The Linguist

The Linguist 55,1

The Linguist is a languages magazine for professional linguists, translators, interpreters, language professionals, language teachers, trainers, students and academics with articles on translation, interpreting, business, government, technology

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24 The Linguist Vol/55 No/1 2016 FEATURES In this context of uncertainty, any move that is seen to sideline the local language could prove explosive Theo Merz considers the future of the Hong Kong vernacular as the use of Putonghua and English increases A s much as the drill of building works or the ding of the city's trams, public service announcements make up the soundtrack of life in Hong Kong. Not just because they seem to cover every topic ("no helium balloons in train stations", "don't look only at your mobile phone", "keep pace with the swimmers in your lane"), but also because they are repeated in three languages: first the local Cantonese, then the mainland's Putonghua (Mandarin) before the old colonial English. For a visitor, this is usually the first sign that you are in a Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China – no longer an outpost of the British Empire but, until 2047 at least, not entirely aligned with the mainland either. For Hongkongers, it is a constant reminder of the authorities' professed desire that they should be trilingual and biliterate, with the ability to read both English and Standard Chinese. While Cantonese remains the lingua franca for the region's seven million inhabitants – spoken by legislators and the media, though English is still used in the courts – other regional languages on the mainland are rapidly dying out under pressure from Beijing. Some believe that Hong Kong's vernacular will be unable to avoid the same fate, as the centre pushes for increased use of Putonghua in schools and public life. Shanghainese is a case in point. It was once the dialect for the entire region surrounding the eastern port city, but a recent study found that some 40% of students in Shanghai's schools did not speak the language at all. In Guangdong province, just across the border from Hong Kong, Putonghua has been making gains at the expense of the fluent Putonghua and Cantonese, found that younger people in Guangdong province were embarrassed when he tried to talk to them in the vernacular, apparently more comfortable to converse in the Beijing- imposed standard. Students who hoped to become radio presenters spent time removing any trace of a regional accent from their Putonghua – their only chance of landing their dream job. "If you want to know what Hong Kong will be like in 50-100 years, all you have to do is go up to Guangzhou [in Guangdong]," says Professor Bauer, who recently spoke at two The battle for Cantonese local Cantonese. "Love the flag, sing the national anthem, speak Putonghua!" reads one poster displayed in local classrooms. "I am a child of China and speak Putonghua!" says another. A third instructs pupils: "Speak Putonghua, be civilised!" (Authorities refer to the likes of Cantonese as dialects, though Cantonese and spoken Putonghua are not mutually comprehensible. "Like ducks talking to chickens", as speakers of Cantonese would put it.) Robert Bauer, an honorary professor of linguistics at Hong Kong University, who has lived in the region for decades and speaks IMAGES: © FELIX MACPHERSON

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