While the government should take the initiative to help ethnic minorities in Hong Kong overcome the language barrier that prevents them from getting better education and jobs, one has to admit that learning Chinese is really not easy.
For non-Chinese people, Chinese characters are difficult to remember not only because they comprise complex strokes but also because there are no sensible links between their written and spoken forms.
That is why people from minority groups, mostly of South Asian origin, often feel frustrated during the process of learning Chinese.
Even if they manage to read and write Chinese characters, they have one more big barrier to overcome－speaking Cantonese, the Chinese dialect which is used by most people in Hong Kong.
It is well known that Cantonese pronunciations of many Chinese characters are totally different from those in Mandarin, and many also agree learning how to speak Cantonese can be more difficult mainly due to the fact that tones in Cantonese are more complex than Mandarin.
A study shows that the tone is the one of the major factors for non-Chinese people to have a good grasp of Cantonese and it would be too late for them to develop good Cantonese-speaking skills if they fail to live in an environment surrounded by Cantonese-speaking people before they turn six years old.
Therefore, while good speaking skills of a language can theoretically help improve reading and writing skills, that is hardly the case for ethnic minorities in Hong Kong since few can speak fluent Cantonese.
In addition, the fact that they are not able to communicate confidently and properly with other people by speaking Cantonese could result in a vicious circle because the more negative responses they get during interactions with Cantonese-speaking people, the less willing they are to speak Cantonese.
In summary, for non-Chinese people in Hong Kong to improve their Chinese language skills, they must be taught not only to read and write Chinese characters but also to speak Cantonese.
Here are three areas where the government can help：
1. The government should encourage parents of ethnic minority families to send their children to Cantonese-speaking schools as early as possible, and it would be best to start from kindergarten. The younger they are, the better chances they have to master spoken Cantonese and written Chinese.
It is good to see the government has decided to take action in this regard. The 2017 policy address given by the Chief Executive states that “the government will invite the Standing Committee on Language Education and Research to consider making use of the Language Fund to provide Chinese and English enhancement programs for kindergarten teachers, including training on skills in teaching Chinese to non-Chinese-speaking students”.
2. The government should establish a second-language learning framework that is specifically designed for non-Chinese children, rather than just follow the current Learning Progression Framework for Chinese language.
3. The government should encourage non-Chinese students who have a gift for language learning to major in Chinese and help them later become official Chinese language teachers in kindergartens and secondary schools so that students from the same ethnicity as theirs can learn Chinese more effectively.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 7
Translation by Taka Liu
[Chinese version 中文版]
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Govt should help ethnic minorities overcome language barrier – Part 1