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September 25, 2017

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Cantonese increasingly bows to Mandarin in HK

Hong Kong--At the age of 10, Hong Kong student Miranda Lam can hold a conversation and write in both English and Mandarin Chinese. But ask her to speak to her grandmother and she shakes her head. "I don't know what she says sometimes," she says.

Her grandmother speaks Cantonese, Hong Kong's official language. But Miranda's parents — both Cantonese speakers themselves — have chosen to limit the time they speak it at home. Instead, they talk to Miranda mainly in English and Mandarin, to improve her chances of attending an international school.

To linguists, Miranda's struggle to speak her mother tongue is a worrying indication of how Cantonese may be under threat in Hong Kong from the spread of Mandarin, the official language of mainland China. "It is difficult to calculate the timing but in the medium- to long-term, Cantonese is an endangered language" in Hong Kong, said Stephen Matthews, an associate professor in linguistics at the University of Hong Kong.

"It might survive for 50 years or so but after 50 years, it will still exist but it may well be on its way out." Cantonese is the language of the streets, courts and the Legislative Council in the city of 7.1 million people. Although its written form shares the same roots as Mandarin, it differs in pronunciation and grammar which, according to linguists, makes it a distinct language rather than dialect.

Matthews, who has lived in Hong Kong for 20 years, believes the threat to Cantonese comes from current policies and changing attitudes towards Mandarin, also known as Putonghua, since the territory was handed back to China by Britain in 1997.

"Putonghua was pretty much invisible in the early 1990s," he said. "Before the handover a number of friends and students would say 'I don't want to learn Putonghua. I'm not interested.'"

"But then around the time of the handover they said 'Maybe we should start learning Putonghua.' They were talking about it. Now, of course, everyone is doing it." Matthews believes one significant factor is that schools have begun switching from Cantonese to Mandarin for the teaching of Chinese literacy, a move that improves students' Mandarin but which appears to have a detrimental effect on their Cantonese.

More than 160 primary schools are currently using Mandarin in Chinese language lessons after a government policy encouraging a switch from Cantonese was introduced in 2003. Then there are the students like Miranda who are sent to international schools. "Their Cantonese is suffering. It is undergoing attrition," said Matthews, using a technical term for the process by which people lose their native language.

Another factor influencing the shift is the rising flow of mainland visitors, whose numbers have soared since cross-border travel was made easier in recent years. In response, shops, restaurants and hotels are increasing their use of Mandarin.

The move has angered some and earlier this month a group staged a demonstration outside clothing chain Giordano after it began using the simplified Chinese characters used in mainland China, rather than the traditional characters understood by Cantonese speakers.

Thomas Lee, professor of linguistics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, is less pessimistic and believes Cantonese is "still very much alive." But he warned it needed to remain in use in mainstream education to avoid becoming marginalized, pointing to the decline of Shanghainese — now reckoned to be spoken by less than 50 percent of people in China's second city — as an example of how dialects and languages can decline in a matter of generations.

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