HK Profile: Dr Lisa Lim – founder of LinguisticMinorities.HK


Originally appeared in ejinsight.


It’s quite a statement for a twenty-something Hongkonger to ‘not have ever engaged with anyone from an ethnic minority background’. But that’s exactly what associate professor of English and coordinator of the Language and Communication Programme at HKU, Dr Lisa Lim, says is true of many students she encounters. We may be living in ‘Asia’s World City’, but there are persistent fears that Hong Kong’s language and culture continues to homogenise – alienating and denigrating the very thing that gives us our national identity. [See our article The Death of Cantonese? for more.]

Lim, who gained her PhD in phonetics and works in sociolinguistics, is the founder of “It’s a consolidated linguistic minorities website,” explains Lim of her project, which was first launched in 2013. “Hopefully it will become a platform for putting Hong Kong’s cultural and linguistic diversity on the map, by sharing university research with the public [in an accessible manner],” she adds.

After leaving her home country of Singapore for stints in universities in England and Amsterdam, Lim began living and teaching in Hong Kong in 2009. “I grew up in a climate of diversity, discourse and discussion about heritage and Singapore’s position in the region,” explains Lim. “Singapore’s language policies are infamous for campaigns promoting its four official languages – reducing and discouraging the use of ethnic minority languages in the process,” she explains. “It made me very attuned to [language] and passionate about it.” 

Ethnic languages in Hong Kong are similarly dying out. According to the most recent Hong Kong population census in 2011, 7.5 percent of people spoke languages other than the dominant Cantonese (which 89 percent of us speak at home) and English (3.5 percent of us speak at home). This includes the ethnic minority Chinese, such as the Hakka, Chiu Chow, and Hokkien – people who came from various parts of China during periods such as the Civil War and Cultural Revolution. Between the 2001 and 2011 census, the number of people speaking minority Chinese dialects declined from 352,562 people to 274,000.

Aside from Chinese dialects, Hong Kong is also home to languages spoken by those from South Asia who came during the colonial British period, like the Nepalese, who arrived as Gurkhas and the Indians and Pakistanis who came as civil servants and traders. The largest wave of migrants in recent years has seen hundreds of thousands of Indonesians and Filipinos arriving to work as domestic helpers, who speak a wide variety of dialects and languages. “Without them, Hong Kong would collapse,” Lim says, simply.

Indeed, Hong Kong thrives on cultural variety with the city’s very fabric depending on the ethnic minority population throughout many industries. And with Unesco now recognising language as a vehicle of intangible cultural heritage, how far should Hong Kong be conscious of losing this part of its identity? “The more we know about the diversity of languages and what they can do in terms of pronunciation, vocabulary and so on, the more we understand about ourselves, language acquisition and development,” explains Lim.

The Tanka people, for example, were traditional boat dwellers who used to live in Tai O and Aberdeen. “They live in really close proximity to their environment and ecology. They have a lot to do with the sea, so a lot of their language encompasses their traditional ecological knowledge,” says Lim. This is illustrated in the Seawater Song, sung at Tanka weddings and festivities, describing the different kinds of fish species, their behaviours, practices and habitats. But, as Lim points out, as the younger Tanka generations have no real need for the language and are completely assimilated into speaking Cantonese, it is likely that ‘all this specific knowledge about particular ecologies will be lost’.

Not many would dispute the sad fact that many ethnic minority groups in Hong Kong are victims of discrimination and expectations from the state and community that aren’t only to do with language, but also skin colour. “They might be Hongkongers through and through but [Hongkongers] often don’t want to sit next to them on the MTR, or give them jobs, or let them look around an apartment just because they are not Chinese,” explains Lim. “The site is about validating and legitimising all this diversity, all these communities in Hong Kong and possibly giving them a platform and a voice.”
Emma Russell

Find out more at

Long live Cantopop

Long live Cantopop – In Chinatown, Cantonese squares off against Mandarin

Long live Cantopop

Originally appeared in The Economist.

