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English language usage in Hong Kong


wushijiao
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While Putonghua may have a structural advantage in the Cantonese-speaking areas of Guangdong, it seems that English is threatening the status of Cantonese in HK.

I had always presumed that speaking to your child in your native tongue was the most natural thing in the world. Apparently not everyone thinks so.

When we held a birthday party for our two-year-old daughter several months ago, I had a bit of a shock.

The first sign came when a four-year-old Chinese boy looked annoyed and frustrated when I asked in Cantonese what snacks he would like from the table.

“No, no, no!” he yelled in English. His mother promptly translated what I said into English.

This baffled me. The boy was born and bred here in Hong Kong, and his parents are both native speakers of the dominant Cantonese dialect, but they speak to their children only in their less-than-perfect English.

It turned out they have a simple reason: They want their children to get into a prestigious international school.

From a NYT editorial by Verna Yu:

What are your opinions on this? How widespread is this in HK?

I have one friend , who is actually a HK government official, and he speaks to his two daughters in English, as described in this article. The funny thing is, as far as politics, he's a fairly conservative in HK terms and he's very pro-Beijing on most issues. He's a very smart person in general, and to a large extent, it's none of my business to comment on how other people raise their children. So, although I understand where's he's coming from, I just find something slightly unsettling about speaking to one's children and raising one's children in English. (Although to be fair to HK, this same sort of pressure pops up elsewhere in Asia...ie. Indonesia).

Does anyone have thoughts on this? Given that English and Mandarin will both be important languages in the future of HK, what type of schools might you send your children to, if you were a parent in HK?

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Maybe it's just an upper-class phenomenon?

I think that's probably right...

Another one of my friends, born and raised in HK, went to an English medium school and then college in Australia. She's worked in HK for years, has a good career, speaks Cantonese, but is 100% illiterate in Chinese. Although it's a bit different, I've met quite a few HK-born people whose parents emigrated in the 1990's and then they were educated in the US or Canada, and now they're back with white collar jobs. They speak basic Cantonese, but are illiterate.

When looking at this, my first gut reaction is too be a bit disgusted, since people in similar situations have re-learned written Chinese to full fluency (ie. Gato). How can these people understand their Chinese heritage as 文盲's, especially since Chinese culture places so much value on the written text? Also, how can they understand a lot of the common discourse in their communities? But on the other hand, it also seems that Cantonese isn't 100% necessary for getting many good jobs, so maybe these parents aren't making a bad decision, purely from a practical point of view.

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What are your opinions on this? How widespread is this in HK?

It is true that Hong Kong parents like to expose their children to English at an early age, but usually not at the expense of Cantonese as the article implies. In fact I think the article is very exaggerated and alarmist, as the author suggests herself. I can understand that the parents want the author to speak English in that particular situation, as their children have probably no or only little contact with English native speakers (or near native speakers). So the author's presence at the party is a rare opportunity.

...it seems that English is threatening the status of Cantonese in HK.

I don't think so. Hong Kong people have considered English as "better" than Cantonese when it comes to business and professional work for a very long time. However, during the last 10 years the level of English in the general population has been slowly declining (in both quality and quantity of speakers).

For example English was the "usual" language of only 2.8% of Hong Kong's population in 2006 (down from 3.1% in 1996), and I am sure it is even less now. See: http://www.censtatd.gov.hk/hong_kong_statistics/statistical_tables/index.jsp?charsetID=1&tableID=140

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I just find something slightly unsettling about speaking to one's children and raising one's children in English.

Absolutely agree. There is nothing wrong to raise one's children bilingually, however if only raise in English alone, just far too short-sighted. One may be losing one's culture heritage in few generations.

HK Chief Executive Donald Tsang's English is supposedly better than his Cantonese. Is that true?

Many would seriously doubt it. From the pronunciation of his Cantonese and English, there is no question that his English is not as good as his native Cantonese.

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Good points sebhk.

