SOTY 2017: Language has the power to break down barriers, connect cultures, preserve history, and make us better people

It’s easy to take language for granted, but the three 2017 Student of the Year Linguist Award winners understand its importance

Nicola Chan |

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Christian thinks that parents forcing their children to learn english for the wrong reasons will make them lose interest in learning.

Mastering a language increases your understanding of the world, both by helping you better understand different cultures and allowing you to exchange ideas across borders. At least, that’s what the three 2017 Student of The Year Linguist Award winners believe.

Angel Chun Tsing-yiu (Cantonese), Christian Suen Chung-man (English), and Yuen Chu-ki (Mandarin) are all enthusiastic and gifted debaters, and share similar visions of using their language capabilities to make the world around them a better place.

“Parents nowadays look up to pure science way more than humanities and social science,” said Angel, adding that the decreasing attention and interest for the latter subjects is “alarming”.

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Furthermore, the bookworm and wordsmith has noticed less emphasis being placed on our city’s native language. “I am worried that the language will disappear in a few decades’ time,” she said.

Angel is worried about the future of Cantonese in the city.
Photo: Angel Chun Tsing-yiu

The 16-year-old said that, while it was her mother and maternal grandfather who helped cultivate her enthusiasm for Cantonese when she was four, her pivotal moment came when she was invited by famous local author Quenby Fung to write a prologue for her novel when she was in Form One.

“I was so surprised and honoured. That was one significant event that motivated me to further improve my Chinese,” said the Diocesan Girls’ School student. Angel said it saddened her to learn that less than three per cent of Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) candidates opted for Chinese Literature as one of their electives last year.

“Cantonese is an important language”, she stressed. “I hope to promote the beauty of Chinese language and literature to people around me … [and] tutor underprivileged children to improve their language … and debating skills.”

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English winner Christian, also 16, thinks that although Hong Kong is rapidly beginning to realise the importance of English, some parents are forcing their children to sign up for courses for all the wrong reasons, such as to make them more competitive in academic environments. “This results in kids slowly losing interest in the language,” he said.

Instead, the St Paul’s Co-educational College thinks language should be looked at as “the most important” thing when it comes to improving the world.

Deeply concerned about global issues, the Marketing Director of Hong Kong Model United Nations aspires to use the international language to raise awareness about social problems, including child trafficking and discrimination.

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“I hope to use my abilities in the language to reach a larger spectrum of people … in the world.”

Christian said his greatest achievement so far is coming third at the World Individual Debating and Public Speaking Championship in Cape Town, South Africa, in April this year.

“Being able to represent Hong Kong was a dream come true for me,” Christian said.

Chu-ki found language to be a medium where people can exchange ideas and culture.
Photo: Yuen Chu-ki

Similarly, 18-year-old Chu-ki found her experiences in the Jian Bian Cup Asian Debating Tournament in Malaysia over the past two years to be illuminating. It was there that the Heep Yunn School graduate learned about the effort Malaysians put in to protect Chinese culture, and the difficulties they have in finding opportunities to learn Mandarin. Since then, she is thankful for having had the chance to master the language.

“I was lucky to discover that via Mandarin, the common language [of the tournament participants], we could not only exchange our thoughts on different topics … but also become friends and exchange our cultures.”

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Chu-ki hopes, too, that more Hong Kong locals will put aside their negative stereotypes of mainlanders, which she believes affects their perception of the language. Instead, she thinks they should appreciate the incredible history and culture behind Mandarin.

“I wish to learn more languages as a starting point to studying the culture behind every place,” she said.

Edited by Ben Young