Though people in Hong Kong speak Cantonese, it is becoming increasingly marginalized.

China Is Forcing Its Biggest Cantonese-Speaking Region To Speak Mandarin

Though people in Hong Kong speak Cantonese, it is becoming increasingly marginalized.
Photo by AFP Photo/Johannes Eisele

Free-wheeling and business-oriented, the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou is a long way from Beijing physically, culturally and linguistically — and hackles have been raised by reports Communist authorities are demanding local television drop Cantonese in favour of Mandarin.

Throughout China, Mandarin — known as Putonghua, the “common language”, with its roots in Beijing’s northern dialect — is the medium of government, education and national official media.

The ruling Communist Party has long viewed it as a means of weakening regional loyalties and forging a sense of common identity, particularly in far-flung areas such as Xinjiang and Tibet which see fits of resistance to Beijing’s rule.

But according to a ministry of education statement last year, 30 percent of Chinese — 400 million people — still cannot speak Mandarin.

Cantonese is the first language of roughly half the population of Guangzhou, China’s third-largest city and the provincial capital of Guangdong — where for many elderly residents, it is their only tongue.

Nonetheless reports in neighboring Hong Kong said the province’s official broadcaster Guangdong TV was planning to quietly switch most of its programming from Cantonese to Mandarin on September 1.

In mainland China the two languages generally use the same characters for the same words, so that they are mutually intelligible in writt

en form — but incomprehensible when spoken.

“I oppose them changing it all to Mandarin,” said Huang Yankun, a 17-year-old student, walking past the television station’s headquarters. “It’s wrong for them to try to restrict the language in this way.

“Speaking Cantonese is a Guangdong custom; it’s a tradition that we need to support.”



 ‘Linguistic force’

Shows on Guangdong TV are spoken in Cantonese. That will change September 1st. Photo by AFP Photo/Johannes Eisele

Shows on Guangdong TV are spoken in Cantonese. That will change September 1st.
Photo by AFP Photo/Johannes Eisele

Cantonese is spoken by more than 60 million people in China, according to the state-run China Daily — on a par with Italian in terms of native speaker numbers.

But some in Guangzhou worry that as young people and their parents focus on Mandarin for academic and career reasons, Cantonese may fall by the wayside.

“A lot of kids, they speak only Mandarin at school,” said Huang Xiaoyu, a 28-year-old media worker. “And at home, their mum will speak to them in Cantonese but the kids will respond in Mandarin.

“Very, very few little kids these days speak Cantonese. How are old people going to communicate with their grandchildren if they don’t use Cantonese?” she added.

Four years ago a similar proposal by Guangzhou TV sparked fury and hundreds of protesters defied the authorities to take to the streets, with similar demonstrations in Hong Kong, which also speaks Cantonese. The plan was dropped.

A spokesperson for Guangdong TV said they were unaware of any coming change.

But Victor Mair, professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania, said national authorities had been promoting Putonghua for around 100 years.

“Its primary aim, then as now, has been to attempt to unify the country’s language, but it has an underlying secondary agenda, which is the domination of the south — Cantonese, Shanghainese, Hokkien, etc. — by the north, Mandarin,” he said.

“It’s the same in China as it is in other parts of the world: Quebec, Belgium, Ireland. Language matters.”

Cantonese had been “tremendously weakened” in Guangdong since the People’s Republic was established in 1949, he added. “If it weren’t for Hong Kong, Cantonese would soon cease to exist as a significant linguistic force.”

‘I don’t understand a word’
As China’s richest province, Guangdong draws migrants from all over the country, and some of them would back the television switch.

A 58-year-old woman surnamed Yang from Shandong province in the northeast, said: “I don’t understand a word of Cantonese. It’s very annoying! Everyone can understand Mandarin, it’s widespread.”

Zhang Yiyi, 72, a professor of French from Nanjing, three provinces away in eastern China, has lived in Guangzhou since 1988.

