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.

Life and Style
The new Windows 10 Start Menu
More than 90 years of car history are coming to an end with the abolition of the paper car-tax disc
newsThis and other facts you never knew about the paper circle - completely obsolete today
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey
comedyFirst national survey reveals Britain’s comedic tastes
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Sheeran performs at his Amazon Front Row event on Tuesday 30 September
musicHe spotted PM at private gig
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Mystery man: Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in '‘Gone Girl'
films... by the director David Fincher
Arts and Entertainment
Hilary North's 'How My Life Has Changed', 2001
books(and not a Buzzfeed article in sight)
Kim Jong Un gives field guidance during his inspection of the Korean People's Army (KPA) Naval Unit 167
newsSouth Korean reports suggest rumours of a coup were unfounded
people'I’d rather have Fred and Rose West quote my characters on childcare'
Life and Style
stoptober... when the patch, gum and cold turkey had all faied
Bruce Chatwin's novel 'On the Black Hill' was set at The Vision Farm
travelOne of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
Arts and Entertainment
Gay and OK: a scene from 'Pride'
filmsUS film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
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

Welsh Year 6 Teacher required in Barry

£100 - £110 per day + Plus travel scheme: Randstad Education Cardiff: The Job:...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Welsh Teacher Year 2 required in Caerphilly

£100 - £105 per day + plus Travel Scheme: Randstad Education Cardiff: The Job:...

Year 4 Teacher

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Would you like to work in ...

Day In a Page

Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?