Wednesday, May 16, 2012, 00:00

Decline of Cantonese

By Simon Parry

Decline of Cantonese

Decline of Cantonese

Decline of Cantonese

Decline of Cantonese

Decline of Cantonese

The warning in the essay by linguistics student Tsui Wa-han was simple, stark and alarming. Hong Kong, it said, is facing a cultural disaster if it allows its native tongue, Cantonese, to die out.

If Cantonese becomes extinct, some of our cultural heritage would follow suit, Tsui wrote. Cantonese opera would die, the essay predicted, and beautiful, idiosyncratic expressions such as falling flowers at night hiding the moon from sight from the opera Princess of Flowers would be lost forever.

Tsuis essay was one of a collection submitted by Chinese University students last week on a subject that, to an outsider exposed to the constant chatter and banter of daily Hong Kong life, seems almost unimaginable: The potential death of the Cantonese language.

Behind the noise of millions of voices, however, the reality may be that Cantonese is under threat. The growing influence of Mandarin has put the Hong Kong language into a situation where, one linguistics expert believes, it could die out in a matter of generations.

Stephen Matthews, associate professor in linguistics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who assigned the essays on the future of Cantonese to his students, believes the language could one day soon be as endangered as the Hakka and Chiu Chow languages that today are barely spoken in Hong Kong.

If you had asked me in 1997, I would have said that over the long term, Cantonese is probably an endangered language, said Matthews. 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.

Basically, I still hold to that (prediction). It is difficult to calculate the timing but in the medium to long-term, Cantonese is an endangered language.

Concerns over whether Cantonese would remain Hong Kongs lingua-franca first surfaced at around the time of the handover. Since then, said Matthews, who has lived in Hong Kong for 20 years, a slow but steady change in peoples attitudes to Mandarin had taken place.

After the handover, it seemed that not very much had happened, but in fact there was subtle change going on in a number of ways, he said. Putonghua was pretty much invisible in the early 1990s. The only way I could hear any Putonghua was get up at 6 am to watch a 10-minute news bulletin. That was pretty much it.

One could easily live in Hong Kong without hearing any Putonghua at all. That gradually changed as more programmes became available and you would hear more Putonghua on the radio. It has gradually changed.

Before the handover a number of friends and students would say I dont want to learn Putonghua, Im 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.

The role of English hasnt changed a great deal in my experience. It still has its functions. It is roughly the same. But the balance between Cantonese and Putonghua is changing. In the last few years, its begun to shift in policy terms as well so the main one I see as important is involving the teaching of Chinese literacy in local schools.

One significant factor is that schools in Hong Kong have begun switching from Cantonese to Mandarin for the teaching of Chinese literacy a move that improves students ability in Mandarin but which appears to have a detrimental effect on the use of Cantonese both inside and outside the classroom.

I had a Masters student teaching in a primary school and she did a thesis on this, said Matthews. She was teaching at exactly the time they did the shift. She compared the year when the cohort had their Chinese teaching in Cantonese with the following cohort who had their teaching in Putonghua.

She found there were a number of subtle differences. For instance, the children started using Putonghua in the playground to speak to each other, which was previously unheard of. She also did survey of languages at home and found there was more Putonghua used in the childs home.

Again, that is shifting the balance. There is less Cantonese in the childrens lives and more Putonghua.

Then there are the students sent to international schools by their parents. Their Cantonese is suffering. It is undergoing attrition, said Matthews, using a technical term for the process by which people lose their native language.

Children grow up speaking Cantonese as small children then effectively switch to English when they go to an international school and their Cantonese becomes less fluent, he said. They can still talk Cantonese but the development of Cantonese is arrested and they begin to lose it. If that progresses, their children will not speak Cantonese.

So does it matter if Cantonese slowly disappears? According to Matthews, the effects will be far-reaching both culturally and socially placing Hong Kong today at a historic linguistic crossroads that Matthews fears people may be unaware of until it is too late.

Culturally, Cantonese is an ancient language with roots in old Chinese. Tang Dynasty poetry written 1,500 years ago is said to sound better when studied in Cantonese rather than Mandarin as Cantonese is closer to the language spoken at that time.

Socially, the effect of language loss can be profound within families. There may well be a stage where children cant speak to their grandparents, Matthews said.

If you have grandparents who are monolingual Cantonese speakers and their grandchildren speak Mandarin and English, they wont be able to talk to their grandparents which is unfortunate. We have seen that happen in other language shift situations. It generally happens over three generations.

In addition, any language has an associated culture. I would say any language has an associated literature although it might be odd to talk about Cantonese literature but there is some. Major dialects have their own opera traditions.

With the Chiu Chow dialect, for instance, once widely used in parts of Hong Kong, operas in the dialect can now only be performed by visiting troupes from the mainland where the language is still spoken.

Fast forward a few years and young people may be uncomfortable preforming in Cantonese and you might lose the whole Cantonese opera tradition. That would be a major loss of culture regardless of whether you enjoy it or not.

Although it is sometimes referred to as a dialect rather than a language because it shares a common written form with Mandarin, Matthews says Cantonese is in fact a distinct language.

