Language policy, Language Attitudes and Identity in Hong Kong
* Vian Yuen
The year 2017 has witnessed the 20th anniversary of the return of Hong Kong to Chinese Sovereignty. Over the past two decades, the education reform brought by the handover posed a great impact on the school curriculum and students’ learning. The biliterate and trilingual language policy, which aims to train Hong Kong students to be biliterate in Chinese and English and trilingual in both dialects of Chinese (Cantonese and Putonghua) and English, is particularly controversial. This paper examines the status and roles of Cantonese, Putonghua and English in colonial and postcolonial eras in Hong Kong. As the use of language is often intertwined with power relations and cultural identity construction, the link between people’s attitudes towards the three languages and their cultural identity construction will also be discussed.
Keywords: Language attitude, language policy, status of English
From a small fishing village to a world-famous cosmopolitan city, Hong Kong has experienced a series of dramatic changes in the past two centuries. This year, in particular, Hong Kong marks 20 years since its handover to China from Britain. It is noteworthy that the handover not only impacts on aspects such as economics and politics, but also education, especially the language policies. With critical political and cultural changes in the past few decades, the city has evolved into a more multilingual society, dominating by three major languages of Cantonese, English and Mandarin. Since language is not only a tool for communication and plays an important role in the construction of identity and affecting social power relations (Warschauer, 2000), the focus of this paper is to examine the status and roles of the three languages in Hong Kong society, and how people’s attitudes towards the languages can be linked to the pragmatic values of languages and cultural identity construction.
Language Policy & Community Response: from Diglossic to Biliterate Trilingual
- Colonial Period: Diglossic
As the majority of population was ethnic Chinese from Canton, Cantonese has been the dominant and socially preferred language in Hong Kong. The city, however, has never been monolingual as some people also spoke English and other dialects of the Chinese language such as Putonghua. By evaluating government census data dated from 1911 to 1991, Bacon-Shone & Bolton (1998) asserted that Hong Kong has always been a multilingual community, but Putonghua, the national language, was less influential compared to English and Cantonese in colonial period due to its little use in formal and informal contexts. Wright (2008) suggested diglossia existed in colonial Hong Kong because English was the only official language before 1974. It is noteworthy that the term ‘diglossia’ (Ferguson, 1959) instead of ‘bilingual’ is used here as English and Cantonese were used in different domains, with the former as the high variety and the later the low variety. Although Chinese also became an official language in 1974, there were significant differences in their functions. English can be deemed as high variety as it was used in official, political, and more importantly, in educational domains.
According to figures provided by the Education Department of Hong Kong (as cited in Tsui, 2004), before the handover, 94% of students were studying in English as the Medium of instruction (hereafter EMI) schools and only 6% of them were studying in Chinese as the Medium of Instruction (hereafter CMI) schools, despite the fact that Cantonese was their mother tongue. Although schools could choose MOI, the choice did not really exist as schools would not choose CMI when the British government kept its market value low (Tsui, 2007). Another example is that the first CMI university was only founded in 1964, after nearly one century of British rule. It is evident that the primary goal of British language policy was to sustain English-speaking colonial residents to serve British interests. Although there appeared to be some autonomy among schools in early 1990s when the Education Commission encouraged mother-tongue as MOI, schools showed little enthusiasm and remained EMI due to the economic value of English. Radical reshaping of language policies was only led by the return of Hong Kong in 1997.
- Post Colonial Period: Biliterate Trilingual
The most controversial language policy was the biliterate and trilingual language policy introduced in October 1997. The policy focused on training Hong Kong students to be biliterate in Chinese and English and trilingual in Cantonese, Putonghua, and English. Under this policy, ‘Mother tongue’ education was promoted and schools were not allowed to use EMI unless criteria set by the government were met. By 1998, only 114 out of 421 secondary schools were allowed to use EMI under the official ‘Guidance’ (Education Department, 1997). The government’s rationale was that Chinese, or Cantonese to be specific, would be pedagogically more effective for subject-area learning and for various measures of students’ cognitive and affective experience such as motivation and self-confidence. However, the public did not applaud this change in MOI at all. Many studies on community responses showed parents wanted EMI (Chan, 2002; Lai, 2005), businesses wanted EMI, principals at CMI schools feared loss of high-achieving students, and even parents who believed Chinese MOI aided children’s achievement planned to send children to EMI schools (Tsui, 2004).
