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Use Cantonese as a tool to extend Hong Kong’s influence, academic urges

Chinese University linguist says better teaching of the native language is the vital first step in raising the city’s profile in Beijing’s trade initiative

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 May, 2017, 8:30pm
UPDATED : Monday, 25 June, 2018, 5:59pm

Cantonese needs to be properly taught at schools so the language can be harnessed as a soft power to extend Hong Kong’s world influence under the “One Belt, One Road” trade initiative, academics say.

Although 88.9 per cent of Hong Kong’s population speak Cantonese as their native tongue, most do not know the basics of the language, according to Professor Tang Sze-wing, a linguist at Chinese University.

“The government’s official language policy states that Hong Kong people should aim to be biliterate and trilingual, but the reality is that Cantonese [learning] is very much lagging behind English and Putonghua.”

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Tang said many Hongkongers at school were not taught the basics such as Cantonese romanisation and grammar, let alone the history and origins of the language.

“Learning a language is not only about your ability to communicate with others. We’re talking about learning the most basic knowledge of a language itself,” he said.

Cantonese, a phonetically complex Chinese language, is highly colloquial, making it difficult to learn as well as teach formally. There are no standardised Cantonese tests or certifications.

Tang said that such basic information should be incorporated into the Chinese curriculum from a young age, adding that it would be “too late” to learn it at university.

Tang, along with more than 100 scholars worldwide, recently took part in a symposium that looked at how Chinese languages could play a role in Beijing’s belt and road trading strategy along the modern maritime Silk Road.

The development plan, which aims to revive the ancient trade routes spanning 65 countries from China to Africa, should not only focus on economics and politics, Tang said.

“Even in doing business, what’s most important is learning how to communicate with each other. Hong Kong shares a lot of similarities in languages and culture with many places along the modern maritime Silk Road and Cantonese can be used as a tool to exert its global influence,” he said.

Cantonese is spoken by 62 million people worldwide, according to Ethnologue, a language data research centre.

Aside from Hong Kong, it is spoken as a native language in Guangzhou, Macau and Zhuhai, and commonly spoken in ethnic Chinese communities in Singapore, the United States and Canada.

Grace Mak Yan-yan, an associate professor at the university, said Cantonese could be as popular as Korean if the city put more resources into producing better television dramas, as well as cultivating budding directors and stars.

“The reason why Korean culture is so popular is due to the successes of their television dramas,” Mak said.

Television dramas and films from the 1980s and 90s had propelled Hong Kong stars into the international spotlight, but that momentum has been lost as neighbouring Asian cultures have gained prominence.

“If we try to think about popular and successful Hong Kong celebrities, we can only list Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Maggie Cheung Man-yuk. It’s hard to think of someone from a younger generation,” Mak said.