Cantonese under renewed threat

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When Great Britain handed Hong Kong over to the PRC in 1997, the communist government promised to maintain the status quo of the colony's laws, educational system, human rights, language policy, and so forth for half a century, until 2047.  It has only been a little over twenty years, and already virtually all aspects of government, society, and culture are being reshaped along the lines that are operative in the PRC.  Naturally, the aspect of Hong Kong life that concerns us at Language Log most are policies governing language norms and usages.

The latest report is that the communist government is exerting increased pressure against Cantonese by suggesting that it should not be the language of instruction in Hong Kong schools.  That would be a drastic departure from long-standing practice and a dire threat to the health and stability of the Cantonese language in Hong Kong.

"An Attempt to Deprive Hongkongers of their Linguistic Rights", Chapman Chen, Local Press (12/30/18)

Here are the opening paragraphs describing the statements of a key government spokesman concerning the status of Cantonese as the language of instruction in Hong Kong schools and even in daily life:

Education Secretary Kevin Yeung's questioning of Cantonese as the teaching language in the city on October 8 runs against Article 2 of the 1992 UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, The 1996 Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights, and The 2011 Girona Manifesto on Linguistic Rights.

On 8 October, in a RTHK radio program, Education Secretary Kevin Yeung questioned whether Cantonese will be suitable as a teaching language in the city in the long-run and suggested that it may be a good idea for Hongkongers to start using more Putonghua in their daily lives. He went on to claim that no one in the world who learns Chinese does so in Cantonese except for the 7 million people in HK, and the trend clearly favors Putonghua.

Let the lawyers, politicians, and educational authorities and activists wrangle over the legality of Education Secretary Kevin Yeung's pronouncements.  Let me just say that the last statement of the above quotation is dead wrong.  There are more than 80,000,000 speakers of Cantonese worldwide,  Just in American schools, colleges, universities, language programs, and cultural associations, not to mention families, there are tens of thousands of people learning "Chinese" (in this case we may interpret what Kevin Yeung imprecisely means by this as "a Sinitic language") in Cantonese.  For him to assert that no one "learns Chinese" in Cantonese shows how terribly muddled is the thinking of government spokespersons about the nature and reality of language, including their own tongue.


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

"Speak Cantonese" (6/10/16)

"Cantonese: still the main spoken language of Hong Kong" (7/1/17)

"Cantonese is not the mother tongue of Hong Kongers" (5/4/18) — with references to more than two dozen earlier posts on Cantonese relevant to today's topic; in toto, the number of LLog posts touching on one or another aspect of Cantonese is far greater than those listed at the end of this 5/4/18 post

"Cantonese is not the mother tongue of Hong Kongers, part 2" (5/7/18)

"The Future of Cantonese" (5/27/18)

"The future of Cantonese, part 2" (6/10/18)



    December 31, 2018 @ 3:07 pm

    It is well known that most international schools in Hong Kong opt to teach Putonghua and English alone. Many who send their children to study in these schools are Cantonese parents who consider these will be the working languages in Hong Kong when their children grow up. As a matter of fact, Singapore made similar choice soon after it became independent. I don't think the language choice is a political one, or under the pressure from the mainland government.

  2. paramvir said,

    December 31, 2018 @ 6:41 pm

    Out of curiosity, what guarantees did the British give in regards to the status quo laws, educational system etc when they occupied HK?

  3. Victor Mair said,

    December 31, 2018 @ 10:08 pm

    "The Hong Kong Cantonese Language: Quo Vadis?" by Robert S. Bauer, Undergrad (November).

  4. Victor Mair said,

    December 31, 2018 @ 10:16 pm


    That's not the least bit surprising. They're international schools, after all.

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    January 1, 2019 @ 5:47 am

    I am afraid that, for me, Professor Bauer loses all credibility when he writes "The first claim implies that Hong Kong schools are teaching the Chinese-language subject only in Cantonese and not in Pŭtōnghuà (or English)" in his critique of an article published on the South China Morning Post’s website. The article in question commences as follows : "Hong Kong remains unique in being the only place in the world where Chinese is not taught in Mandarin". It makes no claim whatsoever about English, and Professor Bauer, IMHO, did himself no favours by introducing this red herring so early in his response. He also ignored the thrust of the first sentence, which is not (as he asserts) "that Hong Kong schools are teaching the Chinese-language subject only in Cantonese" but rather that "Hong Kong [is] the only place […] where Chinese is not taught in Mandarin". I would respectfully suggest that Professor Bauer is being disingenuous in his analysis and response.

