Cantonese can survive the march of Mandarin, but only as a mother tongue
- Since Mandarin is the national language, there is little incentive for anyone to learn Cantonese as a second
The use and ultimate fate of Cantonese has been – and will possibly continue to be – a perennial topic of discussion (“Are Cantonese-speaking Hongkongers at a disadvantage?”, October 25; “Beijing tells liaison office officials to improve their Cantonese”, October 30; “Why Mandarin and English should remain second languages”, October 24). Unlike most other singular national languages, speaking Chinese could mean speaking any one of a number of mutually unintelligible languages spoken in China: Mandarin and Cantonese among them.
Article 9 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law (“In addition to the Chinese language, English may also be used as an official language by the executive authorities, legislature and judiciary of the Hong Kong SAR”), does not specify any particular variety of Chinese. So our legislators could conduct their business using Hakka or any other language under the Chinese umbrella, should they wish to do so.
The mother/native language is not chosen by the speaker, but is learned from parents/relatives from early infancy. A second or third language can be chosen by the speaker and the choice is generally based on cultural or economic reasons.
Non-native English speakers will invariably choose English as their second language, and it is this that has given English its international status – not the high number of native English speakers, as many mistakenly think. When an Austrian meets a Zambian, it is very likely that they will converse in their second language: English.
Since Mandarin is the national language, I see little incentive for anyone to learn Cantonese as a second language. So, if Cantonese is to survive, it can only do so as a mother tongue.
Relocation within China was very much restricted in the past, but is now becoming relatively easier. This is resulting in more inter-provincial marriages and higher job mobility. Chinese parents with different mother languages are obviously much more likely to teach Mandarin to their school-age children.
While many of the Chinese languages/dialects are still very much alive and well and extensively used in their root provinces, as China opens up, both internally and externally, the use of Mandarin throughout the country must obviously increase, and as a result, will send the other Chinese languages on the path to decline. However, it will be several generations before they face complete obliteration.
P.K. Lee, Tung Chung