Can you truly understand Hong Kong if you don’t speak Cantonese?
Uptick in local language study enrolment points to desire for greater social understanding
It wasn’t until Jonathan Ma began learning Cantonese intensively that he realised how crucial it was for understanding Hong Kong culture.
Ma, a 33-year-old English teacher, was born locally but moved to the United Kingdom when he was a child. Although he grew up travelling between the two territories and speaking basic Cantonese, he never received formal education in the language – until he moved to Hong Kong and decided to enrol in private courses two years ago.
The impetus behind his decision was simple: he wanted to stay in the city in the long run, and integrate himself into the community.
Ma is among the people contributing to an apparent renewed interest in learning Cantonese, according to local language course providers.
Although there hasn’t been extensive research conducted on the popularity of Cantonese courses in relation to other programmes, teachers say that interest in the language has picked up in recent years.
One such programme is the Yale-China Chinese Language Centre at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, which runs various Cantonese courses. Total enrolment for Cantonese programmes grew by about 30 per cent from 1,508 in 2010 to 1,918 last year.
This trend is also seen at Q Language. The learning centre has seen a 60 per cent increase in students learning Cantonese from 2010 to last year. Students range from 25 to 45 years old, and take an average of 120 hours of lessons.
At Hong Kong Language School, the number of Cantonese students also more than doubled from 132 in 2010 to 311 last year. The majority of students take classes for social rather than professional reasons.
“Mandarin is still much more popular due to the demand from local employers. However, Cantonese has still been rising with no signs of any change,” Q Language director Stuart McCutcheon said.
About 30 per cent of students are ethnically Chinese but were raised overseas, 20 per cent are local expats looking to study basic Cantonese and 20 per cent are expats or job seekers from other Asian countries, he said.
Despite the demand, Cantonese is a difficult language to learn as well as teach. Since spoken Cantonese and written Chinese differ vastly, educators must grapple with whether to teach spoken or written first.
In addition to being phonetically complex, highly colloquial and nuanced, Cantonese also does not have a standard qualification system. There are currently no standardised Cantonese tests or certifications, leaving individual programmes and centres to create and offer their own.
Branda Kwong, a Cantonese teacher at Hong Kong Language School, said that although there are romanization systems used across the board by teachers, there are no standard textbooks and teaching methods can vary drastically.
“I created my own teaching structure. Hong Kong people don’t learn Cantonese, just speak it. When we go to school, we then learn to translate our Cantonese into (written) Chinese,” Kwong said, who uses a textbook that the school created to teach her students.
“This is different from English and Mandarin. If your student doesn’t know how to speak Cantonese, it’s unsuitable to teach them how to write.”
Aside from studying, effectively practising with locals can also be a challenge for students, Kwong said. Hongkongers might reply in English when you speak to them in Cantonese because they want to make sure they understood you correctly, or because they themselves want to practise English, she explained.
“If you can’t be persistent, then you won’t get a chance to practise,” Kwong said. “If you have enough confidence to continue speaking in Cantonese, then they will too. You have to persevere.”
While Hong Kong is a city where many speak English or Mandarin, Cantonese dominates the local language scene.
Some argue that those who are not proficient in Cantonese can feel isolated from local culture, and find it difficult to establish relationships with the many locals who cannot speak the language that they do.
Not having Cantonese not only limits their social circle but also their ability to understand issues that are important to Hongkongers and to integrate themselves into local communities.
Aya Kazama, a 33-year-old expat from Japan who has lived in Hong Kong for four years, began learning Cantonese in March and struggles most with pronunciation.
“Everyone speaks English. (But) normally I’m the only one who is a foreigner,” Kazama said, referring to her workplace. “If they start chatting and getting excited, they forget about me and start talking in Cantonese. I thought it would be better to have some knowledge.”
Ma also said he valued understanding what was being said around him.
“Just to understand what people are saying around me, that’s everything. If I don’t understand ... I feel like a fool,” Ma said, adding that learning Cantonese also helped him better understand local politics and social issues.
“One feels isolated from society if you don’t have the ability to communicate with the wider community. If you live here longer, every single person should (take) the opportunity and motivation to learn Cantonese.”
In recent years, the Cantonese language has become a topic of contention following the rise of localism – a pro-democracy political movement that advocates greater autonomy for Hong Kong and the preservation of local culture.
The Education Bureau’s proposal in February to adopt simplified Chinese characters and emphasise the study of Mandarin in local schools, as well as broadcasting station TVB’s decision to use simplified characters in the subtitles of its Mandarin newscasts, drew widespread criticism.