IT IS a novelty that few students are likely to notice. When the University of British Columbia (UBC) resumes classes in September it will for the first time offer a course for credit in Cantonese. That seems an unremarkable decision by a Chinese-language department that claims to be the largest in North America. In fact, it is a bookish act of resistance.

Cantonese was widely taught at Canadian and American universities 30 years ago, says Ross King, head of UBC’s Asian-studies programme. That is because most Chinese immigrants came from Hong Kong and southern China, where it is the main language. Cantonese still resounds in Chinatowns, such as those of Vancouver and San Francisco. But the economic rise of mainland China, whose official language is Mandarin Chinese (or putonghua), is pushing Cantonese off the streets and out of the academy. UBC wants to bring it back.

Newcomers to Vancouver’s Chinatown are richer and speak Mandarin. A sign advertising luxury apartments welcomes potential buyers (in Roman letters) with ni hao, the putonghua greeting, rather than the Cantonese nei hou. A decade ago, dignitaries at Chinese-new-year festivities gave speeches in Cantonese; today they speak Mandarin.

Cantonese is not about to die out. About 62m people speak it, as many as speak Italian. Cantonese opera dates back to the 13th century; Cantopop from Hong Kong has lingering appeal. But there is little doubt about which language is in the ascendant in the Chinese diaspora. “Mandarin is the future and Cantonese is being passed over,” says K. K. Wan, a dentist in Vancouver. His patients grumble, but “that’s just the reality.”

UBC is putting up a fight. The university has rejected four offers from the Confucius Institute, a cultural body financed by China’s government, to expand its teaching of Mandarin. “When a university can reject money, it’s a subtle form of pushback to an overbearing culture,” says Mr King. Instead, in 2013 UBC accepted C$2m ($1.5m) from a pair of philanthropists in Hong Kong to offer Cantonese.

Demand is so great that the university turned away Mandarin-speakers. Instead, the department will concentrate on teaching Cantonese to people who speak no Chinese. Most will move on to putonghua. In the meantime, they may develop an ear for Cantopop.

From the print edition: The Americas

Let’s build a Nepal town in Hong Kong

Let’s build a Nepal town in Hong Kong

Let’s build a Nepal town in Hong Kong

Originally appeared in ejinsight.

Nepali girls (left) perform a dance number as part of a volunteer activity. A Nepali designer (right) fits a traditional dress on a reporter. Photos:, RTHK

Nepali girls (left) perform a dance number as part of a volunteer activity. A Nepali designer (right) fits a traditional dress on a reporter. Photos:, RTHK

Don't neglect the UK's indigenous languages

Don’t neglect the UK’s indigenous languages

Don't neglect the UK's indigenous languages

Originally appeared in the guardian

Yes, we should learn French and German – but we shouldn’t ignore our indigenous languages
sgoil phaibil school
‘Children from Gaelic-medium schools outperform their English-educated counterparts in English tests.’ Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian Murdo Macleod/Guardian

Would you be surprised if I told you that, far from being a land of monoglots, there are ten indigenous languages spoken today in the British Isles? Yet we are very quick to tell ourselves that we’re rubbish at languages. We are linguistically isolated monoglots, marooned on a cluster of islands on the edge of the Atlantic. If we were in the mix of mainland Europe, we tell ourselves, we’d be blethering away in at least two languages.

Except, as you read this, people the length of these islands are using indigenous languages other than English to communicate with friends, family, teachers, colleagues and public services. That they are in the minority doesn’t meant that they don’t exist. In fact, the numbers of primary school-age speakers are growing; almost a quarter of school pupils in Wales are educated through the medium of Welsh, Northern Ireland is home to 30 Irish-medium schools, Scotland’s capital has just opened a new, dedicated Gaelic school due to increasing demand, and the Isle of Man has a Manx-medium school.

All of these children are also fluent in English; indeed, in the case of Gaelic-medium pupils, they outperform their English-educated counterparts in English tests. Their bilingualism bucks the monoglot trend of the majority.

