The Status, Roles and Attitudes of Biliteracy and Trilingualism in Hong Kong

 Wong Hei Yu, Hayley


In the 21st century, it is widely believed that high language status correlates to the symbols of power, identity and social network for the new generation. Owing to a 155-year transitional political history of British colonialism and resumption of Chinese sovereignty, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Government is determined to strike a balance between mother-tongue Cantonese and other emerging languages, in particular English and Mandarin. Therefore, biliteracy (written English and Chinese) and trilingualism (spoken English, Chinese and Mandarin) language policies were adopted after the handover of British sovereignty to China in 1997. In general, this article aims to comprehend and reflect on the current language learning experiences as native-born Hong Kongers. In the meantime, issues regarding how language policies influence on the intertwined variables including the language status and roles, as well as the attitudes of Hong Kong people towards the three dominant languages: Cantonese, English and Mandarin will be critically discussed and analyzed.

Keywords: English, Cantonese, Mandarin, Hong Kong, status and roles



Having gone through a transitional political history of British colonialism and resumption of Chinese sovereignty (1842-1997), it is widely believed that the implementation of “biliterate (written English and Chinese) and trilingual (spoken English, Cantonese and Mandarin)” language policies play a prominent role in restoring national identity and uplifting Hong Kong’s global competitiveness as an international city (Kan & Adamson, 2010). While 89.5% of the Hong Kong population speaks Cantonese as their lingua franca (GovHK, 2016), it is surprising that English and Mandarin have been acknowledged as the “high status languages” which are equivalent to the “symbols of power, identity and social network for new generations” in the 21st century (Hu, 2007, p.90). In an attempt to comprehend and reflect on my own language learning experiences as a native-born Hong Konger, this paper, therefore, will draw together the threads of the status and roles, as well as people’s attitudes to the “biliterate and trilingual” language policies throughout the period of colonialism (1860s-1990s) and post-handover of sovereignty in 1997.

1. Language Policies during British Colonialism (1860s-1990s)

A. Status and Roles

Over the past 155 years of British sovereignty, the geographical location and political history of Hong Kong have laid down an influential premise on one’s values, cultural identities and choice of languages in society. Geographically, Hong Kong is situated in Southern China, next to the provincial capital of Guangdong where the majority speaks Cantonese as their lingua franca (Luke & Richards, 1982, p.86). Nevertheless, the prominence of Cantonese no longer existed when China was defeated by Britain in the two Opium Wars in 1842 and 1860 respectively (Kan & Adamson, 2010). During the early era of colonialism, English has been acknowledged as the official language in Hong Kong and the use of English was highly advocated by the British colonial government, serving as the solitary language of communication in official affairs and business trade administration (Hu, 2007). Chinese (the language) which was recognized by Hong Kong (the government) as an official language with English in the 1974 co-official Language Policy, Cantonese was still trivial and used in non-official domains (Luke & Richards, 1982, p.86). It seems that the status of Cantonese has been shifted from a prestigious to inferior language when Hong Kong was facing political stratification and mobility in the eighteenth century.

Given the changes of hierarchical status and roles of languages in Hong Kong, Zhang (2006) interprets such phenomenon was greatly attributed to the reinforcement of language policies in local primary and secondary schools. In 1978, the British colonial government carried out nine-year compulsory education, as well as establishing Anglo-Chinese schools and Chinese Middle schools for the purpose of “producing colonial cultural assimilations to facilitate colonial governance” (Schjerve, as cited in Hu, 2007, p. 87). Since English is deliberately regarded as a language of power and prestige, it is logical that those Anglo-Chinese schools mainly used English as the medium of instruction (EMI) despite the fact that they were granted permission to adopt a laissez-faire approach to the language policies in school education (Luke & Richards, 1982, p. 55). Meanwhile, Chinese Middle schools distinctively used Chinese as the medium of instruction (CMI) and offered English as an independent subject. It is interesting to notice that Cantonese performed a pivotal role in colonial cultural assimilations although its status was still undervalued in the early nineteenth century.

