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Mind Your Language

Since the handover, Hong Kong has been pursuing a policy of bi-literacy and tri-lingualism, which stressesthe equal importance of Cantonese, English and Putonghua in our everyday life.

In this issue of Varsity, we look at how each language is competing for an equal footing in the city’s language war.

Moves to promote Putonghua at the expense of Cantonese in Guangdong have led to the birth of a pro-Cantonese movement in the province and in neighbouring Hong Kong. Here, activists are defending Cantonese as a language. Protecting Cantonese, they believe, is more than a cultural issue, it is a political struggle.

In the sphere of education, more and more schools are switching back to using English as a medium of instruction after the government more or less admitted defeat over its policy of mother-tongue teaching. A major reason for the failure was the resistance of many parents to abandon English as the language of the classroom. Some parents even strive to create an English-only environment for their children, even if they are not fluent themselves. Varsity explores the impact this has on the children’s English proficiency as well as on their day-to-day communication.

While English dominates the household setting, Putonghua reigns at school. More than 500 local schoolsnow conduct Chinese language lessons in Putonghua, the official national language. Advocates believe learning Chinese in Putonghua enhances students’ Chinese writing ability, while critics complain it hurts their confidence in expressing themselves in class.

Rivalry is not only found among the three different languages, it has also extended to the written form withinone language, between traditional Chinese and simplified Chinese. Hong Kong has started to use simplified Chinese in advertisements and official notices. This has led to a backlash from those who fear Hong Kong islosing its culture and uniqueness.

If the question of language in Hong Kong is rooted in a sense of identity, then it is just as vexed as the questionsabout Hong Kong’s identity.




Joyce Lee