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

Issue link:

Contents of this Issue


Page 24 of 35 FEBRUARY/MARCH 2016 The Linguist 25 FEATURES specialist conferences on the Yue dialects, of which Cantonese is one. "It left me with the feeling that we are fiddling while Rome burns, but none of the other speakers felt any sense of urgency." The fight for the classroom He argues that the medium of instruction in Hong Kong's schools is the key battleground in the fight for the future of Cantonese. Shortly after the handover from Britain to China in 1997, schools were instructed to use pupils' mother tongue – i.e. Cantonese – for classes. But since then, the use of Putonghua in classrooms has been increasing and last year the city's Legislative Council announced that teaching the Chinese language through Putonghua rather than Cantonese is "a long- term and developmental target". While the city's Education Bureau does not provide a breakdown of the proportion of schools using Putonghua to teach Chinese, a recent edition of the local Time Out suggested that two-thirds of primary schools now use the mainland standard for this and/or other classes – a figure backed up by a number of experts. "At the moment Cantonese is in great shape," says Bauer, with some 96% of ethnically Chinese Hongkongers speaking the language. "But the thing is, if children learn to read Chinese with Putonghua pronunciation, they are not going to learn Cantonese and, over time, Cantonese becomes completely marginalised. It means Hong Kong will be very, very different." A linguistic bomb? Professor David C S Li of the Hong Kong Institute of Education agrees that the future of Cantonese will be decided in the classroom, but he does not believe that the vernacular will be disappearing from the city's schools anytime soon. "We have no indication, as yet, that one day the language of instruction in the education domain will change, that there will be a major change from Cantonese to Putonghua," he says. "I would say it would be a linguistic bomb if mentioned. I predict local young people would go up in arms." At the front of his mind, of course, are the Occupy protests of 2014 – also known at the Umbrella Revolution – in which huge crowds of students and protestors shut down the city centre for weeks to demonstrate against what they saw as the mainland's curtailing of their democratic freedoms. Beijing had said Hongkongers could vote for whoever they wanted to be the region's next leader – as long as they chose from a list of candidates vetted and approved by the Chinese Communist Party. Hong Kong lawmakers later voted to reject Beijing's proposals but no others were forthcoming and the issue remains unresolved. In this context of uncertainty as to the extent of the region's real autonomy, any move that is seen to sideline the local language could, indeed, prove explosive. "Cantonese is very strong and it is very much an identity marker," says Andrew Kirkpatrick, professor of linguistics at Griffith University and a specialist in multilingual education policy in Asia. "It's a distinctive marker from the mainland and, in that sense, it is very powerful. I think if they reduce the Cantonese classes in Hong Kong, there would be a riot." Rather than Putonghua, for Professor Kirkpatrick, the greatest threat to Cantonese is English – and from the attitudes of Cantonese speakers themselves. "One problem with language policy in Hong Kong is that, with two exceptions, the universities are English medium," he says. "That puts pressure on secondary schools to teach more and more in English if their students are looking for further education. Cantonese is losing a little bit in secondary schools, but to English rather than Putonghua." He adds: "Some Cantonese speakers still feel it's a vernacular language – not a proper language, not a language of education. There's that kind of danger too: if they see it that way, it's easier to persuade them that Putonghua is a much more sensible language of education." Surviving the onslaught Although Cantonese has a history stretching back around 1,000 years and is more similar to the language used during the golden age of Chinese poetry than standardised Putonghua, it is true that even some native speakers regard it with a certain snobbery. "Hongkongers should be ashamed," said a letter from a resident of Tai Po, in the New Territories of Hong Kong, to the South China Morning Post in 2010. "Thirteen years after returning to the motherland, the great majority of this city's residents are unable to speak Putonghua well and our children continue to learn a corrupt form of Chinese in schools." But, however it is regarded, for many it is simply impossible to imagine a Hong Kong without Cantonese. Translator, interpreter and member of the CIOL Hong Kong Society Executive Committee, Daniel Chan FCIL paints a gloomy picture of the path ahead but believes that Cantonese can survive, whatever the mainland authorities throw at it. "The plan of the Communist Party is to destroy our language, they have no respect for anything traditional. Their goal for a long time has been to lower the status of the local dialect," he says. "However, we have such a strong base – there's a soft power and we continue to have a big influence," he adds, referring to the Cantopop, Cantonese Opera and Hong Kong-produced films that continue to be exported to Asia and beyond, as well as the migrant families who have Cantonese as their first language in Chinatowns and elsewhere around the world. "Yes, the status will be lower and lower and, after 2047, nobody knows what will happen. I don't think it will have much practical impact. Cantonese is not so easy to destroy." WRITING ON THE WALL Design on a shop front in Tai O, a fishing village on Lantau Island (left); and traditional Chinese characters on street signs in the rapidly gentrifying area of Sai Ying Pun (below)

Articles in this issue

Links on this page

Archives of this issue

view archives of The Linguist - The Linguist 55,1