When I decided to start studying Mandarin as a teenager, friends and family approved. China was enjoying explosive economic growth, so speaking the country’s lingua franca was sure to open doors. But when I moved to China after college, I ended up in one place where Mandarin doesn’t get you very far: Hong Kong.
The majority of the city’s 7.3 million people speak Cantonese, a Chinese dialect mutually unintelligible from Mandarin. And while I’ve thrown myself into learning Cantonese with just as much passion, I do not get the same reaction that I did with Mandarin. Instead, I’m told Cantonese is on its way out the door.
Hong Kong’s English and Chinese media pin the blame on Mandarin. Local officials began stressing Mandarin-based education following the city’s return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, and now 70% of Hong Kong primary schools use Mandarin to teach Chinese classes. There are also plenty of Mandarin speakers coming from across the border; since 1997, 150 mainlanders have been able to obtain residency each day.
But the data tell a different story. Cantonese has actually experienced a slight growth in the proportion of speakers since the handover. According to the 2016 Hong Kong by-census, 88.9% of the population claim to speak Cantonese as their usual language, compared with 88.7% in 1996. Over the same 20-year span, the percentage of residents who primarily speak Mandarin rose from 1.1% to 1.9%.
So how can a language appear robust on paper, yet inspire death knells from the general public? It’s the sort of linguistic paradox that could only happen in Hong Kong.
Read more: Quartz