The Cantonese speakers who want English as their kids’ mother tongue
Reporters: Kris Lee and Yannie Mak
On a typical Saturday morning, the children’s section of Kowloon Central Library is packed with children and parents huddled around low tables and squashed into soft easy-chairs. The room is filled with the sound of parents reading aloud to their children in English, with varying degrees of fluency.
This is just one way Hong Kong’s parents are trying to make sure their children master English, which has been an official language of Hong Kong since 1842.
Since the handover, the use of Putonghua has joined English and Cantonese as an official language. Its use has become more important and more widespread. Government policy, implemented in 1998, saw the majority of Hong Kong schools switch from teaching in English to teaching in Cantonese.
Some feared English standards would fall as a result and a survey carried out by the Hong Kong Chamber of Commerce in 2007 suggested that 65 per cent of employers polled said they found employees’ English levels to be below international standards.
But as the keen competition for places at schools that teach in English and the government’s 2008 U-turn to give schools more flexibility to teach in English shows, parents and educators never doubted that English remains as important in Hong Kong today as ever.
For some parents, that means providing an exclusively English-language environment for their children, even though they are native Cantonese speakers in a city where Cantonese is the mother tongue for 97 per cent of the population.
Joey Wong Mei-kuen, a mother of two daughters, says: “The standard of English [of the younger generation] is worse than my generation.”
She attributes this to the lack of opportunities to practice the language since it is a second language in the community. Therefore, she chooses to use English to communicate with her children and has done so since they were born.