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Politica e lingue

HONG KONG LEARNS THE LANGUAGE OF ITS ONCE AND FUTURE MASTER

HONG KONG LEARNS THE LANGUAGE OF ITS ONCE AND FUTURE MASTER
BY TED ANTHONY=

HONG KONG (AP) _ MANNING THE ABACUS IN THE WAH FUNG BARBECUE SHOP, ENCIRCLED BY HANGING SMOKED SAUSAGES, ENORMOUS ROASTED PIGS AND THE GUTTURAL SOUNDS OF CANTONESE, LEUNG HING-LAU MAKES A PRONOUNCEMENT.
HONG KONG’S PEOPLE, HE DECLARES, SHOULD LEARN MANDARIN, THE LINGUA FRANCA OF MAINLAND CHINA. “AFTER ALL,” LEUNG SAYS, “IT’S THE NATIONAL LANGUAGE.”
THEN, QUIETLY, HE ACKNOWLEDGES HE DOES NOT SPEAK IT AT ALL: THE CANTONESE DIALECT, SPOKEN IN HONG KONG AND A CHUNK OF SOUTHERN CHINA, IS THE ONLY CHINESE HE KNOWS.
THIS IS THE QUANDARY THAT GROWS EVER MORE PRESSING AS THE TERRITORY NEARS ITS RETURN TO CHINESE RULE ON JULY 1: WHAT IS HONG KONG’S LANGUAGE? AND WHAT SHOULD IT BE?
EVEN AS HONG KONG GRAPPLES WITH THE POST-COLONIAL ROLE OF ENGLISH, THE LANGUAGE THRUST UPON IT 150 YEARS AGO, AND EVEN THOUGH CANTONESE AND MANDARIN SHARE A COMMON CHARACTER SYSTEM, THE TERRITORY IS EXPERIENCING THE FORMIDABLE LINGUISTIC CONFUSION INVOLVED IN BEING PART OF A GREATER CHINA.
THE USE OF MANDARIN _ KNOWN TO MAINLAND CHINESE AS PUTONGHUA, OR “COMMON WORDS” _ IS RISING SHARPLY AS THE TERRITORY’S ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL INVOLVEMENT WITH THE MAINLAND INCREASES.
“CONNECTIONS WITH CHINA ARE MAKING IT INESCAPABLE,” SAYS HO WAI-HUNG, A POLICE OFFICER PATROLLING A BUSY ALLEY. HE SPEAKS CANTONESE, ENGLISH AND MANDARIN _ A RARITY.
MANDARIN CLASSES ARE CROPPING UP EVERYWHERE, AND GOVERNMENT-FINANCED RADIO LAUNCHED A PUTONGHUA STATION IN MARCH. MORE THAN HALF THE STUDENTS AT THE HONG KONG INTERNATIONAL SCHOOL ARE TAKING MANDARIN _ UP ABOUT 50 PERCENT FROM 1995. THE LANGUAGE WILL BE FULLY INTRODUCED IN SECONDARY SCHOOLS NEXT YEAR AND WILL BE A HIGH-SCHOOL GRADUATION REQUIREMENT BY 2000.
BEIJING HAS LONG ENCOURAGED THE ASCENT OF PUTONGHUA, WHICH IS BASED ON THE NORTHERN CHINESE DIALECT. IN 1958, PREMIER ZHOU ENLAI PRONOUNCED ITS SPREAD AN “IMPORTANT POLITICAL TASK” IN A NATION SPEAKING DOZENS OF DIALECTS.
TODAY, THE BEIJING-FINANCED HONG KONG CHINA NEWS AGENCY APPROVINGLY CALLS HONG KONG CITIZENS’ RECENT IMMERSION IN MANDARIN “A NEW FASHION” THAT FOSTERS PATRIOTIC PRIDE.
“IT HELPS TEACH THEM THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE CHINESE CULTURE AND TO ACCEPT AND BELONG TO IT,” THE AGENCY QUOTED ZHANG RUI, A PROFESSOR AT BEIJING NORMAL UNIVERSITY, AS SAYING. HE CALLED PUTONGHUA “THE BEST FRUIT” OF CHINESE SOCIETY.
CLASSES IN MAINLAND SCHOOLS HAVE BEEN TAUGHT IN PUTONGHUA AT BEIJING’S DIRECTIVE FOR FOUR DECADES, ALTHOUGH MANY CHINESE STILL USE REGIONAL DIALECTS IN THEIR EVERYDAY LIVES.
CHINESE GOVERNMENT ORDERS TO SPEAK MANDARIN AT WORK HAVE BEEN LARGELY IGNORED. SOUTHERN CHINESE ARE PASSIONATE ABOUT THEIR LANGUAGES, AND CANTONESE IS FAR OLDER THAN MANDARIN’S 800 YEARS.
CHINA _ ESPECIALLY SOUTHERN CHINA, BECAUSE OF ITS RUGGED, INSULATING TERRAIN _ HAS ALWAYS BEEN A LINGUISTIC MELANGE. WHAT LOCALS CALL “DIALECTS” CAN BE VIRTUALLY SEPARATE LANGUAGES.
