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
Education issues have rarely been out of the headlines in the 20 years since Hong Kong’s handover.
Some of the scenes we have witnessed include primary students tearfully describing the pressure of drills and cramming to the Legislative Council and parents collecting signatures to abolish the Territory-wide System Assessment (TSA) tests. Add to that the secondary students protesting against the switch to Putonghua in classes normally conducted in Cantonese and the 120,000 strong crowd surrounding the government headquarters to protest against national education in 2012. These scenes illustrate the controversy that has surrounded many of the education policies of the past two decades.
Sweeping reforms have been implemented in many areas of the education system, including school admissions, internal assessment mechanisms, student assessments and standardised test and the curricula. Another big area of change has been in the medium of instruction (MOI), with a widespread switch to mother-tongue teaching in 1998-9 and the active promotion of teaching Chinese in Putonghua (PMIC) in 2008, with the announcement of HK$200 million in funds to help schools make the switch from Cantonese in Chinese language classes.
Read more: Hong Kong Free Press
We all know that language is more than just a set of words. It’s the backbone of an entire population, providing an identity, connection to history and a togetherness. So it’s no surprise that many Hong Kongers are feeling adrift right now.
Cantonese, the language of Hong Kong natives (and smaller populations in Southern China), is at risk of becoming obsolete. The reason? In simple terms, China’s forceful push of Putonghua (or Mandarin, as it’s known in the Western world).
This particular struggle isn’t new. China has long deemed Cantonese a ‘colloquial dialect’ rather than a sophisticated, solid language, even though it’s steeped in 3000-year-old history. For many Cantonese-speakers, that’s the real kicker. “Putonghua is an artificial language imposed by the Chinese Communist Party, not a naturally evolved language,” Dr Chen, an etymologist, told HK Magazine.
Read more: Huffington Post