Cantonese: still the main spoken language of Hong Kong

« previous post | next post »

Twenty years ago today, on July 1, 1997, control of Hong Kong, formerly crown colony of the British Empire, was handed over to the People's Republic of China.  The last few days has seen much celebration of this anniversary on the part of the CCP, with visits by Xi Jinping and China's first aircraft carrier, as well as a show of force by the People's Liberation Army, but a great deal of anguish on the part of the people of Hong Kong:

"Once a Model City, Hong Kong Is in Trouble" (NYT [6/29/17])

"Xi Delivers Tough Speech on Hong Kong, as Protests Mark Handover Anniversary" (NYT [7/1/17])

"China's Xi talks tough on Hong Kong as tens of thousands call for democracy" (Reuters [7/1/17])

"China 'humiliating' the UK by scrapping Hong Kong handover deal, say activists:  Pro-democracy leaders say Britain has ‘legal, moral and political responsibility’ to stand up to Beijing" (Guardian [7/1//17])

"Tough shore leave rules for Chinese navy personnel during Liaoning’s Hong Kong visit:  The crew from China’s first aircraft carrier will be prohibited from enjoying Western-style leisure activities during city handover anniversary visit" (SCMP [6/28/17])

All of this political maneuvering has an impact on attitudes toward language usage in Hong Kong.

Juliana Liu, "Cantonese v Mandarin: When Hong Kong languages get political" (BBC, 6/29/17):

Chan Shui-duen, a professor of Chinese and Bilingual Studies at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, said that among some of her students, speaking Putonghua can almost be taboo.

"Especially among young people, the overall standard of Putonghua is rising," she said. "But some of them just reject it."

This is because, for many, Putonghua has become an unwelcome reminder of the increasing "mainlandisation" of Hong Kong.

The social rejection of Putonghua has come as people question their Chinese identity, which has alarmed both the Hong Kong and mainland Chinese governments.

Last June, an annual poll by the University of Hong Kong found that only 31% of people said they felt proud to be Chinese nationals, a significant drop from the year before, and a record low since the survey first began in 1997.

The article by Liu documents (and tacitly bemoans) the fact that the most prestigious schools in Hong Kong are English medium (as has long been the case) and Mandarin medium (a recent phenomenon).  In my estimation, there is only one way to fix this situation, and it involves these three steps:

1. Teach children how to record the sounds of their mother tongue (Cantonese — ditto for Shanghainese, Amoyese, Teochew, Hakka, Wenzhou, and other major topolects) in writing.  Of the many hundreds of Hong Kong colleagues, friends, and students I know, only a mere handful (probably less than a dozen, and they are all professional linguists) know how to write the sounds of Cantonese, even though they may be highly educated and, of course, speak Cantonese perfectly fluently.

2. Allow students to use Cantonese expressions in what they write.  As it stands now, if a student uses Cantonese grammar or lexical items in what they write in essays and on exams, marks will be counted off their final score.

3. Encourage the development of general writing, and especially literary works, in Cantonese.  A small number of people do write in Cantonese, and Cantonese is surprisingly becoming more evident in advertisements, but it is usually only little bits and pieces, seldom more than a few lexical items, sentences, or paragraphs at a time, and very rarely in whole works of fiction or non-fiction.

So long as the only acceptable standard for writing in Hong Kong schools and for official public purposes is Zhōngwén 中文 ("Chinese"), which is basically formal Mandarin (as we have discussed so many times on Language Log [see list of posts below]), the attrition of Cantonese in favor of Mandarin will continue apace.

Officially, the city government encourages students to become bi-literate in Chinese and English and trilingual in English, Cantonese and Mandarin.

But Robert Bauer, a Cantonese expert who teaches at several universities in Hong Kong, said Scolar and the Education Bureau were essentially "bribing" schools to make the switch from Cantonese to Mandarin as the medium of instruction in Chinese language classes.

"They're taking orders from the people of Beijing," he said. "Cantonese sets Hong Kong apart from the mainland. The Chinese government hates that, and so does the Hong Kong government."

It is refreshing that the speaker in the embedded video discussing the differences between Cantonese and Mandarin unabashedly and repeatedly refers to the former as a "language", not a "dialect" (which always drives me up the wall).

One of the most surprising findings presented in Liu's article is that, while Cantonese usage in Hong Kong has dropped slightly and Mandarin usage has risen during the last decade, English is soaring, with over half of the population being proficient in it:

Statistics on language use
1996 2016
English 38.1% 53.2%
Cantonese 95.2% 94.6%
Mandarin 25.3% 48.6%

This is not simply due to the fact that English had a strong base among the Hong Kong elite during the period of British control, it also mirrors the astonishing rise of English as a second (or even first) language in the Sinophone world.  I am constantly amazed at how many people speak English in China and how well they speak it.  This is in stark contrast to the situation when I first started going to China in the early 80s, when very few people spoke English, and those who did usually spoke it poorly — except for a tiny percentage of language specialists.  For at least a decade or two, every Chinese schoolchild starts to learn English in elementary school, just as they begin to learn to read and write Chinese through Hanyu Pinyin (the official, standard Roman alphabet for Mandarin).