Perhaps some parents may feel, however, that they want their children to learn Mandarin (for getting jobs) and English (for jobs and education), and they will naturally learn Cantonese while living in HK, and therefore, it's not too important to emphasize Cantonese. :conf

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A friend of mine, whose parents are south-american + Chinese, told me that he and his Chinese wife spoke to his 3-year old daughter in English only. And the girl learns Spanish from her grandma, as my friend having been raised in HK has lost almost all his Spanish. I asked him if he would let his daughter learn to speak Cantonese, he said he had no doubt the girl would pick up Cantonese eventually. All he worried about was that she could not speak English well enough. He had no comments re Spanish.

Just a case that I have come across.

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I don't know.

On the one hand, I do think that it's a great shame to lose contact to the language and culture of your parents. I'm not as outraged as some here, but I've met a number of people who identified strongly with their heritage, but only had a basic command of the language. I've always found it a bit sad.

On the other hand, I've seen and experienced first-hand the advantages that having good spoken and written English can have on every aspect of one's life. It opens doors you wouldn't believe. It adds 100% to every application, every article, every sentence you make. Every argument you make is more convincing. English is by far the most important language in the world, and it will only become more important in the future.

If I were raising a kid, it would learn English as the first language. Everything else would be just a secondary consideration. Bilingual, trilingual, sure, all great, but English first and foremost.

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I would put a higher priority on whatever the prevalent local language is that the kid needs to fit in socially. Would a kid who doesn't speak Cantonese well have difficulty fitting in in Hong Kong? Maybe not at expat schools, but I think it would be a problem at a local school.

If I were to raise a kid in the mainland, I would put a first priority on Mandarin, Mandarin being the most prevalent language for school age kids in most large mainland cities nowadays. Maybe a lot of others feel the same way, for in Shanghai, you see a lot of Shanghainese parents speaking to each other in Shanghainese and their kid in Mandarin. English can wait until the kid has a basic command of the local language. You don't need to learn English as a baby to be able to use it fluently.

As for parents who have broken English but still insist on speaking to their kids in English, they run the risk of having their kids be incompetent in both English and the local language.

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As a new parent, my priorities are kind of reversed. I'm convinced that English is "easy" to learn, as (1) it's taught in schools almost all over the world (2) it's a prestige language AND the language of pop culture, so motivation is not an issue, and (3) you don't even need to socialize with native English speakers, most people speak English as a second language anyway.

On the other hand, I can't even imagine growing up without being able to communicate with my own father in his native language. Being a parent is already hard enough without creating a language barrier that has no reason to exist in the first place.

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I don't think that good control of English precludes good control of your mother tongue.

Perhaps my position is too coloured by my own experiences, but as soon as you move out of the place you grew up in, good English is the most important skill you have, regardless of the situation. Good English makes your life easier and better, bad English makes your life hell. It will get you a job, it will get you a degree and it will double your salary.

It's somewhat unfortunate, but it's true.

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I have also noticed a similar phenomenon in the tug of war between Mandarin and local Chinese dialects. Once I met a couple on bus with their son, some ten years old I guess, four or five years ago. Her mother said, with a touch of complacency, that they exposed the kid mostly to Mandarin, and that the boy couldn’t speak our local dialect or even understand it; what was most embarrassing is that, the boy communicated poorly with his grandparents due to his illiteracy of the dialect. The couple might have a practical view; the kid’s mastery of Mandarin would get him a good job, make him appear more attractive or educated, or even help him win a good wife. Such calculations are fully understandable and justified. However, while a more powerful language gives someone benefits, it also has its downsides. If one is denied communication in his local tongue in his early years, over time, it would become increasingly difficult for him to identify with his root. He may, almost assuredly, lose lots of otherwise happy time when he is with his family members and close relatives; this is most saddening.

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The same phenomenon in the Jewish community in which I grew up. Parents more interested in assimilating their children into the American mainstream didn't teach children any Hebrew, Yiddish, Jewish customs and so forth. The children of course have now grown up to be independent adults and have absolutely no interest in their roots because they never knew their roots and have no use for their roots. The opposite phenomenon in the Amish community where I student taught. Parents weren't interested in assimilating their children into the American mainstream. At home they learn the German dialect of the Amish, Amish customs, and culture, the students that I had are now grown up and continuing to speak the German dialect, although they speak good English when dealing with the "outside" world.