You can write in Cantonese, he pointed out. Nobody is ever taught to write in Cantonese but all our students can do it.

Written Cantonese is used for a number of informal purposes and it is completely incomprehensible to mainland people. So the argument that Cantonese is a dialect because it shared the same written language is basically a complicated myth.

Currently, with the proliferation of Canto-pop and the lingering influence of Cantonese cinema, the language seems strong but Matthews believes its apparent vitality may disguise an underlying decline.

If we take the case of pop songs, all the time Ive been here Canto-pop has been mingled with Mandarin pop, he said. That could easily shift to the point where Cantonese become an unusual choice and Mandarin becomes the usual choice. That reverse could take place quite quickly.

The shift from Cantonese to Mandarin, Matthews believes, has so far been subtle but steady. You have to extrapolate from the trends to see Cantonese as an endangered language, he said.

Language shift takes generations, so it depends what children are growing up with and the fact is that increasing numbers of children are growing up with Cantonese not being their main language. That is the warning we recognise from studying language shift elsewhere in the world.

Professor Thomas Lee, head of the linguistics division at the University of Hong Kong, said he did not believe Cantonese was dying out but warned it needed to remain in use in mainstream education to avoid it becoming marginalized in future.

If we look at the present state of Cantonese I would not say it is endangered, he said. If you look at what is called language vitality things like the proportion of speakers and crucially the extent of its use in important social domains like the political arena and courts Cantonese is still very much alive and a strong language.

I think Cantonese is going to remain strong. The head of the SAR has to speak Cantonese. Our elections favor Cantonese. In LegCo proceedings, a lot of major figures who didnt speak in Cantonese before 1997 have switched to Cantonese. Role models are speaking Cantonese. If you go to magistrates courts a very high percentage of proceedings are conducted in Cantonese.

However, he said, the decline of Shanghainese now reckoned to be spoken by less than 50 percent of people in Chinas second largest city demonstrated how dialects and languages could decline in a matter of generations, Lee said.

In Shanghai, I would really say there is endangerment, he said. If you are not speaking the dialect at home, it is very dangerous. In Guangzhou too I have seen some figures saying the percentage of Cantonese speakers may have dropped to around 50 percent.

Some linguists were very much concerned over the switch to Mandarin in Chinese teaching in Hong Kong schools. Lee said while he appreciated the benefits of the approach, education officials should consider implementing the switch in higher levels only rather than all levels of schools.

For a language to really thrive and develop in all its creative dimensions, it requires not just home use, he said. It requires use in literature and cultural arts and all the complicated domains of language use.

Lee said he was concerned the Hong Kong government might follow the underlying assumptions of the central government policy about multilingualism and the idea that it was economically and socially preferable to have a single, unifying language.

Ultimately, these are political decisions, but I hope the government can help promote the vitality of the language by having a good education policy and enhancing the awareness in the community of the importance of dialect and how it can contribute to cultural diversity and richness in Hong Kong, he said.

Assessing the overall state of health of Cantonese in Hong Kong, Lee said: Right now, it is okay. If you go by all the indicators, I dont see a problem. But Shanghai is a very good example for us. Dialects can disappear very quickly, in a few generations, and once you are on that path, it is very hard to reverse the trend.

A spokeswoman for the Education Bureau told the China Daily government statistics indicated Cantonese use had remained stable in the past decade with 89 percent of Hong Kong people still using it as their usual language last year the same level as in 2001.

Initiatives by the Standing Committee on Language Education and Research, a government advisory body set up in 1996, included the promotion of proper Cantonese pronunciation, the promotion of Putonghua and an English Alliance aimed at raising students interest in language learning, she said.

The Hong Kong SAR government strives to enable Hong Kong people, in particular students and working adults, become bi-literate in written Chinese and English and trilingual in Cantonese, Putonghua and spoken English, the spokeswoman said.

Why Cantonese matters

Chinese University students last week spelled out why Cantonese matters to them and what they thought the effect of losing their native language might be.

Here is what two students had to say in essays assigned by linguistics expert Stephen Matthews:

If Cantonese becomes extinct, unique Cantonese expressions such as a gloomy face, to connive and free, will be lost. It is difficult to translate Cantonese into other languages without change in its intrinsic meaning.

These variations among languages give colors to the world and avoid homogeneity. The Language Garden Analogy by (Ofelia) Garcia suggests that it would be boring to see all flowers are of the same one color in all gardens when travelling around the world; varieties of shapes, sizes and colors of flowers enrich our visual and aesthetic experience. Like ecological diversity, linguistic diversity contributes to an interesting and colorful world. Wu Kin-fai

The death of Cantonese may cause the decline of the cultural identity of Hong Kong people. A regions language is used in ceremonies and (the passing on of) myths and folklore. Once the language is lost, ceremonies, myths and other elements of our culture will also be lost. For example, pop songs in Cantonese like Under the Lion Rock, TV programmes, and even colloquial expressions like playing unfairly to ones own advantage will be lost as well as our sing-song intonation. Unnamed Student