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.

Arts and Entertainment
Game Of Thrones
Uh-oh, winter is coming. Ouch, my eyes! Ygritte’s a goner. Lysa’s a goner. Tywin’s a goner. Look, a dragon
tvSpoiler warning: The British actor says viewers have 'not seen the last' of his character
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave long-running series
Esteban Cambiasso makes it 3-3
premier league
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
The Etihad Stadium, home of Manchester City
premier leaguePlus updates from Everton vs Palace
people'I hated him during those times'
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Heskey's aim has improved since the end of his English football career

Long after his career in English football has ended, Emile Heskey's impotency in front of goal remains an object of ridicule.

Dame Vivienne Westwood has been raging pretty much all of her life
peopleFirst memoir extracts show she 'felt pressured' into going out with the Sex Pistols manager
Arts and Entertainment
Lauryn Hill performing at the O2 Brixton Academy last night
musicSinger was more than 90 minutes late
Lewis Hamilton in action during the Singapore Grand Prix
Formula OneNico Rosberg retires after 14 laps
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: 'Time Heist' sees a darker side to Peter Capaldi's Doctor
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam