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American professor speaks up for Cantonese to preserve Hong Kong’s heritage

Robert Bauer from HKU is writing a Cantonese-English dictionary that will include colloquial terms, believing language represents culture

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 May, 2017, 12:05pm
UPDATED : Monday, 25 June, 2018, 5:57pm

For many locals in Hong Kong, the decline of Cantonese amid the rise of Putonghua – the unifying speech of mainland China – is inevitable.

Surprisingly, an American living in the city has taken it upon himself to preserve Cantonese.

Professor Robert Bauer, a fluent speaker of Cantonese, said he believed Hong Kong’s predominant tongue would die out “in another couple of generations” if the present trend continued.

Bauer did not think many Hongkongers were concerned about upholding Cantonese.

“As far as the future of Cantonese is concerned, I have to say I’m not very optimistic,” he said. “There are economic, social, educational and political pressures. The situation may be beyond saving.”

In his efforts, Bauer is compiling a Hong Kong Cantonese-English Comprehensive Dictionary.

The honorary professor in linguistics at the University of Hong Kong is determined to record what in his view represents a significant part of the city’s culture.

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“It’s not just a language, it’s everything that’s tied up with it – the knowledge, the history, the culture,” he claimed. “Languages encode certain kinds of knowledge and those pieces of knowledge are not recognised in other languages, so if the language dies out, that knowledge is also lost.”

“The South China Morning Post has mentioned several times that Cantonese was put on a list of items of intangible cultural heritage. If it’s put on a list like that, that means something’s bad – its situation is becoming dire or endangered. That’s a warning to us.”

Languages encode certain kinds of knowledge ... so if the language dies out, that knowledge is also lost
Professor Robert Bauer

Bauer is keen on his version being different to traditional dictionaries and instead a reference point for daily life. That means beyond just standard Cantonese heard on news programmes, it will include colloquial terms used every day on the streets of Hong Kong.

“I’m trying to document the culture, the society through the language,” he explained.

“I want to be as helpful as possible. I want people to be able to turn to it to get the information they want.”

With Cantonese constantly evolving, Bauer is always on his toes, looking for the newest colloquialisms. He said buying Chinese-language newspapers has helped him keep updated on Cantonese trends.

Bauer first started learning Cantonese in 1974 as an exchange student in Taiwan from the US. He later decided that, if he was to improve his Cantonese, Hong Kong would be the place to do it.

In 1997, just before the city’s handover from British to Chinese sovereignty, he relocated permanently.

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Things have changed considerably since then. Bauer said he was acutely aware of the shift from Cantonese to Putonghua, especially in terms of educating the younger generation.

“Basically, the government ignores Cantonese,” he said. “A few years ago, the Education Bureau produced a video to teach Putonghua. In this video, a beautiful young lady is the Putonghua teacher, and Cantonese interference is depicted as this evil devil. I thought: ‘this is terrible!’ There’s no attempt made to encourage children to keep both languages.”

For his efforts, HKU nominated Bauer for the Post’s Spirit of Hong Kong Awards in the Cultural Preservation category. His work in documenting Cantonese goes a long way in making it accessible to English speakers.