“I speak Mandarin; I’m a professor,” he said. “Kindergarten, primary school, middle school, high school, college: the language of education is Mandarin. Cantonese is a regional language.”

Cantonese has a greater range of tones than Mandarin, as well as a choppier sound to an untutored Western ear.

But Cantonese activist and editor Lao Zhenyu said the language was “rich in sounds, and sonorous”.

“Relative to Mandarin, the history of Cantonese is more profound, it has nearly 1,000 years of history, and Mandarin only has around 100. When we read ancient poems in Cantonese, we find they still rhyme. Cantonese has a more abundant vocabulary than Mandarin, and its expression is more vivid.”

Now, though, it was becoming “increasingly marginalized”, he said.

“Cantonese is not just a language, but for native speakers it is part of our identity.”

Copyright (2014) AFP. All rights reserved.


This article originally appeared at Agence France Presse. Copyright 2014. Follow Agence France Presse on Twitter.


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Tibetan Singer Held After Belting Out Song Calling for Language Protection

Tibetan singer Gebe in an undated photo
Image from Radio Free Asia-

Chinese authorities take him away after a musical concert in a Sichuan county.

A Tibetan singer who rendered a song calling for the protection of the Tibetan language at a weekend concert in China’s Sichuan province has been detained, a local resident said, amid concerns by authorities that community organized Tibetan language classes may stoke opposition to Chinese rule.

Singer Gebe was detained as he was leaving the musical concert on Saturday night at Zungchu (in Chinese, Songpan) county in the Ngaba (Aba) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture,  according to the county resident, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“He was taken away allegedly for singing a Tibetan song entitled, ‘Not Yet Done’ themed on the strong feelings of Tibetans calling for the protection of the Tibetan language,” the source told RFA’s Tibetan Service. “The audience present applauded the title and the theme [of the song].”

Police who detained Gebe were from Ngaba’s Barkham (in Chinese, Ma’erkang) county, sources said.

“He was detained by the Chinese police who were waiting outside the concert hall,” the resident said.

“When other artists who were present with Gebe appealed to the authorities about his innocence, they refused to listen. The organizer of the event also appealed but it did not stop the authorities [from detaining Gebe].”

Gebe’s latest DVD release in 2012 contained, among popular songs, “Victorious Deities, Victorious Tibet,” sources said.

Cultural identity

China has jailed scores of Tibetan singers, writers, artists, and educators for asserting Tibetan national and cultural identity and language rights since widespread protests swept Tibetan areas in 2008.

One song by jailed popular singer Lolo, “Raise the Tibetan flag, Children of the Snowland,” was seen as a direct challenge to Chinese rule.

Aside from Lolo, at least nine other known singers are in Chinese custody. They were detained since 2012, with some already tried and sentenced to jail terms as long as six years, rights groups say.

Community gatherings

Authorities in Sichuan’s Kardze (Ganzi) county recently ordered local leaders to monitor and discourage community gatherings held to study Tibetan language and religion, fearing the popular classes may fuel opposition to Chinese rule, local sources said last week.

No move has yet been made though to forcibly close the classes, which are being taught by area monks and nuns, sources said.

Chinese officials in Kardze are viewing the program to teach Buddhism and language skills to local Tibetans with suspicion, “and plan to impose restrictions,” an area resident told RFA.

Taught by monks and nuns led by senior religious teachers of Kardze monastery who had returned to the area after studying in India, “the program has become very popular in the community, and on special auspicious days the lay students have participated in religious debates,” he said.

County officials concerned at the growth in popularity of the classes have now held meetings with local town and village leaders, “warning those present that they should be aware of such large gatherings and should monitor their activities,” RFA’s source said.

Reported by Lumbum Tashi for RFA’s Tibetan Service. Translated by Karma Dorjee. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.

An original article from Radio Free Asia-


Hong Kong textbook stereotypes races by physical attributes, lives and jobs

2 updated news – A controversy over Hong Kong textbooks.