“SOUTHERN CHINESE ARE ALWAYS FOND OF TELLING YOU, `YEAH, I SPEAK TWO OR THREE DIALECTS.’ THEY TREAT IT AS AN ORDINARY PART OF LIFE,” SAYS S. ROBERT RAMSEY, A UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND PROFESSOR AND AUTHOR OF “THE LANGUAGES OF CHINA.”
“IT’S LIKE GOING FROM NEW YORK TO PHILADELPHIA AND FINDING A DIFFERENT LANGUAGE,” HE SAYS.
FOR EXAMPLE, HONG KONG’S NEW CHIEF EXECUTIVE IS KNOWN AS TUNG CHEE-HWA IN CANTONESE. IN PUTONGHUA, HIS NAME IS PRONOUNCED DONG JIANHUA.
MORE DRASTICALLY, THE SENTENCE “I AM A STUDENT” IS “NGOH HAI HOK SAANG” IN CANTONESE. IN PUTONGHUA, IT IS “WO SHI XUESHENG.” NOT EVEN CLOSE.
THOUGH PUTONGHUA IS HEARD ON HONG KONG STREETS ONLY SPORADICALLY, IT IS NO LONGER ODD TO ADDRESS A CANTONESE SPEAKER IN MANDARIN AND BE UNDERSTOOD _ AND PERHAPS RECEIVE AN ANSWER IN ENGLISH.
“WHEN I GOT HERE 10 YEARS AGO, NOBODY SPOKE MANDARIN. PEOPLE PUT ME DOWN WHEN I SPOKE IT,” SAYS JOYCE RANIERI, A NATIVE SPEAKER WHO OVERSEES MANDARIN PROGRAMS AT THE HONG KONG INTERNATIONAL SCHOOL.
“NOW I GO AROUND ON THE STREET AND PEOPLE ARE DYING TO PRACTICE.”
VARIATIONS IN WRITTEN CHINESE FURTHER CLOUD THE ISSUE, ESPECIALLY THE SIMPLIFIED CHARACTERS INTRODUCED BY THE COMMUNIST PARTY IN 1955 TO ENCOURAGE LITERACY.
THESE “JIANTIZI” ARE NOW USED BY THE MAINLAND’S 1.2 BILLION CHINESE AND IN SINGAPORE. BUT, UNLESS THE BEIJING REGIME FORCES THE ISSUE, THERE IS LITTLE LIKELIHOOD THEY WILL CATCH ON IN HONG KONG, WHERE THE OLD-STYLE “FANTIZI” SCRIPT RULES.
PURISTS OBJECT TO SIMPLIFIED CHARACTERS AS MERE SHADOWS OF ORNATE PICTOGRAPHS AND IDEOGRAPHS THAT EVOLVED THROUGH CHINESE HISTORY _ SUCH AS THE CHARACTER FOR “HEART,” WHICH RESEMBLES ONE, OR THAT FOR “WOOD,” SHAPED LIKE A TREE.
FINALLY, THE ENTIRE QUESTION IS SUPERIMPOSED UPON A SEPARATE ISSUE: THE FUTURE ROLE OF ENGLISH, THE TEACHING MEDIUM IN MOST HONG KONG SCHOOLS.
SOME LAMENT THE RISE OF A “CANTO-ENGLISH” AMONG CHILDREN AND TEEN-AGERS AND SAY THE HYBRID PREVENTS TRUE LITERACY IN EITHER TONGUE.
OTHERS WORRY ENGLISH SKILLS WILL ATROPHY. CHRISTOPHER CHAN, THEN THE PRESIDENT OF HONG KONG’S LAW SOCIETY, WARNED IN A JANUARY SPEECH AGAINST “ENTHUSIASM FOR SINOPHILIA.”
“WHETHER ONE LIKES IT OR NOT,” HE SAID, “ENGLISH IS THE LINGUA FRANCA OF INTERNATIONAL COMMERCE.”
ALL THIS LINGUISTIC TUMULT HARDLY HERALDS THE DEATH OF CANTONESE. IT IS TOO ENTRENCHED. IT AND ITS SISTER LANGUAGE, TAISHAN, THRIVE IN CHINATOWNS OVERSEAS, AND THE HONG KONG MOVIE INDUSTRY AND THE MUSIC GENRE CALLED “CANTOPOP” ENSURE IT AN INTERNATIONAL FUTURE.
BUT IT IS NO LONGER ASSURED OF BEING FOREVER THE KEY INGREDIENT IN WHAT ONE BROADCASTER CALLS HONG KONG’S “COCKTAIL OF LANGUAGES.”
“IN CHINA TODAY, YOU CAN GO ANYWHERE AND SURVIVE WITH PUTONGHUA. IT’S GOING TO EVENTUALLY BE THAT WAY IN HONG KONG,” RAMSEY SAYS. “THEY DON’T HAVE TO PASS LAWS. IT’S JUST GOING TO HAPPEN.”
IT ALREADY IS. GORDON CHEUNG, WHO RUNS A FRAMING SHOP, CALLS HIS PUTONGHUA “IFFY” BUT CONTINUES STUDYING. AFTER ALL, HE HAS CUSTOMERS IN TAIWAN, SINGAPORE AND THE MAINLAND.
“MAYBE IN 50 YEARS, HONG KONG WILL BE A ONE-LANGUAGE PLACE. MAYBE. AND IF THAT HAPPENS, IT WILL BE PUTONGHUA,” CHEUNG SAYS. “BUT IT WON’T HAPPEN IN MY LIFETIME.”

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