  6. AntC said,

    January 1, 2019 @ 8:27 am

    @paramvir what guarantees did the British give in regards to the status quo laws, educational system etc when they occupied HK?

    If you're suggesting the British colonists behaviour was less than noble: the Opium Wars were indeed shameful; but over the ~150 years of British involvement with HK, I'd describe them as the least worst of a bad lot — certainly an improvement on the crumbling and corrupt Chinese Empire.

    However this is not Colonial History Log. I lived/worked in HK in 1991/92. I experienced a vibrant Cantonese culture and Language: a movie industry, canto-pop, freedom to poke fun at 'Fat Pan' (the last British Governor, Chris Patten, belatedly trying to introduce democracy to a place that had never had it/never expected it).

    Cantonese had equal status with English in government and business. Cantonese was the language of commerce with the mainland SEZ of Shenzhen. (Of course 'international' commerce needed English.) Canny businessmen operating in other parts of the mainland needed Putonghua. As Prof Mair's article makes clear, Cantonese was the language of instruction in schools. Indeed a large proportion of the population (outside of tourism) spoke very little English, as I frequently experienced trying to get taxis to obscure office buildings.

    Everybody was terrified of the prospect of Beijing taking control Those with skills were desperately trying to get residency in other English-speaking countries. It was shameful the way Margaret Thatcher cravenly handed over HK with hardly a care. (Then it's particularly galling this week to hear Han Kuo-yu in Taiwan comparing himself to the 'Iron Lady'. She'd have had just as little care for a tired, industrial city like Kaohsiung.)

  7. Victor Mair said,

    January 1, 2019 @ 10:13 am

    @Philip Taylor:

    When you grossly misinterpret and thoroughly trash Professor Bauer's article, that is not to "respectfully suggest" anything. Bob Bauer has lived in Hong Kong for decades and has been studying and writing about Cantonese for just as long. He is the co-author of the most important book on writing Cantonese with Chinese characters and has written dozens of excellent articles on Cantonese for scholarly journals and for a variety of newspapers, magazines, and other publications in Hong Kong and elsewhere. He is currently completing what will be the best Cantonese-English dictionary ever compiled.

    We have often cited Bob Bauer on Language Log for his consummate knowledge of Cantonese in all of its linguistic and social aspects. He is frequently featured in Chinese publications and on television and radio as a preeminent Western authority on Cantonese language. I know firsthand to what an impressive degree he is highly respected by Chinese and Western linguists alike. Above all, he is viewed as something of a marvel by local Hong Kong observers for his mastery of all things having to do with Cantonese language, including speaking it.

    Since you are a regular commenter on this forum, I have gained a good idea of your credentials, and they do not warrant your disrespectful, uninformed treatment of Professor Bauer.

  8. jin defang said,

    January 1, 2019 @ 10:56 am

    Judging from when I taught summers at Huadong Zhifa Daxue, and also by an acquaintances’s harrowing tale of his brush with the police/mental health system in Shanghai, seventy-odd years of CCP control hasn’t wiped out Shanghainese. People would politely speak to me in mandarin, then resume their conversations with friends and co-workers in their preferred tongue. I’d expect the same of Cantonese speakers, except that, since the government is being so heavy-handed about it, to cling even more stubbornly to their language. Chiang Kai-shek’s efforts didn’t succeed in wiping out Hoklo or Hakka, either.

  9. Alex said,

    January 1, 2019 @ 11:08 am

    As sergeant schultz would say, "I know nothing" about Cantonese.

    I was wondering if they teach the reading in first grade using like how they do here on the mainland for reading.

    How widely or narrowly is it used in daily life as far as input systems. Is it easy to use for users.


  10. The Dark Avenger said,

    January 1, 2019 @ 1:12 pm

    As someone descended from a Shanghaiese family, that isn’t surprising. Lots of Shanghaiese fled to H. K. after WW II.

  11. Philip Taylor said,

    January 1, 2019 @ 1:47 pm

    Dear Professor Mair — If you could kindly point out where you feel that my analysis of Professor Bauer's critique is defective, I (and perhaps others) might be better to placed to understand the nature of your response.

    Professor Bauer's accomplishments and credentials were (and are) not the subject of my comment — I was simply concerned with the fact that his critique appeared to focus on matters that were orthogonal to the article under discussion.