B. People’s Attitude

Echoed with Gao’s (2011, p. 252) observation, it is likely that the overwhelming majority of Hong Kongers perceived English as a power and language education which contributed to the “system of societal stratification beyond linguistic and cultural differences”. In the 1970s, there was a wide discrepancy between the progression of CMI and EMI schools, revealing most primary schools were CMI, whereas more than 90% of students attended EMI secondary schools (Luke & Richards, 1982, p. 49). Pierson, Fu and Lee (1980) illustrate this prevalent phenomenon was owing to the apathetic attitude of colonial rulers and parents towards the status and roles of Cantonese.

While the local schools were authorized to accommodate the burgeoning population through adopting Chinese as the medium of instruction, the British colonial government, on the other hand, appeared to be less supportive and “very reluctant to bear the risks of a whole-hearted commitment to CMI” (Kan & Adamson, 2010, p. 170). The government consistently conveyed messages that high status English was “a symbol of cultural intelligence”, bringing people with English proficiency and skills into competitive political, social and economic advantages (Hu, 2007, p. 87). Apparently, EMI schools compared to CMI schools would be highly prized by parents in turn. Since most primary schools were CMI, it is noticeable that many parents favored those EMI secondary schools which were renowned for achieving outstanding English results (Kan & Adamson, 2010, p. 170).

Incontrovertibly, English was universally acknowledged as a prestigious language in schools and occupations throughout the period of British colonialism. Yet Luke and Richards (1982) uncover the fact that most Hong Kong people were not actually in line with the government’s perspectives on the status and roles of English. It is evident that Cantonese had been seen as a valuable asset which was extensively used in daily interaction within the community and/or in school context (Hu, 2007, p. 68). In addition, spoken Cantonese and written Standard Chinese were regarded as “the best medium of instruction for learning” when many local teachers and students were struggling with teaching and learning English as a foreign language respectively (Kan & Adamson, 2010, p. 168). With the handover of sovereignty in 1997 approaching, the overall attitude towards Chinese and Cantonese was becoming more positive and significant.

2. Language Policies after the handover of Sovereignty in 1997

A. Status and Roles

After the handover in 1997, the new government aimed to restore one’s national identity and empower Hong Kong as a “world-class” city through implementing a series of education policies and establishing a “biliterate and trilingual” society (Tung, as cited in Kan & Adamson, 2010, p. 170-171). Despite the government redistributing the language status in Hong Kong, the government press release (Education Bureau 2009b) declared the new education policies “[will] enhance students’ ability to learn in English, prepare them to embrace new challenges from globalization and enhance Hong Kong’s status as an international city”. Therefore, it is not surprising that the status and roles of English remain unchanged as an active medium of communication in higher education, professional jobs and international business affairs (Hu, 2007, p. 88).

Moreover, as mentioned earlier, many students struggled to learn effectively on the basis of EMI. Therefore, the Education Department (1997) issued the “medium of instruction (MOI) guidance for secondary schools”, assisting students to become biliterate and trilingual, promoting mother-tongue language teaching and using Chinese as the medium of instruction to strengthen students’ English proficiency. Likewise, the new policy had an influential impact on the adoption of school MOI. Among 400+ local schools, the number of CMI schools increased substantially from less than 80 to 300 after the implementation of guidance in 1997 (Kan & Adamson, 2010, p. 171). Lai and Byram (2003) indicate the new policy of biliteracy and trilingualism not only placed Hong Kong people with trilingual skills in a favourable political and economic condition, but also altered the status of spoken Cantonese and written Standard Chinese from an inferior language to a high status language in society.

Comparatively, Mandarin Chinese had a lower status than Cantonese in the period of British colonialism. However, the resumption of Chinese sovereignty in 1997 and the growing economy in the mainland had led Mandarin Chinese to dramatic attention in the school curriculum (Kan & Adamson, 2010). Although there is not much literature discussing the actual roles of Mandarin played in a classroom context, my past learning experiences reveal Mandarin is no longer served as a subject taught in the 21st century. Rather, it has started to penetrate into daily communication within the community. Joseph (as cited in Zhang, 2006, p. 10) further interprets the current phenomenon is due to an inextricable connection between the rising status and functions of Mandarin.

