Power language

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?


its all about the central govt....

I think the typical Asian mind is to get ahead in life, well certainly no different to other cultures.
Being an Australian Chinese and being brought up to believe so strongly in democracy (whatever the hell that means anyways) I think that it is like Big Brother secretly infiltrating the population to make the people assimilate.

I refuse to learn Mandarin on the basis that I love my dual identity, and that it was Cantonese I learnt and not Mandarin. If you want to learn Mandarin for future prospects for jobs or education, then by all means do so, but I will stand my ground and speak one of the ethnic language that makes Hong Kong, well, Hong Kong, and that's Cantonese. And that's how it should stay.

A couple of years back I went to mainland China in particular SZ for a holiday, and the person at the GZMTR ticket booth could speak perfect Cantonese, but reverted to Mandarin as soon as on 'Goon On' (police) was present. What do u make of that?

Power language

There's a fascinating article in the current New Yorker profiling a charismatic English teacher in mainland China, Li Yang. It's a non-stop commentary on the interplay of language and power.

First, Li Yang's stated philosophy: “Conquer English to Make China Stronger!”

Then, a couple of key quotations:

China has been in the grip of “English fever,” as the phenomenon is known in Chinese, for more than a decade. A vast national appetite has elevated English to something more than a language: it is not simply a tool but a defining measure of life’s potential. China today is divided by class, opportunity, and power, but one of its few unifying beliefs—something shared by waiters, politicians, intellectuals, tycoons—is the power of English. Every college freshman must meet a minimal level of English comprehension, and it’s the only foreign language tested. English has become an ideology, a force strong enough to remake your résumé, attract a spouse, or catapult you out of a village. Linguists estimate the number of Chinese now studying or speaking English at between two hundred million and three hundred and fifty million, a figure that’s on the order of the population of the United States.


Li’s real power, though, derives from a genuinely inspiring axiom, one that he embodies: the gap between the English-speaking world and the non-English-speaking world is so profound that any act of hard work or sacrifice is worth the effort.

Definitely worth a read.


I totally agree with 'Australian Chinese' about Hong Kong's Cantonese identity. I am originally from British Hong Kong and feel very strongly that the Hong Kong identity was a unique amalgamation of British and Cantonese heritage, not necessarily Chinese and definitely not Mandarin.

For the above reason, I also refuse to learn Mandarin.


Don't know about you but some of the children I know who are speaking/learning Putongwa actually have parents who are already fluent and so don't need to send them to school to learn.

My next door neighbour is a perfect example. She was born in DongGuan and moved to HK when she married her HK born husband 7 years ago. She speaks Cantonese, Putongwa and Hakka and makes a point of spending a couple of days a week speaking nothing but Putongwa to her two children. The eldest is 6 years old and already he is fluent, although obviously his first language is Cantonese.

Also, almost every opportunity they have, the children go back to the mainland over summer and school holidays to stay with the grandparents and speak Putongwa all the time. 

I think it's pretty

I think it's pretty ridiculous that some people refuse to learn Mandarin because you're afraid it's going to "take away" your ethnic identity. Let me ask you, did learning English take away you identity?

As a Taiwanese, I'm proud that I can speak my native Taiwanese language, however, I'm also proud that I can speak Mandarin and communicate with other Chinese people.

Trust me, learning Mandarin will only add to your ethnic identity, not take anything away.

Learning Mandarin

I too am an Australian Chinese (born in HK and raised in Australia). I think there are many factors coming into play here. Firstly, the emphasis on English as a power language may be because English is the language of the hard hitters of the business world in recent times. Despite the fact that China and India are now leading the way this has not changed people's perceptions about prestige and power. For example, whenever I buy anything from China I have to convert the price they offer not from Chinese 'yuan' but from the US dollar.

Secondly, (and this may seem a bit convoluted) there may be a historical reason for Hong Kong and Chinese people to see English as the power language. Chinese people as a whole have a collective memory of being oppressed by the West (if you don't know what I'm talking about have a look on wiki about the opium wars or better yet go to the HK museum to have a look at their great displays). I think that the British did some really great things for the people of Hong Kong - but that doesn't mean they were equals and like most colonies there were elements of oppression and segregation.

Because of this history, the English speaking people (being mostly the English or in some cases Chinese who spoke English) held the power in their society for as long as most of the living people in Hong Kong society today can remember. For a group of people that have been disempowered to take on the people who were seen as more powerful and prestigious on their terms is a very liberating thing. Hong Kong people are proud of their mixed British and Chinese heritage that makes them uniquely them. However, the social collective memory of colonial occupation has influenced people's thoughts on what is the 'power language'. The power langauge is the language of the people who rule society, and for a very long time in Hong Kong these were the people who spoke English. Coming into play as well is the general derision by Hong Kong people of the mainland. For Hong Kong people, the need to distinguish themselves from the mainland was very important as the mainland was seen as poor, backwater and not sophisticated.