  12. Ricardo said,

    January 1, 2019 @ 8:19 pm

    @ jin defang

    My take:

    I lived in Shanghai for the past year-and-a-half and made an attempt to learn Shanghainese. While Shanghainese is presently very widely spoken, many locals I knew were pessimistic about the longevity of their language, mainly because they felt the younger generation were not really picking it up. Most of the younger Shanghainese could understand the language but only a much smaller fraction could speak it with the ease of their elders. As there is hardly any radio or television programming in Shanghainese, it seems to me that it is difficult for them to be exposed to the language other than in their homes.

    A more optimistic view I would sometimes hear from locals was that as long as there was a Shanghainese identity there would always be a Shanghai language.

  13. Eidolon said,

    January 3, 2019 @ 10:46 pm

    1. Shanghainese is a much more prestigious variety of Sinitic than most others.

    2. The Standard Mandarin education policy of the PRC has not been in practical effect for 70 years. It's closer to 50.

    It takes time for a language policy to be implemented, regardless of stated urgency or intent. Until 1958, pinyin – a critical tool for Standard Mandarin instruction – did not even exist in the education system. The Cultural Revolution, which was launched just eight years later and lasted until 1976, brought the Chinese education system to a virtual halt, as students skipped schools or were sent to the rural areas, where they obviously would not have been learning Standard Mandarin.

    Thus, it is only from the 1970s on that we could reliably talk about a consistent, nation-wide, and practically effective implementation of Standard Mandarin as the medium of instruction. In fact, based on age gap, it is only presently that we are witnessing the first generation of Chinese politicians with "native" fluency in Standard Mandarin ascend to supreme power. They represent the oldest batch of Standard Mandarin speakers educated in the 1970s, who as a group are largely still bilingual in their own local varieties. But the generations after them, particularly towards the 1990s and 2000s, have much less fluency in their local tongues, and also prefer Standard Mandarin much more. This is due to them growing up in house holds where both parents could reliably be expected to speak fluent Standard Mandarin, and often choose to do so, because it is the language they were educated in and which they had spoken in school.

    To this end, I agree with Robert Bauer that the situation is quite dim for most varieties of Chinese. It is not very difficult, in fact, for local languages to be replaced. The example of Singapore shows this well, as the local varieties of Sinitic have gone from being 50.3% of Chinese house hold languages to just 16.1% in the space of a single generation – from 1990 to 2015. Granted, this effect was exacerbated in Singapore due to the effects of immigration, but there is also a similar effect in contemporary China, due to internal migration. Consequently, while the pace of change has been slower in China, it has not been that slow. A 2014 survey indicated that, of more than 1,000 residents aged 13 and older who have lived in Shanghai for more than six months, only 3 percent of respondents were unable to speak Mandarin, while 18.6 percent didn't understand Shanghainese.

    The long-term trend in the PRC is indeed towards Mandarin and English, first through a period of bilingualism and trilingualism, and then gradually towards the loss of the local languages. This process could be arrested with strong government policy for protecting the local languages, as indicated by Bauer, but I do not believe the Chinese government sees any incentive to do so and indeed, prefers the opposite – one nation, one people, one culture.

  14. Ricardo said,

    January 4, 2019 @ 12:14 am

    I agree with @Eidlon analysis. The line 'This process could be arrested with strong government policy for protecting the local languages…' also makes me think that the process could be arrested if mainlanders themselves were especially keen on preserving their local languages (rather then just relying on government initiative).

    This could be just my own ignorance speaking, but I do not sense much opposition to the policy of mandarinization on the mainland among Han Chinese. In all my years of living in China, I never met any parents who tried to make sure that their child learnt a dialect; they were no doubt happy if the child picked it up, but concious effort was always directed towards English and Mandarin. And if mainlanders as whole are not greatly exercised by the policy, argumentation by foreigners and academics is unlikely to change it.

  15. ajay said,

    January 4, 2019 @ 5:02 am

    Out of curiosity, what guarantees did the British give in regards to the status quo laws, educational system etc when they occupied HK?

    I know you think this is a terribly clever gotcha, but the answer isn't what you think. Both British statute and Chinese customary law applied in the New Territories up to the 1960s; residents of the colony could choose to have their cases heard under either system, and magistrates were expected to be competent in both. (After this point a unified legal system was introduced.)
    As the island had a population of a few thousand fishermen and charcoal burners at handover in 1842, it's likely that no educational system at all existed.

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