Beijing urges Hongkongers to get better grasp of Putonghua
Jane Cai and Nora Tong
Hongkongers should brush up on their Putonghua to make the most of closer economic and social ties with the mainland, according to a draft landmark report by the Ministry of Education.
Citing a 2001 Hong Kong census, the report said fewer than 1 per cent of the city's 6.4 million people used Putonghua regularly. Cantonese was the mother tongue of 89.2 per cent of the population, while about 5.5 per cent of Hong Kong people spoke other Chinese dialects and 3.2 per cent expressed themselves in English.
The authors of the report said: 'The Putonghua skills of Hong Kong people must be improved to meet social needs.'
The report, released in Beijing yesterday for public comment, is the first by the ministry on the state of languages nationwide.
The authors conceded that Putonghua had been on the rise in recent years with Hong Kong's return to mainland, rising cross-border trade and the increasing number of mainland and Taiwanese visitors.
'Language has a very close connection with the development of cultural and economic ties. I've noticed all levels of Hong Kong people have formed a considerable interest in Putonghua. It's a good thing,' said Li Yuming, director of the ministry's language information administration department.
Mr Li also said Hong Kong had the right to decide which language to promote and he respected Cantonese, a dialect with 'intense cultural sensitivity' and the city's long-standing lingua franca.
'With about 900 characters and around 10,000 words, people can read 90 per cent of Chinese publications. Foreigners regard Chinese as difficult to learn but it should be relatively easy,' he said.
Caesar Lun Suen, an assistant professor at City University's department of Chinese, translation and linguistics, said he was not surprised that only 0.9 per cent of people in Hong Kong used Putonghua frequently. The language, used mainly in business and entertainment, had yet to penetrate into everyday life, he said.
He said that while elite local and international schools taught Chinese in Putonghua, there were too few Putonghua classes in the majority of schools - just one or two 35-minute sessions per week.