In responses to this public demand, the subsequent ‘Fine-Tuning’ (Education Bureau, 2009) was released as a review on the policy, and gave suggestions for long-term language policy implementation. ‘Fine-tuning’ emphasized on the enhancement of students’ English, even though the ultimate goal of the language policy is to foster biliteracy and trilingualism focusing on mother-tongue education. On the other hand, being the national language, Putonghua was gaining more attention and became a subject in schools. In the past decade, using Putonghua instead of Cantonese to teach Chinese has become a popular school language policy among schools in Hong Kong (Gao, Leung, & Trent, 2010).
Years passed, the attitudes of different parties toward the biliterate and trilingual language policy remain unchanged even when there was evidence of improvement in students’ academic performance (Tsui, 2004). Obviously, pedagogical value is never the first concern when it comes to the decision of MOI. Interestingly, while the public have not been favorably inclined toward the policy and demand English MOI, their attitudes towards the uses of the three languages have been ambivalent as Cantonese is actually rated the most popular language in many studies (Chan, 2002; Lai, 2005). These attitudes are closely related to the pragmatic values of the languages and the cultural identity construction of Hongkongers.
‘Imagined’ Endangerment of Cantonese due to Increase Use of Putonghua and English
- Putonghua is Only Rated for Its Economic Value
The following table extracted from the 2016 Census Report (Census and Statistics Department of Hong Kong Government, 2016) shows the increase uses of English and Putonghua in current Hong Kong society between 2006 and 2016.
Table 1. Proportion of Population Aged 5 and Over by Able to Speak Selected Languages/ Dialects from 2006 to 2016
The figures of usual language seem to be insignificant as the decrease in Cantonese speakers ( 90.8% to 88.9%) and increases in English (2.8% to 4.3%) and Putonghua speakers (0.9% to 1.9%) were very small. However, regarding the three languages as another language, there was a small decline of total number of people speaking Cantonese (from 96.5% to 94.6%), while there are rapid growths in that of Putonghua (40.2% to 48.6%) and English(44.7% to 53.2%).
Some scholars pessimistically think such a sharp increase in the uses of English and Putonghua within a decade may eventually harm the status of Cantonese (Lee & Leung, 2012). However, the effect of MOI for one particular subject may not have such profound effect, given that the medium of assessment is still Cantonese and its instrumental value remains unchanged (Gao, Leung, & Trent, 2010). As reported by Gao, Leung, & Trent (2010), Chinese teachers found using Putonghua to teach Chinese unsustainable as students use either Cantonese (CMI schools) or English (EMI schools) to learn other subjects, and Cantonese is used in public examinations. Even the government departments questioned its sustainability. After evaluating the management of language fund, the Audit Commission challenged the effectiveness of using Putonghua to teach Chinese in schools and demanded evidence from Education Bureau before making it mandatory for all elementary and high schools in the city (Audit Commission of HKSAR, 2017).
Yet, merely looking at the increase in use of the languages is an effort misplaced. The perceptions of the speakers are of more importance in showing the status and roles of the language in society. By comparing the studies on the language attitudes of the first postcolonial generation (Lai, 2005) and the second (Lai, 2011), it is safe to conclude that the status of Putonghua is still very low in Hong Kong. Cantonese, the vernacular language, remained the most popular due to its instrumental value as local people use the languages in nearly all domains (Lai, 2005; Lai, 2011). Striking enough, despite the exceptional performance of China and the increase use of Putonghua, the national language is still rated the lowest by all groups of the second postcolonial generation (Lai, 2011).
A more recent survey done by Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at Chinese university of Hong Kong (2016) also echoes to Lai’s findings (2011) as the speakers are not attached to the language even though they use it. The majority of respondents (70.8%) said they were indifferent when using Putonghua. Also, over half (55.5%) of the respondents expected that Putonghua would not substitute Cantonese to become the most common spoken language in Hong Kong even after 20 years.