Times are changing, but some (like some of the commentators here) feel a very strong need to hold onto an identity that was forged out of those unique circumstances.

Thirdly, a lot of concepts, ideas and information out there are in English. English speaking countries have been very successful in exporting their concepts and ideas and broadcasting information to the world in their own language. By creating and controlling these words, ideas and concepts they set the language of power. As a side note, in many languages new words are approximation of the English word and normally recognisable as ‘foreign’ by the native speaker. However in English, absorption of new words from other languages and cultures is not as noticeable as English is really just a mish mash of different languages to begin with! Perhaps its success is that it is both an organic and universal language.

I hope that actually made sense.

Learning Mandarin

Just a couple of quick comments:

1. Mandarin is very close to Cantonese. A typical Cantonese-speaking person should be able to learn Mandarin 'naturally' without going through special tutoring, i.e.,  through movies, songs, TV, and direct communication with Mandarin-speaking people. This is different from learning English which is a completely  different language from Cantonese. Perhaps this is one of the reasons for the lacking of Mandarin class in HK.

2. 'From Australia' is probably a little bit too sensitive with the case of a 'Kong On' stopped by and the GZMTR person switching to Mandarin. It is most likely be the case that the 'Kung On' is not a Cantonese speaker, and out of politeness the GAMTR person switched to Mandarin. Cantonese is alive and well in Guangzhou and other Cantonese-speaking area in China. I don't think the Chinese government has a sinister plan in mind to stamp out Cantonese. There are numerous Cantonese TV and radio stations in Guangdong and other Cantonese-speaking regions in China. 

3.  I do not believe learning a new language would  somehow reduce one's own identity.

I'm a native Cantonese speaker. I also speak English and Mandarin, and in different capacities, Japanese, Spanish, and French. 


On a Cantonese speaker to learn Mandaron/Putonghua

Hi there,

I tend to differ.  Yes, we share the written language but the speaking dialect are not.  We southeners, especially Cantonese speakers usually defy the Government's instructions to speak Putonghua unless it is absolutely necessary.

Cantonese is an ancient dialect, which could be dated back beyong the Tang Dynasty.   It used to be the language of the ruling class slightly more than 1,000 years ago.   IMHO Cantonese and Putonghua are two totally different system.  In general for Putonghua what you speak is what you write, but for Cantonese it is not the case.  Some Cantonese words or phrases just might not have the respective modern written word to represent it.

There are other things.  For Cantonese we do not have to [curl-up] our collective tongues to spit out the words where as Putonghua, there are quite a few of those words or phrases that requires special gymastics movements of our tongues.  These are killers to most Cantonese speakers. 

My 2 cents,


On a Cantonese learning Mandarin

I agree that there are differences between Mandarin and Cantonese. My main point is that it is much easier for a Cantonese speaker to learn to speak Madarin than English. 

Most of my friends are able to learn enough to communicate with a Mandarin speaker very quickly without dedicated class/training although in different capacities for all who has the oppurtunity to immerge in the language.

I can cite other examples. Many migrant workers to Guangdong eventually pick up enough Cantonese without any special training.

As for myself, I was born in Toishan and spoke Toishanese only until I was six. I moved to Guangzhou at 6 and quickly learned to speak Cantonese (in less than 6 months?).  One reason is probably age, but anthor reason is the similarity between Toishanese and Cantonese.

So personally, for a person who speaks one dialect of Chinese, learning to speak a different one is much easier than learning a totally different language, i.e., English.


Re: On a Cantonese learning Mandarin

Hi there,

The only advantage for a Cantonese to learn Mandarin is that basically the Chinese written language is more or less the same.  Otherwise it is two very different verbal systems.

Best Regards,


'The only advantage for

'The only advantage for a Cantonese to learn Mandarin is that basically the Chinese written language is more or less the same'

But this is a huge advantage. This is more than 50% of the effort to learn a new language: a Cantonese speaker already knows how to read and write Mandarin, he or she just need to learn to speak.

On the verbal side, Canotonese speaker also will be albe to perceive the Mandarin tonal difference much more easily. Try to ask, say, an English-only speaker to tell the dfferences of the four Mandarin tones is very very hard. This is not so for a Cantonese speaker, as Cantones itself is tonal and our ears are already trained to perceve it. Another simulality is the mono-syllabic nature of Chinese characters which is a shared feature of all Chinese languages.

There are many differences between Cantonese and Mandarinl. However, The difference between Cantonese and Mandarin is much smaller than the difference between Cantonese and English.


Re: Written Chinese, Tonal difference.... et. al

Hi there,

If the written language is considered as well then I have to admit the Chinese language is probably among the most difficult languages ever.

Considering the tonal difference, Cantonese has 9 tonal references.  The Chiu Chau dialect, has 13 tonal references.........

Best Regards,


Chinese language

Computers seem to help a lot. I've seen teenagers in China textingChinese just as fast as English.