Outrage over primary school textbook that asks pupils to ‘match the races’

– ‘Many offended’ by books that ask primary pupils to identify physical characteristics of different races and match them to likely jobs

Publisher insists controversial textbooks ‘promote racial harmony’

– Company behind primary school series featuring ethnic minorities in stereotypical jobs dismisses claims it was discriminating





LinguisticMinorities.HK on HKU’S Knowledge Exchange Newsletter!

knowlegdexchangeDr. Lisa Lim is featured on the latest issue of HKU Knowledge Exchange newsletter to introduce Linguistic Minorities.HK.

Knowledge Exchange (KE), together with Teaching and Research, form the three pillars that underpin all the activities of The University of Hong Kong (HKU). The University defines KE as engaging, for mutual benefit, with business, government or the public to generate, acquire, apply and make accessible the knowledge needed to enhance material, human, social, cultural and environmental well-being. KE is a two-way process, and it not only includes technology transfer but also encompasses all disciplines, including the arts and humanities and the social sciences.

Read full story here:
 (HKU KE Newsletter Issue 6, April 2014)


International Mother Language Day 2014


2014 Theme:
Local languages for global citizenship: spotlight on science


International Mother Language Day was proclaimed by the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in November 1999 (30C/62).

On 16 May 2007 the United Nations General Assembly in its resolution A/RES/61/266 called upon Member States “to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world”. By the same resolution, the General Assembly proclaimed 2008 as the International Year of Languages, to promote unity in diversity and international understanding, through multilingualism and multiculturalism.

International Mother Language Day has been observed every year since February 2000 to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. The date represents the day in 1952 when students demonstrating for recognition of their language, Bangla, as one of the two national languages of the then Pakistan, were shot and killed by police in Dhaka, the capital of what is now Bangladesh.

Languages are the most powerful instruments of preserving and developing our tangible and intangible heritage. All moves to promote the dissemination of mother tongues will serve not only to encourage linguistic diversity and multilingual education but also to develop fuller awareness of linguistic and cultural traditions throughout the world and to inspire solidarity based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue.

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P.K. Misra (second from left), president, Anthropological Association, Mysore, delivering the lecture in Mysore on Monday. Also seen are (from left) L. Ramamoorthy of CIIL, C.R. Satyanarayana, deputy director and head, ASI, Southern Regional Centre and Lawrence Surendra, Senior Fellow, ICSSR. Photo: Anurag Basavaraj

CIIL to document 500 endangered languages

P.K. Misra (second from left), president, Anthropological Association, Mysore, delivering the lecture in Mysore on Monday. Also seen are (from left) L. Ramamoorthy of CIIL, C.R. Satyanarayana, deputy director and head, ASI, Southern Regional Centre and Lawrence Surendra, Senior Fellow, ICSSR. Photo: Anurag Basavaraj

P.K. Misra (second from left), president, Anthropological Association, Mysore, delivering the lecture in Mysore on Monday. Also seen are (from left) L. Ramamoorthy of CIIL, C.R. Satyanarayana, deputy director and head, ASI, Southern Regional Centre and Lawrence Surendra, Senior Fellow, ICSSR. Photo: Anurag Basavaraj

The Central Institute of Indian Languages (CIIL) here will embark on a mega project to document nearly 500 endangered languages in the country, each spoken by less than 10,000 people.

It has been approved in principle by the Ministry of Human Resource Development. The CIIL will collaborate with universities and institutes.

Speaking to The Hindu on the sidelines of a two-day workshop on ‘Endangered tribal languages in south India’, organised by the Anthropological Society of India and the CIIL, L. Ramamoorthy, Head, Linguistic Data Consortium for Indian Languages, CIIL, said on Monday that the work would be taken up under a scheme to preserve and protect endangered languages.

The objective is to bring out dictionaries and also document and preserve the ethnic knowledge system enshrined in the languages, including folklore. It also intends to frame grammar rules. Experts would give suggestions for the revitalisation of these languages.

About 70 languages from different parts of the country would be studied in the first phase and 500 would be taken up in a span of 10 years, Mr. Ramamoorthy said. The study and documentation of each language would cost between Rs. 6 lakh and Rs. 8 lakh, he added.

