All Tea No Shade with Andrea Lo.
One day I overheard a Chinese mother speaking to her child in broken English.
Every time her son replied in Cantonese, the mother replied in English and told him off for not doing the same.
Flipping through my favorite trashy Chinese rag at the hairdressers, I came across a soundbite from a middle-aged Hong Kong socialite. “My son is speaking French and Spanish way better than Cantonese right now,” she was quoted as saying.
And it all makes me feel kind of sad.
Both women — the tiger mom next to me and the C-lister featured in the magazine — were obviously pushing hard for their kids to pick up a second language. Generally speaking, Hong Kong’s parents traditionally found it more professionally promising for their children to excel in English. This is why it’s common for young people to be sent to international schools or to be educated abroad.
This is causing young local Chinese, who were privileged enough to receive a western education, to lose the ability to be fluent in their native language.
As of 2012, Hong Kong had 96 percent of Cantonese speakers (versus 46 percent of English speakers) — proving it is still very much the dominant language in the SAR. Yet there are some people in my generation who are passive bilinguals at best and at worse, can barely string a sentence together in their mother tongue.
The inability for young people to be fluent in their native Cantonese is proving problematic in some industries.
“It’s an issue we have in the office — we have people who can communicate in Cantonese, but can’t write or read anything in Chinese,” an editor said at a work dinner last week.
It’s not that we’re short of speakers in either languages. It’s problematic because today, bilingual/trilingual speakers are in big demand — but there just aren’t enough people who can master both. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve been asked to recommend a Hong Kong writer or translator who could do both Chinese and English.
Could it be that the kind of elitism from Hong Kong’s colonial past — you were considered a “better breed” as an English speaker — is causing young people problems in their future?
This is where I honestly think some Hong Kong parents have messed up. The obsession with a western education is corrupting their kids’ language abilities and damaging their chances.
I was also the product of an overseas education and I did everything I could to salvage my Chinese skills, which I had begun to lose while I was away — it’s something I am working on to this day. While I’m fluent in Cantonese, it’s regretful that I’m not quite good enough to be able to write it in a professional capacity.
That’s why I feel bad for the little kid for being reprimanded by his mom. It’s disappointing to continue to see parents do this to their children to this day.
I’m really proud of my heritage — and I just can’t imagine not being able to communicate, or read and write in my mother tongue. And maybe it’s not just young people who should be proud of this — their parents should be proud of them too.
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