Twisting the tongue round the language of Peking

Hong Kong handover
Mr Huang has won the lottery - and he is very happy about it.

The grandfather is sitting on the sofa, as if he is asleep.

A group of 15 civil servants sit in a classroom on the 17th floor of a Hong Kong office block, alternately furrowing their brows and giggling at the difficulty of the sentences they are trying to read aloud. They repeat sentences after the teacher - and dissolve into confused laughter, as they stumble their way through. Can they ever learn to speak the language of Peking fluently?

This is just one of many classes in Mandarin Chinese organised all across Hong Kong. Almost every office has organised language classes for its employees. From Monday at midnight, Hong Kong will once more be part of China. Mainland China expects Hong Kongers to speak the language of the Chinese government. Any official who only speaks Cantonese - the local language of Hong Kong - can expect short shrift and no promotion, in the years to come.

In the words of one Hong Kong student of Mandarin, "People who come from Beijing don't like to learn Cantonese. So people from here have to learn putonghua [Mandarin]." There are precedents, of course. As one official noted: "We spoke English before. It's very normal that now we are expected to speak putonghua."

Certainly, the British have been famously reluctant to learn other languages. They assumed that the natives would learn the language of their rulers. In earlier days at least, they were impatient and contemptuous of anyone who failed to do so. They themselves thought nothing of living in a country for 20 or 30 years, and still being unable to communicate with locals in their native language.

New order, same rules. The Chinese from Peking are eager that the citizens of Hong Kong should speak the language of those who will now call the shots. The concept of putonghua ("common language") was introduced this century, as a means of creating linguistic unity. Peking has made plain its displeasure that the level of knowledge in Hong Kong is so low.

The result: a boom in Mandarin teaching on an unprecedented scale. Ten years ago, just a few hundred civil servants took Mandarin classes every year. By 1992, the number had tripled to a thousand a year. This year, it will be more than seven thousand.

Cantonese is sometimes described as a dialect. In reality, though the written characters used in Hong Kong and in mainland China are (roughly) identical, the difference between the spoken languages is more than just a matter of pronunciation and usage. The civil servants wrestling with Mr Huang's lottery win and with the grandfather on the sofa find the sentences as difficult as a Briton stumbling through a German course, or a French person grappling with Portuguese.

Officials argue that there are good local reasons for speaking Mandarin - police officers helping Mandarin-speaking citizens in distress, for example. But they acknowledge that the most important reason for the increased demand is the need to communicate with officials from mainland China.

Despite the politics, many Hong Kongers are happy to learn the new language. Sin Kam-wah, a policeman studying Mandarin, argues that learning putonghua is not like learning an alien language: "Hong Kong is part of China - and the national language is putonghua. It's only natural to learn this main language." Steven Shum, from the civil engineering department, is delighted that at last he will be able to communicate with his fellow- Chinese. "I feel ashamed that Chinese people can't communicate with each other. Before, we couldn't speak putonghua - and Hong Kong was excluded, in those days."

Chinese officials are now frequently attached to government departments in Hong Kong, to inspect the local mechanisms. It is generally assumed that, despite the "two systems" pledge, Hong Kong will gradually be moulded in the image of the mainland. But, language differences notwithstanding, the traffic may prove to be two-way. One civil servant notes that the mainland Chinese seconded to his department are rarely allowed to stay in Hong Kong for long. "Beijing doesn't want them to pick up the virus [of democracy]." If that begins to happen, the Communist authorities in Peking may wish that the language barrier had stayed in place.