Earlier, Dr. Ramamoorthy spoke on ‘Endangered tribal languages – initiatives from the CIIL’. Referring to the above project, he said there was no consensus on the status of endangered languages. While the Census of India 2001 pegged the number at 122, the Anthropological Survey of India put it at 323, while a UNESCO report said 196 Indian languages were endangered. He hoped the workshop would come out with tools and parameters to identify an endangered language.

Lawrence Surendra, Senior Fellow, Indian Council of Social Science Research, delivered a special lecture on endangered tribal languages and cultures and pointed out that endangerment of language was far more serious than that of culture because with the extinction of language, the entire encyclopaedia of knowledge enshrined in that language would be lost forever.

P.K. Misra, president, Anthropological Association, Mysore, inaugurated the workshop and said the status of language should be understood in the context of society and culture which were not static but under constant change. Citing the example of Jenu Kuruba community, Prof. Misra said changing external environmental factors had affected the traditional lifestyle of the tribal people.

C.R. Satyanarayana, deputy director and head, ASI Southern Regional Centre, subject experts from different universities and institutions are attending the workshop.

Originally appeared in “The Hindu”
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ABS130913 copy2

Department of Linguistics Seminar Series

The coming seminar:

ABS130913 copy

Language documentation in the 21st century

Date: 13 September, 2013 (Friday)
Time: 11:30 a.m.
Venue: Run Run Shaw Tower (Centennial Campus) Room 4.04
Speaker: Prof. Peter Austin, SOAS and HKU

In the last decade of the 20th century a new sub-field of linguistics
emerged that has come to be known as ‘language documentation’
or ‘documentary linguistics’ (Himmelmann 1998, 2002, 2006, Lehmann
2001, Austin 2010, Grenoble 2010, Woodbury 2003, 2011a). In this
paper we explore how it was defined in the seminal work of
Himmelmann (1998) and others, including what were presented as
significant characteristics that distinguished language documentation
from language description. A focus on best practices, tools and
models for documentary corpora appeared in the following years,
along with more critical discussions of the goals and methods of
language documentation. The paper examines some current
developments, including new approaches to archiving (Nathan 2010,
Woodbury 2011b), and suggests that in the 21st century language
documentation needs to adopt a more socially engaged approach to
linguistic research.

Austin, P. K. 2010. Current issues in language documentation. In Peter
K. Austin (ed. Language Documentation and Description, 7:12-33.
London: SOAS.

Grenoble, L. 2010. Language documentation and field linguistics: The
state of the field. In L. A. Grenoble and N. Louanna Furbee (eds.)
Language Documentation: Practice and values, 289-309. Amsterdam:
John Benjamins.

Himmelmann, N. P. 1998. Documentary and descriptive linguistics,
Linguistics 36: 161-195.

Himmelmann, N. P. 2002. Documentary and descriptive linguistics. In
O. Sakiyama and F. Endo (eds.) Lectures on Endangered Languages,
Volume 5, 37-83. Kyoto: Endangered Languages of the Pacific Rim.

Himmelmann, N. P. 2006. Language documentation: What is it and
what is it good for? In J. Gippert, N. P. Himmelmann and U. Mosel
(eds.) Essentials of Language Documentation (Trends in Linguistics.
Studies and Monographs, 178), 1-30. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Nathan, D. 2010. Archives 2.0 for endangered languages: from disk
space to MySpace. International Journal of Humanities and Arts
Computing, 4 (1-2), 111-124.

Woodbury, A C. 2011a. Language documentation. In P. K. Austin and
J. Sallabank (eds.) The Cambridge Handbook of Endangered
Languages, 159-186. Cambridge: CUP.

Woodbury, A. C. 2011b. Archives and audiences: toward making
endangered language documentations people can read, use,
understand, and admire. In D. Nathan (ed.) Proceedings of Workshop
on Language Documentation and Archiving, 11-20. London: SOAS.


