SOTY 2015: Masters of language

Winning Student of the Year Linguist award is about more than having a way with words; it's about finding your identity in Hong Kong's ever-changing, competitive environment

Ariel Conant |

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It takes talent to know how to turn a phrase or compose a brilliant piece of writing. And while linguistics at its core is - to quote Shakespeare - "words, words, words", those that master this field know that words carry deeper meaning. How you use those words can have a much bigger impact than most people think.

And when it comes to Student of the Year Linguists, the judges are looking for more than just words on a page. Professor and chairman of the Chinese University of Hong Kong's department of Linguistics and Modern Languages, Thomas Lee Hun-tak, is one of the judges on this year's SOTY Linguist panel. "I hope candidates this year will convey a spontaneity of thought, an effort to avoid cliches and be true to their own ideas and views on the world around them, a sensitivity to the subtleties of language, and some awareness of the great ideas of world civilisation," he says.

It seems like a lot to ask, but candidates have shown year on year that they are up to the challenge. Three SOTY Linguist titles are awarded, for English, Cantonese and Putonghua. Candidates can show their skills with word craft through many different media - short stories, books, speechwriting, debate, scripts and poetry are all accepted forms of writing for students to show the judges their mastery of their chosen language.

But Associate Professor at City University's Department of Linguistics and Translation, and SOTY Linguist judge this year, Dr Peppina Lee Po-lun, says that sometimes the range of choices and options can be overwhelming.

"The biggest challenge for students in Hong Kong right now is to find their own identities," she says. "Students nowadays are forced to make a lot of choices when they are still very young."

She says these choices and the pressure put on students can be daunting. "These decisions will drastically affect their future," she says. And nowhere is that more common than in the high-stakes environment of competitions. "Competitions in society and among peers are particularly fierce," she explains.

"To 'win' these competitions, students are under tremendous stress, which sometimes will make them feel helpless, confused and lose their identities."

That question of identity - especially in a linguistic sense - is something Thomas Lee sees as well. "The biggest challenge is a linguistic one: how to shape one's identity while having to work with three very different languages," he says. "Cantonese is the native language for the vast majority of students, Mandarin is the national standard language and English is an international language essential for survival and development in an increasingly globalised world."

And the choice to excel in one over the other can be a difficult one to make for students in a city like Hong Kong where the three languages are so important to different aspects of life. "These are questions students have to face when reflecting on what it means to be a young person growing up in Hong Kong," he says.

Both academics agree that students have much more pressure on them now - both academically and linguistically - than when they were students. "When I was a student, my biggest challenge was to get into university," laughs Peppina Lee. "Life was relatively simple at that time."

And in the end, while the expectations of the SOTY Linguist judges may seem like a tall order for students, Lee says that it all comes down to confidence in your own identity. "Believe in yourself," she says. "Show us that you are the future."