Why Cantonese Matters

I wrote this essay a few years ago when I was attending a course about languages in Europe in college. I chose to write about Catalonia and its language, Catalan, simply because the situation the language is facing is similar to what Cantonese (the language I speak) is facing. Two years later, Cantonese is facing other threats again. I thought it would be a good time to review the essay and add updates.

Historical and Geographical contextualization

First, for those of you who are not familiar with Hong Kong, here is a brief introduction. After the 1984 agreement between Great Britain and China regarding the return of sovereignty of Hong Kong in 1997, the status of Chinese language was questioned. “Diglossa” was already a phenomenon in the pre-handover period, with English functioning as the “high” language. So (2009) argued that Hong Kong is subjected to the phenomenon of “superposed bilingualism”, meaning that the bilingual situation was not a natural outcome, but rather imposed by colonization.

Before the handover, in 1974, Chinese was made a co-official language alongside English but was not able to compete with it, as English was the only official language for over 130 years. The status of English was always higher than that of Chinese even though it was made the co-official language.

In the late 1990s, the two language underwent a transition period. The use of English was still prevalent, but was not perceived as a colonial language anymore, it was perceived as an international language due to the increasing use of it. The way Hong Kong citizens perceive Chinese had changed as well, as Hong Kong was emerging to be the financial center. Hong Kong citizens feel the urge to express their local identity through culture and language.

Language in Hong Kong: From “superposed bilingualism” to “bilingualism”

The main languages used nowadays in Hong Kong are Cantonese and English. The phenomenon of diglossia does apply to Hong Kong, with Cantonese in the low domain concerning day-to-day communication, English in the high domain concerning other formal context such as government administration (Simpson, 2007, 174–175). With the changing economic situation and globalization, the demand for learning English continue to increase. English was no longer superimposed to citizens, but rather a preferred choice to enhance their competitiveness (Poon, 2004, 55).

Language policy in Hong Kong

The use of language in Hong Kong is mixed with the use of Chinese (the written) and English. Cantonese (the spoken) is our mother tongue, which we can speak, read and write fluently. English is also crucial in Hong Kong community as Hong Kong is a financial center in Asia, and English is the most prominent language used worldwide. Therefore, learning English at school is also a government priority.

Although Chinese and English are both prominently used in Hong Kong, they are used in different contexts. For instance, Chinese serves the role of the teaching language in education, whereas English is also a major language. In the past when Hong Kong was occupied by the British, English used to be the sole language in terms of public context, including government administration and international relations. Simpson (2007) then argued that Chinese and English are in complementary existence.

Language and identity in Hong Kong

The identity of Hong Kong is closely associated with the language spoken, Cantonese. Cantonese is the most prominent language used in Hong Kong, consisting 98 per cent of the overall population in Hong Kong.

Although there are a lot of immigrants who came to settle in Hong Kong from the mainland, they were mostly from Canton, so their ability to speak Cantonese is promising, fostering Cantonese to be the lingua franca in Chinese dialects (Simpson, 2007, 174).

An update from 2017:

What seem to be happening is that the future of Cantonese is under threat. With the increase of mainland newcomers and the change of education policy, Mandarin seem to be taking over. Except English and Cantonese, Mandarin became the newcomer that continues to gain power through infiltrating into our education. Currently, Cantonese is still widely used in our daily communication. What I see is a community that is proud of its mother tongue and would relentlessly defend Cantonese at all cost.

Will Mandarin eventually replace Cantonese? It’s highly unlikely. At least not in Hong Kong.


Poon, Anita Y.K. “Language Policy of Hong Kong: Its Impact on Language Education and Language Use in Post-handover Hong Kong.” Journal of Taiwan Normal University: Humanities and Social Sciences 49.1 (2004): 53–74. Print.

Simpson, Andrew. Language and National Identity in Asia. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.

So, Daniel W.c. “Implementing Mother‐tongue Education amidst Societal Transition from Diglossia to Triglossia in Hong Kong.” Language and Education 3.1 (2009): 29-44. Print.

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