From time to time, Mark Swofford checks the polling in Hong Kong on languages.  The latest figures (from 2016) are shown in charts provided here:

"Attitudes in Hong Kong toward Mandarin and Cantonese" ( [6/29/17)

Mark remarks:

…Mandarin certainly isn’t winning any popularity contests in Hong Kong these days. Although the levels of those averse to Mandarin and those proud of it are now just about equal, among Hong Kongers pride in Mandarin is lower than pride in any other surveyed item. Affection toward Mandarin was similarly lower, avoiding the bottom spot only because the Chinese army came in less than one point lower.

A few earlier Language Log posts on spoken and written Cantonese:

"Is Cantonese a language, or a personification of the devil?" (2/9/14)

"Spoken Hong Kong Cantonese and written Cantonese" (8/29/13)

"English is a Dialect of Germanic; or, The Traitors to Our Common Heritage" (9/4/13)

"Cantonese and Mandarin are two different languages" (9/25/15)

"Cantonese as Mother Tongue, with a note on Norwegian Bokmål" (12/22/13)

"Speak Cantonese" (6/10/16)

"Written Cantonese on a 'Democracy Wall' at a University in Hong Kong" (3/21/14)

"Token Cantonese" (5/16/15)

"Cantonese 'here'" (10/15/15)

"Uyghur, Cantonese, and other valuable languages of China" (2/20/16)

"Cantonese novels" (8/20/13)

"Dialect or Topolect?" (7/1/10) (see the comments by Claw and Jason Cullen)

"A quick exit for Cantonese" (7/22/15)

"Cantonese teachers influenced by Mandarin" (1/9/17)

"Kongish" (8/6/15)

"Kongish, ch. 2" (1/22/16)

"Written public cursing in Hong Kong" (5/3/17)

"Eighty-one Cantonese proverbs in one picture" (2/27/14)

"Cantonese as Ebonics" (12/17/13)

"Cantonese is not dead yet" (6/9/17)

[H.t. Norman Leung and Carmen Lee]


  1. Victor Mair said,

    July 1, 2017 @ 11:32 am

    From Norman Leung:

    A lot of comic books and manga in HK use Cantonese grammar and characters, but it is inconsistent.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    July 1, 2017 @ 12:32 pm

    "Chinese slang and famous Canto-pop song feature in Xi Jinping’s speech at Hong Kong banquet: President was guest of honour at a dinner also attended by nine pan-democrats"

    SCMP, by Tony Cheung, Peace Chiu, and Ng Kang-chung

    PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 June, 2017, 10:08pm
    UPDATED : Friday, 30 June, 2017, 11:39pm

    Just before he ended his 16-minute speech, Xi also made the rare gesture of citing the song Creating Fate, which was sung by local Canto-pop star Alan Tam Wing-lun in the early 1980s.

    “A popular song in Hong Kong has this line: ‘Self-confidence is so important. Open up your mind and your dream will come true.’ We should have full confidence in ourselves, in Hong Kong and in our country…”

    From a colleague in Hong Kong:

    "Haha the song's from the 1984 HK movie 'Heaven Can Help'. True!"

  3. Victor Mair said,

    July 1, 2017 @ 12:56 pm

    If there's something that makes me feel like climbing the walls even more than calling Cantonese a "dialect", it is to call it "slang", as in the headline at the beginning of the previous comment. That's actually a misleading translation of Chinese "lǐyǔ 俚语", which more accurately signifies "rustic / unsophisticated / unrefined / local / rural form of speech". Lǐyǔ 俚语 is much closer to "patois" than to "slang". To malign Cantonese as "slang" is really to do it a disservice, to subject it to an indignity that it does not deserve.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    July 1, 2017 @ 1:05 pm

    Indicative of the face that the PRC presents to Hong Kong:

    "Believe in the motherland, China’s leader tells Hong Kong people — and respect its might" (Simon Denyer, WP [6/30/17])

    HONG KONG — China staged the territory’s largest military parade ever Friday for the benefit of visiting President Xi Jinping — and as a none-too-subtle reminder to its residents of who’s their boss….–and-respect-its-might/2017/06/30/4812b88a-5c18-11e7-aa69-3964a7d55207_story.html

  5. Victor Mair said,

    July 1, 2017 @ 6:52 pm

    From a colleague who teaches in Hong Kong:

    This post on Cantonese is timely and has very astute observations. There is a subtle aspect of language attitude that is not reflected though. Hong Kong people love Taiwan and love going to Taiwan (some even emigrate to Taiwan). They (including the young ones) had no problem having to speak Mandarin in Taiwan. And in Hong Kong, if they manage to figure out that the speakers of Mandarin is from Taiwan (i.e. Guoyu instead of Putonghua), their attitude is also friendlier. So it seems that there the language preference is not totally tied with dis-preference of China.

