Multilingualism, language policy, and social diversity in Hong Kong


Hong Kong has undergone a dramatic metamorphosis from a tiny fishing port in 1842 to an international financial centre since the early 1990s. Alongside the economic, social, educational, and political developments, the linguistic landscape of Hong Kong has also changed over the decades from a monolingual community to a bilingual city, and finally to a multilingual global city. As multilingualism and social diversity are the two key features that mark this rich multilingual cosmopolitan financial hub, it is worth looking into the role played by the government’s language policy in these two realms. A his- torical-political-economic-social perspective is employed in viewing multilingualism, language policy, and social diversity in Hong Kong. An overview of the language situation as well as the socio-economic situation in Hong Kong will be provided prior to the discussion of multilingualism, language policy, and social diversity.

The sociolinguistics of Hong Kong

Of the 7.34 million residents in Hong Kong, the vast majority are ethnic Chinese, with foreign nationals comprising 8.6% of the population (Census and Statistics Department, 2016). The foreign nationals include three distinct groups of residents: (1) Indians (0.4%), Pakistanis (0.3%), and Nepalese (0.2%), who are permanent residents having been living in Hong Kong for several generations; (2) Filipinos (2.5%), Indonesians (2.2%), and Thais (0.2%), who are temporary residents mostly serving as domestic workers; (3) other nationals, for example, British (0.5%), Americans (0.2%), Australians (0.2%), Japanese (0.1%) and others (0.9%), who are temporary residents working in Hong Kong.

From the linguistic make-up of the population, it is apparent that multilingualism is a feature of the Hong Kong society. ‘Multilingualism’ is displayed at both the individual level and the societal level (Baker, 2006). Individual multilingualism is ‘usually voluntary and planned, and brings economic, educational and social advantages [...] a multilingual person mostly uses different languages for different purposes, and does not typically possess the same level or type of proficiency in each language’ (Baker & Jones, 1998, pp. 18—19). Cantonese, English, and Putonghua are the three majority languages spoken in Hong Kong, the evolutionary status of which will be elaborated subsequently. The majority of ethnic Chinese speak Cantonese as first language or usual spoken language, and approximately half of them can speak English and Putonghua as second or other languages. As for the foreign nationals, the majority of Indians, Pakistanis, and Nepalese speak one or more of their own languages (for example, an Indian may be able to speak both Punjabi as well as Hindi) as first languages or usual spoken languages, and English as another spoken language. The percentage of this group of foreign nationals able to speak (but not necessarily able to read and write) Cantonese/Putonghua as another spoken language is 34.2% (Indians), 62.3% (Pakistanis), and 43.4% (Nepalese) respectively. The language use for the foreign domestic helpers (including Filipinos, Indonesians, and Thais) in Hong Kong is quite different from that of the other groups of foreign nationals. Because of their working environment in local households, they need to use English and/or Cantonese more often than their mother tongues. That is why the majority of Filipinos claim to use English (82.2%) as their usual spoken language, and only 19.5% claim to use Cantonese/Putonghua as another spoken language. The majority of Indonesians (75.2%) and Thais (72.8%) report that they use Cantonese/ Putonghua as their usual language, and around 40% admit using English as another language. As for whites (80.7%) and others (including blacks and Latin Americans) (62.3%), English is their usual spoken language and less than one third claim to use Cantonese/Putonghua as another language.

Apart from individual multilingualism, societal multilingualism, which refers to the coexistence of three or more languages within a politically defined society, is typically found in Hong Kong. Chinese and English are the two official languages used in Hong Kong. The term ‘Chinese language’ is not defined in the Official Languages Ordinance (Hong Kong Government, 1974a) or the Basic Law (1997, June 30), a mini-constitution enacted by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1990 for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR), which has been in force since the handover of sovereignty from Britain to China in 1997. Chinese language as used in Hong Kong ‘means written Modern Standard Chinese and spoken Cantonese’ (Poon, 2010, p. 7). There is only one unanimously recognized form of written Chinese but the spoken forms of Chinese vary, from Putonghua and Mandarin, which are the national spoken languages in both mainland China and Taiwan, to Cantonese, which is a language widely used in two southern provinces in China and the Chinese diaspora, to numerous other Chinese varieties including Shanghainese. Hence, English, Cantonese, and Putonghua are the three majority languages spoken in Hong Kong’s society. Alongside the majority languages, other minority languages are widely spoken by the respective ethnic groups, including Filipinos, Indonesian, and Thai languages, the speakers of which amount to more than 370,000.

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