On the other hand, English is regarded as another threat as it still enjoys high status in society, and the reasons behind worth discussing.
- English as the Cultural Capital and Tool for Cultural Identity Construction
The scholarly explanations on the high status of English in postcolonial Hong Kong can be categorized to two major reasons. First, English still dominates the world and is a useful tool to communicate with other people amid globalisation. It is seen as language of commerce rather than simply the colonial language in the eye of pragmatic Hongkongers (Lai, 2005; Tsui, 2004). It is also deemed as desirable commodity, basis for competitive edge over other cities in the region, and the passport for children’s future success (Lai, 2005; Tsui, 2004). The attitudes are linked to the status implications of English proficiency in a colonial society (Chan, 2002; Lai, 2005), which can be explained by Bourdieu’s ideas of different forms of capital (1986). It is believed that once ‘English-the cultural capital-is acquired, it can lead to future success, thereby converting cultural capital to economic capital’ (Chan, 2002, p.278).
The second and more important reason, is that the language helps Hongkongers build their cultural identities. While most scholars suggested English is used by Hongkongers to distinguish themselves from Chinese (Chan, 2002; Lai, 2005), Tsui (2007) further pointed out that the construction of local identity started long before the handover, with Hong Kong leaning towards China at that time. The riots and the Protect the Diaoyutai Movement in the 1960s showed the city was trying to develop its local or even national identity, which alarmed the British government, as ‘defending Chinese sovereignty of the islands was symbolic of nationalism and anticolonialism’ (Lam, 2004, as cited in Tsui, 2007, p.129).
The colonial government responded to the social unrest in Hong Kong and tried to construct Hong Kong as ‘home’ by focusing on housing and education (Tsui, 2007). By the end of the 1970s, over half of the population lived in the public housing or government subsidized housing, while education was made universally available under the policy of compulsory primary education in 1971 (Tsui, 2007). Another example was the setting up of Independent Commission Against Corruption in 1974, which showed the government’s attempt to improve people’s livelihood (Tsui, 2007). Two other important events in the 1970s that Tsui (2007) did not mention, were the opening of Mass Transit Railway (MTR) in 1979, and the opening of the first McDonald’s, a world-famous fast-food chain, in 1975. Obviously, Hong Kong was having rapid economic growth, while the Chinese Cultural Revolution thrusted China into 10 years of turmoil. Such stark contrast between China and Hong Kong results in Hongkongers’ strong desire to distinguish themselves from Chinese from the 1970s onwards, and language becomes the most powerful identity marker. Instead of being a threat or simply the language imposed to Hong Kong to promote imperialism, English plays an important role, along with Cantonese, in the consolidation of the unique local identity.
In short, the endangerment of Cantonese due to the increase use of Putonghua and English, is only ‘imagined’, as least for now, when there is no significant language loss, nor need for the people in Hong Kong to sacrifice some part of their cultural identity, in order to share same social status as the majority group. Quite on the contrary, the spread of English and Putonghua aroused awareness of Hong Kong local culture and local language, and reaffirmed Hongkongers’ localness. As put by Lai, the language preferences show that ‘the postcolonial generation of Hong Kong still maintains a stronger local than national identity’ (Lai, 2011, p.261).
Before the handover in 1997, diglossia existed in Hong Kong with English being the high variety whereas Cantonese the low variety. Unlike other colonies that are eager to establish their national identity by adopting local language right after decolonization, Hongkongers did not welcome the biliterate and trilingual policy. Languages that are useful in daily lives and in maintaining global competitiveness, be they international, national or local, are used and learnt by Hongkongers. Strikingly, they may not have positive attitudes toward the language even though they use it. Hongkongers still highly value Cantonese and English, but not Putonghua despite the increasing prevalence of the national language. The attitudes can be linked to the status implications of English proficiency and Putonghua and the impact of those languages on the construction of their cultural identity. It is important to recognize language as a social, cultural and historical practice, rather than only a tool for communication. The government’s plans for language learning should not only emphasize on developing students’ skills and maintain Hong Kong’s competitiveness in the globe, but also address the issues of power and identity that comprise the cultural politics of language education.
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