The desire to assimilate can be very powerful once the parents set their minds on assimilation. Or blending in.

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There is this belief that in order to assimilate you have to shut out the "other" language. Many educators subscribe to this idea, and have zero tolerance for any deviation (like a trace of a foreign accent in a child's speech) that in fact is probably a normal part of bilingual development. Parents give credence to these theories and think that in order for a child to speak good English, you have to cut off all other language inputs.

I've never seen any evidence that this is necessary, let alone useful. By limiting your interaction with your child to what is a second language to you, IMHO you might even delay his development.

Gato makes a good point about majority languages that are useful to fit in. Frankly my impression is that nobody has a stronger drive to fit in than children and teenagers. If most of their friends speak English, they will pick up English with the same accent and speech habits of the others in less time than you can say "Jack and Jill".

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Frankly my impression is that nobody has a stronger drive to fit in than children and teenagers. If most of their friends speak English' date=' they will pick up English with the same accent and speech habits of the others in less time than you can say "Jack and Jill".[/quote']

This is exactly why my friend thinks that it is not necessary to teach her daughter Cantonese as when she grows older and goes to school in HK, she will just pick up Cantonese. Thus he and his wife talk to the girl in English.

PS - This may also be the reason why the parent in post #1 talk to the kid in English.

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The same phenomenon in the Jewish community in which I grew up. Parents more interested in assimilating their children into the American mainstream didn't teach children any Hebrew, Yiddish, Jewish customs and so forth. The children of course have now grown up to be independent adults and have absolutely no interest in their roots because they never knew their roots and have no use for their roots.

My grandfather and grandmother on my dad's side are fluent in Yiddish, but my dad can't speak a word. I was brought up in a religiously observant household, but the language never got passed down. Kind of unfortunate, if you ask me.

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Here is a related article.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/26/world/asia/26indo.html

As English Spreads, Indonesians Fear for Their Language

By NORIMITSU ONISHI

Published: July 25, 2010

It is a sight often seen in this city’s malls on weekends: Indonesian parents addressing their children in sometimes halting English, followed by nannies using what English words they know.

But Della Raymena Jovanka, 30, a mother of two preschoolers, has developed misgivings. Her son Fathiy, 4, attended an English play group and was enrolled in a kindergarten focusing on English; Ms. Jovanka allowed him to watch only English TV programs.

The result was that her son responded to his parents only in English and had difficulties with Indonesian. Ms. Jovanka was considering sending her son to a regular public school next year. But friends and relatives were pressing her to choose a private school so that her son could become fluent in English.

Asked whether she would rather have her son become fluent in English or Indonesian, Ms. Jovanka said, “To be honest, English. But this can become a big problem in his socialization. He’s Indonesian. He lives in Indonesia. If he can’t communicate with people, it’ll be a big problem.”

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This is exactly why my friend thinks that it is not necessary to teach her daughter Cantonese as when she grows older and goes to school in HK, she will just pick up Cantonese. Thus he and his wife talk to the girl in English.

PS - This may also be the reason why the parent in post #1 talk to the kid in English.

Yes, I can certainly understand how parents might have this type of thinking.

As for parents who have broken English but still insist on speaking to their kids in English, they run the risk of having their kids be incompetent in both English and the local language.

I wonder if this is true, however. If a child were to go to an international school with many native speakers of English, he or she would learn English as much from them as s/he would from the school itself. In fact, in some ways, being a member of a certain language community (in which you play games, tease people, gossip, tell jokes...etc) is probably one of the most valuable aspects of learning a language that can't easily be replicated in textbooks.

Certainly, the pressures the Renzhe speaks of to learn English are probably just as acute in Asia as in other parts of Europe.

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Another solution might be to have each parent (or grandparent) teach the child the language that he or she is best competent to teach in the early years, regardless what the local language is. If neither parent's best language is the same as the local language, then they might just rely on the local schools and their child's peers to teach the language.

This is looking at it from the teaching competence perspective. It seems a bit odd not teaching your kid the language you are most comfortable with.

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