    I am somewhat familiar with the language preference survey but found the rise of English usage puzzling and wonder how should it be interpreted. In our past 9 years in Hong Kong, it is very clear that the English proficiency of the general public (and esp. of college students) is deteriorating. All university administrators worry all the time about how to raise English proficiency of local students; and any shopping and other daily activities (esp. outside of Hong Kong island) are becoming more difficult unless some Cantonese (or Mandarin) is spoken. The fact that English proficiency is lowered is not easy to reconcile with the rising popularity of the language.

  6. Peter Taylor said,

    July 2, 2017 @ 1:48 am

    For at least a decade or two, every Chinese schoolchild starts to learn English in elementary school

    intrigues me with its use of present tense. My first reaction was that it sounded like a calque from Spanish, although I then realised that in that case it would use since rather than for.

    Is this a feature of some dialects of English which I haven't heard often, if at all? How widespread is it? Or is it an unintended artefact of rewriting the sentence a few times?

  7. Chas Belov said,

    July 2, 2017 @ 3:55 am

    It didn't bother me at first, but, thinking about it, I would word it as one of the following:

    "For at least the past decade or two, every Chinese schoolchild has started learning English in elementary school"


    "Since at least a decade or two ago, every Chinese schoolchild starts to learn English in elementary school"

  8. Guy_H said,

    July 2, 2017 @ 10:46 am

    One thing I don't quite understand is the use of "Putonghua" (alongside "Mandarin") in an English language article for the BBC. I realize they are being used interchangeably, but "Putonghua" is hard to pronounce for foreigners, not widely known amongst the public and Mandarin is a perfectly acceptable alternative in English. I notice a lot of HK publications seem to do this as well (but they always refer to Cantonese and not "Gwongdungwah").

  9. cliff arroyo said,

    July 2, 2017 @ 11:26 am

    @Guy_H Maybe because putongua would refer unambiguously to the standard in the PRC while standard versions of Mandarin in other countries have different names (guoyu in Taiwan, I forget the name in Singapore but it's different as well).

  10. Dennis King said,

    July 2, 2017 @ 8:04 pm

    Is it worth comparing the continuing vital use of the various varieties of Swiss German (Alemannic) such as Bärndütsch and Züritüütsch, which are almost never written, with Cantonese and other non-Mandarin languages?

  11. Terrence G. said,

    July 2, 2017 @ 8:50 pm

    One of the reasons for the sharp increase of using English might be that people who don't speak Cantonese prefer to use English to communicate in HK, rather than in Mandarin, in order to avoid being profiled. I have heard stories where Mainlanders were treated much better when they could use English in HK.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    July 2, 2017 @ 11:22 pm

    @Dennis King:

    Cantonese has about 80,000,000 total speakers.

  13. Andrew said,

    July 3, 2017 @ 1:35 pm


    I'm curious if there's any other writing (academic or otherwise) out there looking at Hong Kong people's differing perceptions of Mandarin as spoken by mainland Chinese and by Taiwanese people.

    I'm a native speaker of American English and a decent heritage speaker of (Taiwanese) Mandarin, with no Cantonese at all whatsoever, and I've always wondered if it's better to speak English or Mandarin while in Hong Kong.

    (Though when I have menus, etc., I always prefer the Chinese menu as sometimes names of dishes become unrecognizable in translation, and I always take down names and addresses in Chinese characters as there's no problem there as long as it's all written!)

  14. Bob Chan said,

    July 3, 2017 @ 4:32 pm

    For sure there are some Chinese teachers in HK are having inflated ego of self-importance, I have not seen any declaration/policy from China that Putonghua is mandated to replace spoken Cantonese in anywhere. The issue is brought out by activists with their own agenda… it is really not a real issue. As in most parts of China, local dialects do co-exist with Putonghua…. If Dr Sun had held the same position, insisted to use Cantonese only, he would not be able to become the FATHER OF THE REPUBLIC….

  15. Nathan said,

    July 3, 2017 @ 10:32 pm

    Calling Cantonese "a local dialect" is a laughable error.

  16. Terrrence G. said,

    July 5, 2017 @ 12:40 pm

    @Andrew I think you should definitely use English because people will treat you better in all of East Asia if you speak English.

  17. Eidolon said,

    July 5, 2017 @ 6:58 pm

    Linguistic unity has been a core policy of Chinese governments since the days of the Republic, and arguably even earlier, during imperial times, though the focus back then was on getting regional officials to speak the same koine. Mandarinization will surely continue, as it is seen as a critical component of Chinese nation-building – see David Moser's recent book, which I think was featured here.

RSS feed for comments on this post