There are those who would claim that such languages aren’t “useful” in the modern world and the global job market, and are therefore irrelevant to the current debate. “Why are you wasting your time with Welsh/Gaelic/Irish/[insert your minority language of choice] anyway?” scoff the naysayers. “We should all be learning Chinese!” Needless to say, the so-called reasoning behind such statements isn’t about getting to know China’s culture, heritage and people; rather, it’s about how it could help you make money. But while Mandarin Chinese may well be useful for an international businessperson of the future, we don’t only use language to earn money and do deals: we use language to communicate. To say there is no worth in learning a language that isn’t economically useful is like saying there’s no point in being friends with somebody unless they’re going to help you get a better job. It’s a spectacular, cynical miss of the point.


It’s also inaccurate. My minority language skills have allowed me to earn a living, by teaching Gaelic to adults at various colleges and universities in Glasgow and in the West Highlands of Scotland. The same is true for many of my friends, whether they’re schoolteachers, journalists or musicians. While the vast majority of Gaelic learners are not doing so for economic reasons, being a Gaelic speaker does open up employment opportunities that wouldn’t be available to somebody without those language skills. There are also specific job opportunities for those fluent in other indigenous minority languages, with Irish also having the added bonus of being an official language of the EU, giving speakers access further job opportunities.

When it comes to representation in the media, the successful establishment of separate minority language provision has absolved mainstream channels of the responsibility to feature them. But must our indigenous minority languages be ignored outside their own niche media outlets? Would it really be so bad if the occasional news item allowed a minority language-speaking interviewee to respond in their own language, with English subtitles? Or if a contestant on the Great British Bake Off did the odd subtitled piece to camera in an indigenous British language that wasn’t English? Or if newspapers like this one published an online article each week in one of our indigenous minority languages? Or, might such measures actually better reflect, and raise awareness of, our multilingual makeup? Might more people consider learning these languages? Might more speakers be inclined to use them more often, in more situations?

Different aspects of our cultures and beliefs, our habits and history, not to mention our humour, are all encoded in our languages. By knowing them, we know ourselves better. Thankfully, they have clung on to these islands despite decades, if not centuries, of cruel and systematic persecution; the people of Man and Cornwall have stared the awful reality of language death in the face, yet still they speak. There are now growing opportunities to learn many of these languages, and not just in their traditional heartlands. If you can, grab them with both hands; you will be the richer for it.

• The ten languages indigenous to the British Isles and still spoken today are English, Scots, British Sign Language, Welsh, Gaelic, Irish, Cornish, Manx, Angloromani and Shelta.

Rhona NicDhùghaill is a language teacher from Oban


Gov’t must do more to support Hong Kong’s ‘marginalised’ ethnic minorities – EOC

The Equal Opportunities Commission has called for measures to help Hong Kong’s “marginalised” ethnic minorities after studies showed the community is facing hurdles in securing their identities and success.

The EOC released two reports on ethnic minorities in Hong Kong on Wednesday, highlighting the difficulties they face in education and employment.


The reports say the city’s ethnic minorities, with a population of nearly 200,000 – excluding foreign domestic helpers – find language barriers one of the biggest issues in their attempt to integrate in society. The lack of Cantonese skills mean that businesses run by ethnic minorities find it hard to attract local customers, one of the reports says. Language is also a big issue for minority students applying for higher education because some universities use Cantonese as their interview language, the studies find.

The reports also say ethnic minority entrepreneurs are often reluctant to approach banks for loans due to “institutional barriers and perceived racial discrimination.”

The EOC urged the government to roll out supportive measures for ethnic minority businesses to succeed. “For example, they are able to access formal sources of financing as well as be provided with business advice, support and training,” says Ferrick Chu, Head of Policy, Research and Training Division at the EOC in a press release.

“We definitely do not want to see future generations of our ethnic minority communities to continue to feel marginalised as well as to face other hurdles to equal opportunities. To redress the problem, our government should have a holistic approach in formulating policies and measures for the empowerment of our ethnic minority community,” Chu says.

Originally from Hong Kong Free Press.


Tongue Tired: Hong Kong’s Disappearing Dialects

Yannie Chan meets some of the last speakers of Hong Kong’s disappearing dialects.Tongue_tired

Read more at HK magazine-


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-