People in Hong Kong have breathed a sigh of relief after senior officials denied planning to replace Cantonese, the local vernacular, with Mandarin, the national language of China.
Hong Kong will keep teaching Cantonese. For now
The latest linguistic brouhaha in politically divided Hong Kong started when internet users found a paper on the website of the city’s Education Bureau, saying that Cantonese shouldn't be described as the mother tongue of Hongkongers, as it is only a dialect.
Cantonese is the standard-bearer of the southern Chinese Yue language, with a 2000-year history. It has preserved more features, such as tones and words, from ancient Chinese than Mandarin.
Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam was forced to clarify that the Education Bureau had no plans to change its language policy - which it claims is the equal promotion of Cantonese, Mandarin and English.
"We are speaking Cantonese every day, so this is a non-issue," Lam said.
But this is more than just a linguistic quarrel. In Hong Kong, which form of Chinese is spoken lies at the core of the city’s identity.
Hong Kong culture
Even though the former British colony was returned to China in 1997, the city has retained its distinctive culture and identity - and Cantonese, which more than 96% of the population speaks, is an integral part of it.
But Mandarin, or Putonghua (“common speech”), became the national language after the establishment of the Republic of China in 1911.
Language has been seen by the Chinese government as a means to foster a common identity throughout the whole country. Currently, 70% of the Chinese population speaks Mandarin. The Chinese governments wants to raise that number to 80% by 2020.
Hongkongers have a fraught relationship with Mandarin. The number of Hong Kong residents who can speak Mandarin almost doubled between 1996 and 2006, and many people, especially parents, believe a command of Mandarin is indispensable to success.
But at the same time, many also see the promotion of Mandarin a means to erase Hong Kong’s local identity, which is strongly rooted in Cantonese.
National unity is at the top of the agenda for the central government, and Beijing has become growingly uneasy with the unique identity of Hong Kongers: especially after the Umbrella Movement of 2014, in which more than one million people took to the streets to protest a lack of democracy.
Beijing has since repeatedly vowed to crush separatism in the city.
A language under siege
Hong Kongers are worried that Cantonese may disappear one day - and such fears are not entirely unfounded.
More than 70% of elementary schools have switched their Chinese-language lessons from Cantonese to Mandarin, according to a survey by concern group Societas Linguistica Hongkongensis.
It has been reported that increasingly young people in Guangzhou, the homeland of Cantonese, are no longer fluent in the language - because classes are taught in Mandarin, and the use of Cantonese is frowned upon at schools.
The language divide isn’t just a battle in the classrooms: it’s a battle for Hong Kong’s soul.