes, watching films and television series and chatting with their friends.

Better Putonghua means more job opportunities and higher pay.

Follow the money is always the Hongkonger’s motto.

To master Putonghua, Hongkongers must be outgoing and not fear embarrassment if they get the tones wrong.

A favorite joke of Beijingers is: “天不怕,地不怕,就怕廣東人說普通話“ – “Do not fear heaven or earth — only fear Cantonese people speaking Putonghua”.

Taiwan since 2000 is a model to follow.

After the opposition Democratic Progressive Party took power that year, it made Taiwanese an official language in parliament and encouraged its use together with Mandarin.

Now the island has more than 80 TV channels; they use Mandarin, Taiwanese, Hakka and aboriginal languages.

Diversity is wealth.

Speaking one language does not exclude another.

That should be the future of Hong Kong, too.

The three languages Hongkongers speak are all rich in content and history.

Each should be cherished.

– Contact us at [email protected]


Hong Kong-based journalist and author. He had worked as a correspondent for the South China Morning Post in Beijing and Shanghai.

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