16 November 2018
Workers in the tourism and service sectors need to be fluent in Putonghua and English to keep their competitiveness. Photo: CNSA
Workers in the tourism and service sectors need to be fluent in Putonghua and English to keep their competitiveness. Photo: CNSA

Why Hongkongers have to be biliterate and trilingual

Since the 1997 handover, the SAR government has been implementing a language education policy that seeks to make students biliterate and trilingual.

The goal is for students to master written Chinese and English while enabling them to speak fluent Cantonese, Putonghua and English.

But the government clearly lacked a clear and effective blueprint to allow Putonghua and English to permeate society.

When it comes to language planning, there virtually was none until 2003, when the Standing Committee on Language Education and Research issued an Action Plan to Raise Language Standards in Hong Kong.

Even so, the fact that Cantonese remains the main language of communication means more effort is needed to promote the use of Putonghua and English.

After Hong Kong was opened as a treaty port in 1842, English became the official language. Thus, it is understandable why the SAR government has kept both English and Chinese as the official languages since the city returned to China.

The problem is that the status enjoyed by English as an official language has not translated to its prevalent use in Hong Kong society, and this is mainly due to the lack of measures taken by the government to promote the language.

People in Hong Kong still prefer to use Cantonese to communicate with one another, whether they are government officials or ordinary individuals, while mixing a lot of English words into the communication process, especially when one of the parties involved is a non-Cantonese speaker.

The government can do a lot to encourage the use of English, such as by conducting all formal meetings in English.

However, it is not practical to do so because of a lack of general support from the public.

The same can be said of Putonghua. Although Putonghua courses are part of the curriculum in primary and secondary schools, and they are also offered in many workplaces, few Hongkongers are willing to use Putonghua in their daily life.

Some academics have suggested putting Putonghua in a status between the first language and the second so as to promote its use. 

But we think it is more reasonable to make it a second language because of it is clearly different from Cantonese in terms of pronunciation and difficulty of learning.

Why is being biliterate and trilingual important for Hongkongers?

Besides the fact that Hong Kong is a highly international city, the influx of tourists, especially those from the mainland, makes it necessary for workers in the service industry to effectively use Putonghua and English to keep their competitiveness.

Although herd behavior is one explanation why most Hongkongers refuse to use Putonghua, one must know that there are drawbacks to that, including the possibility that misunderstanding and even discrimination could result from it.

If Hong Kong wants to boast of being a diversified and inclusive city, it must pursue linguistic egalitarianism instead of holding on to purism or essentialism.

The government should make it clear to the public that people should not be discriminated against, regardless of their choice of language.

Leung Wai-mun is the co-author of this article which appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 28

Translation by Taka Liu

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Head of Department of Chinese and Bilingual Studies at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University

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