At a local international school two girls, recently transferred from elite local schools, share a joke in their mother tongue. The joke is told in a mix of English and Cantonese — a language that they are most comfortable with and one able to convey the meaning and specific humour of what is a local and Cantonese joke. They are overheard by a teacher who promptly scolds them. “Cantonese is a useless language”, they are told, “it won’t get you into university, and it won’t get you a job”. Mandarin and English though are fine.
Last year, I felt compelled to write an article on Cantonese being the forgotten language of our international schools. In it, I outlined my concern that Cantonese, our local language and for the majority of Hong Kong people also our mother tongue, is being sidelined at schools that proclaim to be offering children an elite education. I argued that such a rejection of the language of Hong Kong was, intentionally or not, an act of political significance as it undermines people’s ability to connect with their own culture and identity. International schools may be giving our children a “global perspective”, but at the cost of them losing touch being local.
The failure to encourage Cantonese is more than a linguistic failing. It is a further measure of division in a city that is already struggling with an increasing social and economic divide. Mandarin is becoming the language of the internationally (or at least China) mobile. It is the language of the high end. Cantonese, in its own province, is increasingly the language of the less well-to-do, and the less connected. As with English before, this may not be quite true, but of greater importance to social harmony is not what is but what is perceived.
I am writing now not only to reaffirm my previous allegation, but to take it a step further: Cantonese is not only forgotten, it is being actively discouraged.
The situation I outlined at the start was described to me in detail by a student at a top international school. I recount it not only because I found it shocking, but as an example of one of many similar such incidences that I have either been told about or have experienced first hand. In many circles that should be moulding our future citizens, whether at schools, clubs or social gatherings, Cantonese is being discouraged.
Too often Cantonese is not seen as the “appropriate” or “national” language. But what do we mean by a national language? The nationalistic idea of a national language being an imposed and uniting language is, like the much of Chinese nationalism today, rooted in 19th century values. To believe that an imposed language, like Italian, and to a lesser degree even French, can help solidify the bonds of nationhood, is to believe that a nation can be created and such bonds can be imposed. It is an idea of nationalism that breed the fascist regimes of Europe. More importantly, it is an idea that has been superseded.
Today a national language is not an imposition but an acknowledgement of a language’s status amongst the people that make up a nation. From attempting to impose an artificial bond, an action that in most cases lead not to a sense of a people uniting with a nation but to to them feeling first alienated and then oppressed by it, today we seek to recognize and then strengthen those bonds that already exist. We realise that as nationalism must come from within and from a community, so must its language. This has lead in almost all modern nation states to the number of languages recognized as being national to rise. Where English once declared itself the sole national language, Welsh is now recognized. Experience has taught us that recognition rather than imposition draws people closer to the state.
Then there are those for whom Cantonese is a “useless” language. This not only demonstrates an extreme ignorance of local history and culture, it is also deeply disrespectful of local Cantonese speaking people. To imply that a language is merely an tool to qualify for an educational opportunity or a job, an attitude that is sadly not limited to certain expatriate teachers, demeans all those for whom the language is native.
Indeed, it is often forgotten that to be a “native” language speaker is not representative of proficiency in that language, but of that language’s role in defining the speaker’s identity. To be a native speaker is to understand ones self, ones culture and tradition, within this linguistic framework. It is for this reason that native speakers are employed to teach foreign languages when more than a mere functional command of the language is required.
It ought to be deeply concerning for all Cantonese speakers to know that expatriate teachers, who are themselves employed as native speakers of English, demean the native language of our city by telling our children that our language is useless. Such an attitude only demonstrates that these teachers not only have no respect for the language, culture and identity of local people, but also, more worryingly for teachers, that they are themselves insensitive to the value of language.
At the same international school, whilst the vast majority of students are children of Cantonese speakers, an increasing minority can or will not speak Cantonese. When attempting to strike up a conversation in Cantonese, I have often been left dumbstruck by the reply, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Cantonese”. These students come from Cantonese speaking homes. This reply is made at best without emotion, though more often than not with a hint of pride. This pride is shameful, and leaves me feeling both sad and deeply disappointed – I am sad for their family, and ashamed that people with whom I share a home could be so callous with the heritage, history and culture, of our shared community. It is as if they are not only rejecting their own linguistic heritage, but their own people. If such an attitude in a teacher is a disgrace, in the student or in their parents it is a betrayal.
There is a war that has been declared on Cantonese. It is part of a wider war against the very identity of being a Hong Kong person. Cantonese speakers did not declare this war. They did not challenge China. They were and still consider themselves Chinese. But for how long will this be so? Beijing should consider this, and remember that history has shown that nations are not made from above but arise from below.
Cantonese speakers are not the aggressors. They are not asking Beijing to speak their language, nor adopt their values and customs. They are merely asking that their own language, values and customs be respected in their home. It is a fight for recognition.
All Hong Kong people I know are bothered by this linguistic challenge. Some choose to adjust, to couch the betrayal of themselves in terms of being “realistic”, and to drown their shame and their conscience in “opportunities”. Others, those with a degree of self-respect, and those I believe deserved to be respected, are reacting in their own ways. Most complain, but some too (including those associated with House News) are standing up to be counted, and to be counted for who they are.
When our government is to supine to represent its own people, and our business community too driven by share price to care, it is left to the people to act. When we are told Cantonese is not an official language of our city because “Cantonese is a dialect”, we must remind those that spread such fallacies that by the same token Mandarin may be called a dialect of Cantonese. We should highlight that most linguists, academics with no political position to tout, classify our mother tongue as a distinct language.
When we are greeted, as my aunt was recently, in Mandarin upon entering a brand name store, we must remind the sales staff that this is not Beijing. Send a letter to the company and ask them to consider, as a French fashion house, how a Parisian would react when being greeted in English upon entering their stores in Paris.
And when, as happened to my aunt, the sales staff walk away disinterested when you begin to speak Cantonese, and congregate around a Mandarin speaking customer already being served, do not do what my aunt did and be polite and leave. Demand to know what is wrong with speaking the language of Hong Kong in a shop in Hong Kong.
And when our children are told by an English speaking teacher that Cantonese is a useless language that will not get them a job, tell your children to ask the teacher not to allow their children to speak English either. After all, when Putonghua becomes the international language of business why should we persist with an archaic German dialect. It’s just a useless language.
(The original article is published on The HouseNews)