Cross-cultural IES Award Presentation Ceremony

An Award Presentation Ceremony was held in the Faculty of
Education for the presentations by groups of secondary Chinese
and ethnic minority students who have jointly carried out some
Independent Enquiry Studies (IES) on cross-cultural issues/topics. The students have interesting stories to tell the majority and minority population of Hong Kong about cross-cultural understanding and integration. Their studies cover topics like home, family, marriage, food and education across cultures.

This Award Scheme is part of the service of the USP Project (2011-13). The Full name is “University-school Support Programme:Supporting Secondary Schools in the Teaching and Learning of Chinese for non-native learners”, and it is carried out by the Centre for Advancement of Chinese Language Education and Research, Faculty of Education, HKU. –  The Award Scheme is organized with the assistance of the Liberal Studies Service Learning Network, a student volunteer group in the Faculty of Education, and other undergraduate students in the Faculty.

Cross-cultural IES Award Presentation Ceremony (Past event)
Date: 25 May 2013 (Sat)
Time: 9:30 am – 12:30 pm
Venue: Wang Gunwu Theatre, Graduate House, HKU

9:30-10:00     Exhibition of students’ work at the foyer outside the Theatre
10:00-11:30   Award Presentation Ceremony:

Six presentations by student groups
Two verse recital performances
Dr CKK Chan, Deputy Secretary for Education (Curriculum and Quality Assurance), Education Bureau
Mr Amos Wong Executive Producer of the RTHK documentary “Our Jamia Mosque”
Mr Chura Thapa, Host of the radio programme ‘Saptahik Sandesh’(Nepalese program), RTHK

11:30-12:30   Refreshment and gathering (at foyer)
Participants and guests can socialize and/or further discuss with each other

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Tai O Village

It is a remote and traditional fishing village on Lantau Island in Hong Kong. Some 300 year ago, Tanka people built stilt houses over the tidal flats and formed a community there. With beautiful environment and Tanka traditional atmosphere, Tai O has recently been a travel place for those who want to escape from the busy city.


Stemming the Tide  

by Alex Frew McMillan, Photographs by Josephine Rozman


Times have been tough for Tai O, a remote fishing village on Hong Kong’s Lantau Island where an aging population clings to the traditions of their forbears. But will tourism give the community a new lease on life?

At the westernmost edge of Hong Kong, with the bright lights of Macau’s casinos visible across the Pearl River Delta on a clear night, the stilted fishing village of Tai O takes the brunt of any typhoon plowing in from the South China Sea. It’s a near-forgotten corner of Hong Kong, set on a leafy, rocky elbow of Lantau Island, just eight kilometers or so from Hong Kong’s high-tech international airport and the concrete cluster of residential skyscrapers that consti-tutes the “New Town” of Tung Chung. Yet that short distance separates the ever-morphing face of one of Asia’s most modern cities from scenes that have changed little since Tai O established itself as a bustling settlement toward the end of the Qing dynasty.

Today, seafood stalls line Tai O’s narrow streets, filling the air with the odor of salted fish, duck eggs, and air-dried shrimp. There are no cars. It is not uncommon to see women walking by in traditional Hakka headgear—a wide-brimmed straw hat with a veil of sorts to keep the sometimes-fierce sun at bay. Down at the creek that separates the Lantau mainland from a small mangrove-fringed island, stilt houses—known in Cantonese as pang nguk —cluster above the tidal flats, some rising two or three stories on stout columns of charcoal-hued ironwood. Tai O’s original inhabitants came from a floating population of fisherfolk who lived on crowded sampans along the Hong Kong coast, eventually moving ashore at places like Po Toi and Yau Ma Tei. But only in Tai O have their stilt houses survived.

It is, however, a precarious existence. While fishing has been the mainstay here for generations, the introduction of motorized fishing boats and nylon trawl nets in the 1950s resulted in heavy overfishing; the catch of yellow croaker, which once contributed almost half of Tai O’s total harvest, slumped from 546,000 kilograms in 1954 to just over 20,000 in 1958. The industry has still not recovered, although a recent ban on trawling in Hong Kong waters aims at reviving decimated fish stocks.