B. People’s Attitude

Bourdieu (1991, p. 62) has sought to determine that people’s acceptance of languages is closely associated with the enforcement of language policies. In other words, it is very likely that the societal attitudes towards Cantonese and Mandarin were more positive and receptive, whereas less favored and respectful towards English. While the new government was seeking ways to raise the status and roles of Cantonese and Mandarin in Hong Kong after the transition of political power in 1997 (Hu, 2007), it seems that Bourdieu’s (1991) theory did not come into full effect as observed by various scholars and educationalists.

Distinctively, the new government was more supportive in promoting mother-tongue education and restoring Chinese cultural identity than the British colonial government (Kan & Adamson, 2010). Regardless of the dramatic increase of CMI schools, many parents still perceived EMI schools as elite schools, a representation of reputation and pride (Chan, 2002). In addition, Hu (2007, p. 90) discloses that these parents worried about the unequal opportunity of accessing English schooling may “hurt their children’s self-pride, as a result of losing motivation for study”. More recently, a survey has reaffirmed the pessimistic attitude to mother-tongue education by identifying a mere 16% of Hong Kong people support the use of CMI in secondary schools (SCMP, as cited in Hu, 2007).

While English continues its legitimacy after the resumption of Chinese sovereignty, it is noticeable that society expresses different opinions towards the potential high language status of Mandarin. Similarly, there is not much literature review depicting the actual thoughts and feelings of Hong Kong people. Nevertheless, a recent survey conducted by the University of Hong Kong Social Sciences Centre (cited in South China Morning Post, 2015) has illustrated that the general community holds a positive view on using Mandarin in daily communication. Accordingly, 93% of 2049 respondents under 30 could speak Mandarin while 68% of them had a satisfactory level of proficiency in Mandarin. In the meantime, it is interesting that another survey (Chen, 2012) found the number of people describing themselves as “feeling proud of Mandarin” has dropped from 34% in 2006 to 29% in 2010. The above studies, to a certain extent, have generally summed up that Hong Kongers in the 21st century have contradictory viewpoints on Chinese languages despite seeming to be determined on recognizing their cultural and national identity.


In essence, this paper has put great efforts into demonstrating how language policies influence the intertwined variables (i.e., the language status and roles and the local people’s attitudes) of the three dominant languages: Cantonese, English and Mandarin in Hong Kong. Beyond doubt, English has successfully taken roots in society as an enduring high language since the era of British colonialism. Meanwhile, the enforcement of “biliterate and trilingual” education policies after the handover in 1997 also helped raise public awareness of the significant roles played by Cantonese and Mandarin. Notwithstanding these policies, the aforementioned discussion has unfortunately unveiled the fact that the mother-tongue Cantonese is frequently under threat when it comes to political influences and global economic demands. In that case, it is worth pondering over the feasible measures to be adopted if Cantonese is a symbol or representation of “Hong Konger”.


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Education Bureau. (2009). Diversified MOI arrangements to enrich language environment in schools [Press release]. Retrieved from P200905290241.htm

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13909027_10154244055576136_979705549306734021_o-1Wong Hei Yu (Hayley) is a fresh graduate in Language Education (Primary English) in the University of Hong Kong. Currently, she continues her professionalism in ELT as a Master’s student at the University of Warwick. In the past four years, she has been an active education practitioner, dedicating herself in supporting students’ English learning from primary to tertiary levels, researching, giving talks and workshops to over 20 schools in Hong Kong. She embraces all kinds of ELT-related topics, in particular motivation, ICT, school-based materials and underachievement. Recently, she has created ‘Hey YOU Blog’ ( sharing some useful ICT tools in ESL/EFL classrooms.


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