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Cantonese in Hong Kong: Not the official language?

Hong Kong’s Education Bureau has caused a furore last month by claiming on their website that Cantonese is just a “Chinese dialect” and “not an official language” of Hong Kong. According to them:

Although the Basic Law stipulates that Chinese and English are the two official languages in Hong Kong, nearly 97 per cent of the local population learn Cantonese (a Chinese dialect that is not an official language) as their commonly used daily language.

This has, undoubtedly, led to outrage in Hong Kong, where the overwhelming majority speaks Cantonese as their mother tongue and in their daily life. The Education Bureau apologies shortly afterwards, and took the relevant text off their website. Many people have already make good arguments on why Cantonese is not just a dialect, and I am not going to repeat them here.

I just want to do some math here, and present a simple line of logic. The law says that “Chinese and English” are Hong Kong’s official languages, but there is no rule about verbal language, such as Cantonese. If, however, as the Education Bureau claims, Cantonese is just a “dialect” and “not an official language,” what is Hong Kong’s official verbal Chinese language? Could that be Mandarin?

Let’s look at a few numbers. According to the Hong Kong government and its 2011 census, almost 90 percent of the Hong Kong population uses Cantonese as their usual language (meaning the primary language they use in daily setting); 3.2 percent of population speaks English; 5.5 percent speaks Chinese “dialects” other than Cantonese and Mandarin. How many people speaks Mandarin as their usual language? A mere 0.9 percent of the population. That is not to say that Mandarin is not important. However, I find it totally unconvincing to try to argue for a language spoken by just 0.9 percent of the population as the official language, while the one spoken by 90 percent is not.

Well, you may say, Hong Kong is a metropolis, so it should not be surprising that there are many Westerns who speak English as their first language. But if we narrow down and look only at the ethnic Chinese population (not necessarily legally Chinese, but people with Chinese origins, including American Chinese, etc.) in Hong Kong, we will see that Mandarin is still spoken by just a tiny fraction of ethnic Chinese.

We can further break down the ethnic Chinese population by their duration of residence in Hong Kong.

There we have more interesting findings. We see that the longer these ethnic Chinese lived in Hong Kong, the more likely they speak Cantonese as their usual language. Almost 95 percent of the ethnic Chinese population who have lived in Hong Kong for more than 10 years speak Cantonese as their usual language. While this does not necessarily mean that living in Hong Kong causes non-Cantonese speaking Chinese to speak Cantonese, I would argue that this is probably a persuasive story.

What may be worrying, however, is whether the future newcomers to Hong Kong would still be willing to learn Cantonese as the previous generations. In 2011, although almost 60 percent of the newcomers speaks Cantonese as their usual language, around 20 percent (the figure may be even higher in 2014) speaks Mandarin, which by no means is a small fraction. These people may easily stay within their comfort zone and speak only Mandarin with their Mandarin-speaking friends, and after a few years they may find that they still cannot speak Cantonese or make friends with the locals. In a decade later, Hong Kong may be split into two linguistic circles, and this is a ticking time bomb to our community cohesion in this political era.

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