If Hong Kong wants to keep Cantonese alive, it must wake up to the sounds of it
- Some of the most precious features of Cantonese, such as its nine tones, are being lost due to a lack of emphasis on correct pronunciation in teaching
Probably one of the most polarising debates in Hong Kong is over whether Cantonese qualifies as a language and whether Mandarin should replace Cantonese as the language of teaching. But there’s one core problem with Cantonese advocacy in Hong Kong that almost every party neglects – phonics teaching.
Despite scholars in Hong Kong saying that Cantonese is irreplaceable on the grounds of its having inherited traditional vocabulary and tones, which makes studying Chinese literature easier, hardly anyone has mentioned the fact that schools spend little time on phonics. The way we learn Cantonese is perplexing – mimicking our teachers and everyone around us.
Almost every country teaches the phonics of their common tongue before reaching the level of literacy. The language we pride ourselves on is one of the hardest to learn, with nine tones. Because of the lack of phonics teaching in our education system, lazy pronunciation is becoming more common, slowly destroying the language most of us consider superior to Mandarin.
For example, the word “you” is supposed to be pronounced as “néi” instead of “léi”, like most of us do nowadays. We can totally blame the lack of proper language teaching for this phenomenon.
It is ludicrous that, while we always use the long history and cultural values of Cantonese as an argument against the advocacy of Mandarin in Hong Kong, we ourselves are not interested in educating our future generation on the correct way to speak the language.
Instead, we accuse people from the mainland of speaking accented Cantonese – even though many of us native speakers are not much better nowadays – and marginalise them for not using our language. If we are still dreaming of a Utopia where Cantonese will remain as it is forever, without added effort, then we will have no one to blame when the language ends up existing only in the history books.
It will be tough for students to take another subject or another subdivision of the current Chinese curriculum and the Education Bureau might need to shave off parts of the subject. However, political speeches aside, Cantonese is a fundamental part of Chinese literature. If the Education Bureau does care about teaching literacy in core subjects and if we do strongly believe in the preservation of our language, then we should start teaching Cantonese phonics in schools starting from Primary One: now.
Andy Lau, Tsuen Wan