The Language Shift In Hong Kong Education Essay

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Hong Kong has been passing through political and sociolinguistic realignment in recent decades. Language shift is one of the linguistic changes. The behaviour of 'language shift' is the language choice of a speaker varies in a systematic way. The choice of language implicitly relates the interactants to the social group associated with each language. It may help speakers to symbolize their belongingness to a certain social group during verbal interaction. However, in Hong Kong, the shift of languages is not obvious and only some small-scale language movements could be observed in a few domains. This essay will cover the descriptions, backgrounds and reasons of language movements in political, social and business domains, as well as the consequence and implications for language education.

Language movements in political domain

Hong Kong had been politically separated from mainland China since 1842 until its sovereignty was returned from Britain to China in 1997 (Bacon-Shone and Bolton, 2008).

According to Cheung (1997), English was the only official language in Hong Kong during 1842 to 1974. English was exclusively dominant in government administration, law and Legislative council. Chinese was not recognized as an official language but it was used in daily communication by the majority of the population. There were some riots and disturbances fighting for the recognition of the status of Chinese in 1960s to early 1970s. Finally, in 1974, Cantonese became an official language, which served the same functions as English in politics-related domains, including meetings in the Legislative Council, Urban Council and the Districts Boards. Besides, from Article 9 of the Basic Law, "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 Administration Region", Cantonese has been gaining increasing importance since its return of sovereignty to China in 1997. (Cheung, 1997) It is rather consistently followed in recent years, indicating the prevailing language used in political sector shifts from solely English to co-existing with Cantonese.

Language movements in social domain

From 1950s onwards, there had been a huge influx of Chinese immigrants from China to find opportunities to work and settle in Hong Kong. (Bacon-Shone and Bolton, 2008) The local Cantonese-speaking people had a higher social status and prestigious advantage. As time goes by, the next generations shifted from their parents' native Chinese dialects to Cantonese. The change in their language choice derived from changes in how they wanted to present themselves in the society. Therefore, some of Chiu Chow may still speak Cantonese with other Chiu Chow people in Hong Kong.

For example, my grandparents were immigrants from Chiu Chow and they could only speak Chiu Chow (the heritage dialect) in early days. The process of language shift took place as they wanted to accommodate to local language and culture in Hong Kong. They learned Cantonese after a few months being in the new environment. Their daughter (the second generation), that was my mother, learned to speak Chiu Chow as well. After receiving further education, she acquired knowledge of spoken English and Cantonese. I, being the third generation of the family, also acquire my knowledge of English and Cantonese at school; but I know nothing about Chiu Chow. Neither my mother nor my grandmother taught me how to speak Chiu Chow in daily conversation. They speak Cantonese to me and to the shop keepers in the market. Yet, I notice that they sometimes speak Chiu Chow to each other when my grandmother cannot find any substitutes in Cantonese. That is what I can observe about the phenomenon of language shift in my family.

Language movements in business domain

As Hong Kong has evolved into an international financial centre in the mid-1980s, the major economic activities shifted from secondary production to tertiary production. The significance of English grew rapidly as the workers had to use English ['World Lingua Franca' (Li, 2007)] for meetings and trades with foreigners. Li (2008) stated that 79 percent of the total labour force was required to possess basic English communication skills, which could reflect the persisting prestige and prominent status of English after the return of sovereignty to China in 1997. However, with the implementation of Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA) by the Central People's Government in 2003, Putonghua has been used as the lingua franca for business meetings and trades with mainland businessmen. Moreover, the more recent implantation of 'Individual Visit Scheme' has been bringing more Putonghua speakers to travel in Hong Kong. The workers in tertiary sectors have to equip themselves with the ability to speak Putonghua in order to maximize their benefit from the scheme. This situation shows that English and Putonghua are now equally important in business sector.

Consequence and implications for language education

The language movements in political, social and business domains lead to a demand for fluent speakers of Cantonese, English and Putonghua. This implies an improvement/ enhancement is needed in education. According to Bacon-Shone and Bolton (2008), since 1995, 'biliteracy and trilingualism' has been the official language policy of the Hong Kong Government to equip secondary school and university graduates with reasonably high standard in Cantonese, English and Putonghua. Before that, there was a majority of EMI secondary schools in Hong Kong, while the majority of primary schools were CMI. The Government introduced a 'firm policy' for 'mother tongue education' in 1997 to modify the number of EMI secondary schools into a minority of schools in Hong Kong. Later, in 2009, a fine-tuning was proposed and there will be no separation of schools into CMI and EMI schools. In addition, before 2000, only the examination of Cantonese (Chinese Language) and English Language had been included in the syllabus of Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination (HKCEE) and Hong Kong Advanced Level Examination (HKALE).

In effective from 1998, Putonghua has been established as a compulsory school subject at all government-funded or subsidised schools in Hong Kong. It is also introduced in the HKCEE in 2000; however, it is only an elective for students who are interested in gaining recognition from the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority at the moment. A passing grade in both Chinese Language and English Language (excluding Putonghua) is compulsory for local candidates who want to pursue further education in Hong Kong at all time. That means, the importance of Putonghua is still being ignored by the examination-oriented atmosphere at present.

Moreover, a total number of 40 primary and secondary schools would be selected each year, and provided with funding so that they could use Putonghua as a medium of instruction to teach Chinese Language starting from 2007. (Chun-sang, 2007) Micheal Tien, the Chairman of the Standing Committee on Language Education and Research (SCOLAR), said that using Putonghua as a medium of instruction will eventually become a standard practice for schools which want to improve the Chinese writing skill of their students.


To summarize, Hong Kong has undergone a series of prominent language movements over the last few decades in political, social and business domains. These movements reflected the different expectations on language education and the need for betterment of the language ability of the current and future generations. Language shifts are dynamic and sometimes unnoticeable. Students in Hong Kong have to be equipped with the ability to adapt themselves to the latest conditions through proper language education so as to face the challenges ahead.