A similar fate befell Tai O’s erstwhile salt trade. In its heyday, the village farmed 28 hectares of saltpans that, through sand leaching and seawater evaporation, produced hundreds of tons of salt annually, mostly for export to markets elsewhere in China. But the industry fell into decline after the Japanese occupation in Hong Kong ended in 1945, and ceased completely with the building of the Tai O Road in 1969, which dramatically improved access to the village but also cut off the sluice systems in the salt fields.

As young residents fled to the city in search of better jobs, higher pay, and excitement, Tai O’s population dwindled—and fast. From a height of more than 30,000 residents, only about 2,000 people call the place home today. On a recent visit, I was invited into the home of Soh Loi-man, who introduced himself as the “head of the fishermen” of Tai O. The building consisted of four linked stilt houses, with a floor of well-varnished hard wood that reverberated with the rattling of plastic mah-jongg tiles from a back room where some middle-aged ladies were setting up a game. Apart from that, the place was empty. “On the weekends all my kids and grandkids come back for a barbecue,” Soh said. “But only then.”

Still, tourism is helping to keep Tai O afloat. Lantau Island, with its Big Buddha and cable car and Disneyland, is attracting more visitors than ever, and many of these make their way to Tai O for a sampling of its rustic charms. Tai O is also the launch point for boat trips to see the few remaining Chinese white dolphins (a.k.a Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins) that populate the murky brown waters of the Pearl River Delta; the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society estimates their local number at about 300.

A drawbridge linking the two sides of Tai O is also a major, well, draw. Known as Sun Kee, it was only built in 1996; prior to that, an old woman ferried villagers from one side of the narrow channel to the other in a flat-bottomed boat, hauling it across with a rope. And for those looking for an olfactory adventure, Tai O’s pungent shrimp-paste factories continue to be a source of fascination.

Tai O native Liu Tik-sang, a humanities professor at Hong Kong’s University of Science and Technology, credits the village’s re- silience to a sense of “communal vigor” that has survived—if not become more robust— with its transformation into a tourist attraction. Religious activities such as the annual dragon-boat water parade, he believes, are more vibrant than ever.

It’s doubtless, however, that Tai O will need new initiatives to survive, which is why last year’s debut of the Tai O Heritage Hotel came as such a shot in the arm. First established as a marine police station in 1902 in a bid to keep marauding pirates at bay, the immaculately renovated building is set on a forested hillside overlooking the waterfront, with only nine suites available for guests. It’s the brainchild of Daryl Ng, grandson of the founder of the Hong Kong–Singapore development company Sino Land, who established a nonprofit foundation to oversee the heritage conversion.

“I am hoping that this project achieves three aspects,” Ng said. “To allow visitors to experience the delights and charms of a local Hong Kong village, to appreciate the heritage and history of Hong Kong, as well as ecotourism.”

At night, guests can hear crickets chirp, and view stars that are scarcely visible from Central or Kowloon. Another draw, perhaps, is knowing that at least part of their expenditure will trickle down to the local economy; half of the hotel’s 34 staff are Lantau residents, and its glass-roofed restaurant uses local produce whenever possible, from shrimp-paste marinades to a cheesecake seasoned with mountain begonia blossoms.

Yet even here, amid sturdy arched colonnades and vintage photos of old Tai O, the village’s future can seem uncertain. One hotel employee, who tells me she adores the peace and quiet of Tai O, is concerned that the 29-kilometer-long Hong Kong–Macau–Zhuhai Bridge currently being built offshore will ruin the marine environment, not to mention the views.

“The government doesn’t seem to care about the dolphins,” she said. “We have got four years left to enjoy the sea. Only four years.”

Originally appeared in the April/May 2013 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Stemming the Tide”)
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International Mother Language Day 21 February


International Mother Language Day is an ideal opportunity to highlight the importance of languages to group and individual identity, as the foundation for all social, economic and cultural life.