Language Movements In Hong Kong Education Essay

Published: Last Edited:

This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.


  Hong Kong has undergone political and socio-economic realignment as well as linguistic changes in recent decades. Language shift is one of the linguistic switches which refers to the language choice used by community or individuals that changes in a systematic way. In some cases, indigenous languages can be swamped by intrusive ones over a relatively short period of time (Romaine, 2000). Besides, the right to use a particular language is closely tied to the legal status of the languages that the state recognizes (Cheung, 1997). Therefore, the language issues are often linked to social and political ideologies. In Hong Kong, only certain scope of language movements could be perceived in particular sectors. This essay will include some historical backgrounds related to political and socio-economic reasons which affect the language movements in Hong Kong. Therefore, the language shifts in political, economic and social sectors, as well as consequence of the shifts and implications for the language education in Hong Kong will be explicated.

Language movements in political sector

  In 1842, Hong Kong was ceded to Britain after the defeat in the Anglo-Chinese War. According to Cheung (1997), English was designated as the only official language of Hong Kong between 1842 and 1974. English had possessed a dominant status in the government administration, Legislative council and judicial court for more than 100 years. Chinese was not highly respected and only used by the majority of people in their private life. Moreover, the change of sovereignty and the urbanization by the British government aroused the national resentment since 1960s. There were outbreaks of civil riots and disturbances in Hong Kong between 1966 and 1967, striving for the legal status of Chinese. In order to appease the revolts, the Government appointed a Chinese Language Committee in 1970 to examine the use of Chinese in the Government administration (Cheung, 1997).

  Finally, Chinese became an official language and shared the same functions with English in the political sector in 1974. Chinese was fairly used in the meetings of the Legislative Council, Urban Council, Regional Council and the Districts Boards. Hong Kong was transmitted into a bilingual legal system since then. Additionally, the Article 9 of the Basic Law declared that "in addition to the Chinese Language, English may also be used as an official language by the executive authorities, legislature and judiciary of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region" (Cheung, 1997). It indicated that Cantonese has been becoming more important and the language movements in the political sector shifted from solely English to co-existing with Cantonese (Chinese). Although Mandarin was not nominated to be an official language in Hong Kong, it possessed its status in other sectors, which has affected the political ascendancy of English indirectly in recent years as it represented access to the power and elites in China (Wright and Kelly-Holmes, 1997).

Language movements in social sector

  After the Second World War, there were continuous upsurge of immigration from China since 1950s. The huge influx of refugee immigrants came to Hong Kong to seek job opportunities and shelters to settle. At that time, the local Cantonese speakers attained prestigious social status and advantages in the society. The immigrants immediately adapted their speech to meet the norms of urban metropolitan Cantonese in the territory afterwards (Bacon-Shone and Bolton, 2008). The language used by the immigrants was shifted from their indigenous dialects to Cantonese. Cantonese was widely used by the majority of people in their everyday life. The period from the 1960s to 1990s witnessed the rise of the modern Cantonese language, and its growing use in a wide range of public domains, including civil service, mass media, and entertainment industry in Hong Kong (Bacon-Shone and Bolton, 2008).

  The language choice of the immigrants was originated from how they would like to express themselves in the community. Thus, the native speakers of the Chinese dialects could choose to speak their own dialects or Cantonese with their compatriots. Taking my family as an example, my grandfather emigrated from the province of Hakka to Hong Kong in 1950s. In the early days, he only spoke and understood the Hakka dialect. In order to adapt to the norms of the society, life and cultures of Hong Kong, he learned to speak Cantonese. Moreover, his daughters, my mother and aunts learned to speak both Hakka and Cantonese. When come to me, the third generation of this family, I am able to speak both Cantonese and English as I learn the knowledge through education. However, I never understand any Hakka. In our daily conversation, my mother use Cantonese when communicating with my siblings and me. However, she would use Hakka sometimes to chat with my grandfather and my aunts. One can see the language shift in my family and it is a minor example in our society.

