Some time ago, I came across the following quotation in a Washington Post review of a book about lost languages:
People will always educate their children in what they perceive as the power language. Success . . . means belonging to the elite; to belong to the elite you must speak the official and international language. As soon as they can, that is what even the most down-trodden of minority language speakers will aim at, for their children even more than for themselves.
This got me thinking about the linguistic situation in Hong Kong. Given that the language of power in Hong Kong was English for so many years, why is the English standard here so uneven at best, and why has it seemed to slip in recent years?
Was the sense of disconnect between colonial overlords and local population greater in the run-up to the handover than it was, say, 40 or 50 years ago? That's pretty unlikely.
Or was the impending handover enough to convince many people that English was passé, and that Mandarin was the wave of the future? Has the teaching of English in Hong Kong been cast aside in favor of teaching kids Mandarin? Well, there's certainly no disputing that in the 80s and early-to-mid 90s English in Hong Kong really was de-emphasized, instigated by the Government forcing many local secondary schools to switch to 'mother tongue instruction', usually over the vociferous protests of students and parents.
But have Hong Kong people really been following the Government's lead? Let's dig a little deeper into the overall assumptions being made, and then take a look at the current situation.
In fact, I've heard the basic argument-for-Mandarin-in-Hong-Kong made in many contexts, not just in terms of Government dictates. For example, you'll hear people say 'if you're moving to Hong Kong, forget about learning Cantonese -- really soon now it's gonna be all Mandarin'. Or: don't bother making sure your kids learn to speak fluent Cantonese; they should learn Mandarin as quickly as possible, since that's now the 'language of power' in Hong Kong. Or: the schools here in Hong Kong should treat Mandarin as the key second language all students must learn, and just offer English as an elective.
This suite of arguments, ironically, seems to be especially popular amongst expats in Hong Kong. Perhaps some of them buy into the 'China is the future economic colossus of the world' hype. Or maybe some like the sound of learning Mandarin because it's reputed to be both easier to learn than Cantonese, and also much more pleasant to the Western ear (can't confirm the first one; no doubt about it on the second). And I think at least a few expats (often those in the education field, again ironically) dismiss the importance of learning English in order to prove their 'multicultural' bona fides, i.e. to show that they wouldn't dream of 'imposing' their language on anybody else, because that's just not respectful of diversity, you know.
In any case, if the 'Mandarin Ascendant' argument holds true, then you'd expect to see a boom in Hong Kong people of all ages trying to learn Mandarin. You'd also think the pressure on kids to learn it in school would be especially intense.
And yet, witness: a couple of weekends ago, Mrs Tall and I took Daughter Tall to Metro City in Tseung Kwan O, in search of a beginning Mandarin class for her. She's now three years old, mostly fluent in Cantonese and English, and absolutely dotty for learning Mandarin. She's got a number of Mandarin VCDs and music CDs, and she just can't get enough of them. She's learned a bunch of Mandarin songs at her kindergarten, and sings them over and over. We figured, what the heck? Let's ride this wave while she sees it all as a funny, effortless game.
So around and around the lower reaches of Metro City we went. We must have checked out 15 or more tutorial centers offering classes and cramming and lessons for kids at all educational levels. Just about every single one of them had extensive lists of English classes, for ages starting from more or less birth on up. But can you guess how many we found offering Mandarin for kindergarten-aged kids?
We also searched a couple of other local malls and found no classes at all for Daughter Tall. In fairness, there were a couple of places offering Mandarin tuition for older kids, but none offered anything whatsoever for children at the age at which language learning is easiest and has the most long-term benefit.
In the end, we took Daughter Tall back to Metro City's lonely beacon of Mandarin Enlightenment for a free sample lesson. And can you guess how many children thronged that classroom? One. Just -- Daughter Tall. The single fee-paying youngster registered for the class was having a week off.
[Update: Guess who this mystery student turned out to be? The little boy Daughter Tall sits next to on her kindergarten bus every day! A bit freaky, this coincidence . . . ]
Anyway, Daughter Tall had a one-on-one tutorial. She loved it, incidentally, and we've registered her for the class. We also felt so bad about making the teacher do the whole thing just for us that we insisted on paying for the lesson. This also was eye-opening -- the fee was a grand total of HKD85 for an hour's tuition. This is much less than the going rate for English tuition.
So tell me: are Hong Kong people really converting to the Mandarin Way? I see little evidence that this is the case.
In fact, it seems to me the evidence shows a resurgence in English learning. Every local Hong Kong Chinese family with small children we know is pushing English usage relentlessly, sometimes to the extent that mom and dad -- i.e. native Cantonese speakers -- actually use English in their day-to-day communication at home in order to pound it into their youngsters as an almost-native language. And the evidence of the tutorial centres only supports this trend: Hong Kong people with children, at least, seem to be trying harder than ever to improve their kids' fluency in English. Mandarin seems to be a 'nice to have' bonus at best.
So even though Hong Kong's business connections with the mainland have exploded over the past 20 years, and our political futures are now one, I really wonder if the 'power language' transition has taken place, or for that matter is going to take place anytime soon. My guess is no.
Readers, any evidence to the contrary?