Of all culture-related concerns, language issues seem to be the most complicated ones. When two or more languages clash, there are no winners – no matter which one become the superior, both cultures will suffer, since the superior language will become stale, isolated from the effect of another one; and the inferior language will finally disintegrate into nothing, ripping its bearers of their self-identity.
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Because of the dominance of the traditional Chinese in most Chinese cities, the dialect known as Cantonese is gradually dissolving in the latter, which puts the self0identity of the Cantonese people in peril.
Since, over the last few decades, the impact of the Cantonese language in China has increased, sinking the significance of the traditional Chinese, or Putonghua, the Chinese government decided to reestablish the Putonghua language as the official language of the state by means of reducing the significance of the Cantonese dialect.
While the above-mentioned solution seems wrong and unfair to all the people who have been speaking Cantonese for all their lives, it is also going to be rather time-consuming, since most of the Hong Kong education materials, including books and journals, is written in Cantonese. As Lee & Leung explain, “Cantonese is basically involved in the aspects of listening and speaking.
This is not surprising because the content design of the textbooks of the Chinese language is principally based on the HKCEE grading criteria” (Lee & Leung, 2012, 22).
Nevertheless, it is the primary goal of the Chinese government to reestablish the status of the Putonghua language as official because of the economical changes which Hong Kong: “the implementation of English and Putonghua is crucial to keeping Hong Kong going in this ever changing and highly globalized world, and the key to avoiding Hong Kong from being left behind” (Lee & Leung, 2012).
Diving into the history of the Cantonese language, one must mention that the given dialect has been known for quite long as a privileged one. Therefore, the concern of the Chinese government for the traditional Chinese language is quite understood. Not only does the given dialect sound quite much like the traditional Chinese, but has also been established as the language or the privileged people, which makes a great cause for its use all over the country. Speaking Cantonese, anyone can gain a solid reputation among the Chinese public.
That is why, it is quite logical that the traditional Putonghua is likely to become less significant: the “instrumental evaluation of Putonghua was also much lower than that of English and Cantonese” (Tsui & Tollefson, 2007, 131).
Still, while the tactics of the government is quite understood, it can be expected that the consequences of the Putonghua dialect reinforcement can be much more drastic than the Chinese government expects them to be. Hence, the dilemma between the cultural values and the political well-being arises.
Assessing the endeavors of the Chinese government towards the Cantonese language, one must admit that the attempt to increase the impact of the traditional Chinese with the help of preventing people to use the Cantonese language in their daily life is fraught with serious consequences.
To embrace the scale of changes which the Chinese officials are going to implement when wiping out the Cantonese language from the fields of education, social life and political activities, one has to mention the fact that Cantonese has always been the lingua franca in Hong Kong (Wang & Kirkpatrick, 2012). Making Cantonese obsolete, the government will create complexities for the communication within a considerable part of China.
Reinforcing the Putonghua dialect can wipe out the Cantonese language and, therefore, Cantonese culture. The above-mentioned process of the Cantonese language and culture disintegration will definitely be a catastrophe for the Chinese culture, since the Cantonese one makes the basis for the latter: “Both spoken and written Cantonese have become an integral part of Hong Kong identity” (Tsui & Tollefson, 2007, 130).
Moreover, not only a huge chunk of the Chinese culture will disappear once the Cantonese dialect vanishes, but also an important link between the Chinese and the western cultures. According to Tsui & Tollefson (2007), Cantonese comprises the elements of both the Chinese culture and the western world (Reeves, 2005).
Judging by the above-mentioned, once Cantonese disappears, China will not be able to relate to the western countries just as easily as it does now, which means political complexities along with cultural ones. Hence, the attempt of the Chinese government to boost the use of the traditional Chinese by stifling the Cantonese dialect seems not quite an adequate solution.
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However, the situation with Cantonese can and must be solved. As Hu (2008) explains, the problem can be handled if the “‘one country, two systems’ principle” (Hu, 2008, 89) should be adopted. In the given situation, multicultural language policy is the most adequate decision (Wang & Phillion, 2009).
It seems that, unless the impact of the traditional Chinese becomes lesser, the existence of the Cantonese dialect will be questioned. Though one might argue that languages are much more prone to the outside factors than one might give them credit for, the domination of the traditional Chinese and the effects which the latter has had on the Cantonese language still gives much food for thoughts. Without the proper reinforcement of the Cantonese culture, the national identity of the Cantonese people might slowly fade away.
Hu, L. (2008). Language policy, practice and diglossia in colonial and post-colonial Hong Kong. Retrieved from http://alppi.eu/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/Liyan-Hu-Language-Policy-Practice-and-Diglossia-in-Colonial-and-Post-Colonial-Hong-Kong.pdf
Lee, K. S., & Leung, W. M. (2012). The status of Cantonese in the education policy of Hong Kong. Multilingual Education, 2(2), 1-22.
Reeves, K. (2005). Tracking the dragon down under: Chinese cultural connections in gold rush Australia and Aotearoa, New Zealand Graduate Journal of Asia-Pacific Studies, 3(1), 49-66.
Tsui, A. J., & Tollefson, J. W. (2007). Language policy, culture, and identity in Asian contexts. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Wang, D. & Kirkpatrick, A. (2012). Code choice in the Chinese as a foreign language classroom. Multilingual Education, 2(3), 1-18.
Wang, Y., & Phillion, J. (2009). Minority language policy and practice in China: The need for multicultural education. International Journal of Multicultural Education, 11(1), 1-14.