Language movements in business sector

  Since the mid-1980s, Hong Kong has evolved into an important world financial centre. The dominant economic activities in Hong Kong shifted from manufacturing industries to service industries since then (Li, 1999). English became more important in the business transactions because businessmen had to use English to communicate or trade with foreigners. However, Hong Kong suffered from the East Asian financial crisis in 1997 which seriously affected the economy of the Asian-Pacific region. There were worries about the falling standards of English in the business community because of the newly implementation of the language policy "trilingualism" and "bi-literacy". Therefore, various government-backed campaigns were set up to promote higher levels of English proficiency in business and professional sectors in HKSAR by 2000 (Bacon-Shone and Bolton, 2008). These campaigns mainly emphasized the enhancement of the English abilities of the junior staffs in the business sector of Hong Kong. For example, secretaries, receptionists and frontline service crew had to acquire certain standard of English proficiency. This indicated that English possessed prestigious and important status in the business affairs after 1997.

  After 2003, the environment for business in Hong Kong improved rapidly because of the economic recovery. The Central Government of the People's Republic of China implemented Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement with Hong Kong afterwards. Hong Kong became a legitimate financial services centre for China and was benefited from the boom in the Chinese economy. Therefore, not only English was regarded as the international business language, Putonghua also served as the lingua franca of business within China, Hong Kong and Taiwan as well as other overseas Chinese communities of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore (Bacon-Shone and Bolton, 2008). More importantly, the "Individual Visit Scheme" which was launched in 2003, led to an increasing population of Putonghua speakers in Hong Kong. The scheme strengthened the demand for the trilingual retail services in the business sector. The staffs had to acquire at least an ability to speak English and Putonghua as well as Cantonese. These showed that English and Putonghua were of equal importance and status in the business sector.

Consequence and implications for the language education in Hong Kong

   The language movements in the three sectors changed Hong Kong from diglossia to triglossia (Poon, 2000) in which English, Putonghua and Cantonese co-exist. Therefore, language education is required to fulfill the great demand for speakers who could acquire knowledge of the three languages. Since 1995, the Hong Kong government has been promoting an official language policy of "trilingualism" and "bi-literacy" to equip secondary school and university graduates with qualified and standard Cantonese, English and Putonghua (Bacon-Shone and Bolton, 2008). Before 1997, the majority of the secondary schools in Hong Kong used English as the medium of instruction. However, after the mandatory Mother Tongue Education Policy was adopted in 1997, the numbers of the EMI secondary schools were modified. Most of the secondary schools were forced to adopt Chinese as their medium of instruction. In 2009, a fine-tuning on the medium of instructions for the secondary schools was proposed due to various political and socio-economic factors (Education Bureau, 2009). There will no longer be any divisions between EMI schools and CMI schools. Moreover, students had to pass the two language subjects in the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination (HKCEE) and Hong Kong Advanced Level Examination (HKALE) if they wanted further education.

  Besides, as a result of the Mother Tongue Education Policy, Putonghua became a compulsory subject in all Primary and Secondary Schools in Hong Kong. It was also an elective subject for the HKCEE since 2000. According to Michael Tien, the Chairman of the Standing Committee on Language Education and Research (SCOLAR), commented that using Putonghua as a medium of instruction will eventually become a standard practice for schools to improve the Chinese writing skill of their students (translated by Chun-sang, 2007). From 2007 onwards, a maximum of 40 schools could join the Support Scheme of using Putonghua as the medium of instruction to teach Chinese Language every year, according to the study report conducted by the Education Bureau in 2008. Up to now, quite a large number of primary schools have adopted the use of Putonghua as the medium of instruction to teach Chinese Language while some secondary schools began to adopt this policy. The above reflects that English and Cantonese as well as Putonghua are equally influential and important in today's education.


  To conclude, Hong Kong has been passing through various language movements in the past few decades in political, social and business sectors. The language shift in Hong Kong is closely connected to her historical background and it directly affected the language education. The students should be equipped with standard English, Putonghua and Cantonese to adapt to the linguistic changes. Therefore, the need for the betterment of the language proficiency of the students should be highly emphasized so as to maintain Hong Kong as an international city politically, socially and financially.

Word Count: 1,608 words