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Learning Cantonese is not crucial to success in HKSAR

By Vivien Xu | China Daily Asia | Updated: 2021-01-04 09:36
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The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge. [Photo/Xinhua]

When Hong Kong's chief executive, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, gave her 2020 Policy Address, you could hear the word "talent" mentioned more than a dozen times. Not so strange; perhaps she was even referring to the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Area expansion, which is fine.

No matter what, there is absolutely no question about manically driven Hong Kong's obsession with talent. We can see it all over the place.

But, and no offense to Ms Lam intended, for many of the region's newcomers, there's another thing they might be obsessing about; namely, whether or not they should try wrestling with the Cantonese dialect.

Being able to handle the local language would obviously be a plus, both for one's career and for personal matters. The question is, do we assume that it's almost a necessity in the new Hong Kong, or not?

Anyone moving here might worry about not being able to integrate him- or herself into local society. After all, there have been horror stories about this or that person's awful experience in getting subpar treatment for not speaking Cantonese, or, shudder, being able to speak only Mandarin.

At the same time, there are of course those who want to protect the sanctity of Cantonese and promote its use. This risks the possibility of slipping over the line into the "politicization" of it for suspicious motives.

That's the way it may be, but the truth of the matter is that it is still hard to give an answer to the question because of so many variables, such as social, political, and economic.

In answer to this, some say that it can be decided only by examining the different responses one receives in speaking with relatively stable people at the local level.

For that, we have turned to a Hong Kong business entrepreneur living in Australia for help in shining some light on this long-contested notion. His reply was, "There's no way those stories (on the horrific difficulty) can't be true," and "It doesn't really matter what language you speak. Hong Kong people will respect you as long as you treat them in a friendly way." So, there you have it: It's a matter of good old politesse.

Then there are the professionals who have lived in Hong Kong for some time who see it in a slightly different light. One manager in communications, for example, noted, "It doesn't really matter so much. I've lived here for eight years and still haven't learned to speak Cantonese at all. I was hired for my knowledge in the field, and not for any other reason."

Adding a slightly different touch, one mergers-and-acquisitions professional suggested that what a person really needs is "confidence" in speaking either English or even Mandarin, which "would be better than speaking broken, garbled Cantonese."

Still, there are people who try their best to pick up some Cantonese just to host meetings, even if everyone present speaks English, and only a few speak the local dialect. A person who moved to Hong Kong just a few years ago might want to show off his or her Cantonese. Nothing wrong with that, but one must always be aware of how that goes against basic business sense or etiquette by using a language that is not common to most of the participants.

In addition, apart from the politeness question, the function of language is really to find a way to communicate, so, the language that works best for the most is the one that gets the message across to the most people.

If we consider the sheer amount of time and energy that goes into honing one's skills with language, day after day, we know that it's daunting. So, instead of burdening oneself with learning the dialect, one might want to consider spending that time on honing one's competitive edge, or gaining professional knowledge or expertise in one's field.

Still, there's no question about the attraction, culturally and socially, of mastering the dialect of the place one lives in. After all, language is the key to culture and the life ahead, so signing up for some Cantonese classes or studying it in one's spare time sounds good, but you don't just push it.

It's fairly easy to pick up a word or phrase or two while gradually getting to comprehend daily talk in a community setting, to allow for greater exposure to local mass media.

However, this brings us full circle to the idea that, clearly, a person is valued mainly for what he or she can contribute to the city, in whatever form, but especially in ways that others cannot. So speaking the language well may be secondary, while openness, tolerance, generosity and a multicultural way of life is the allure. Better to embrace the spirit of the city than to speak the dialect — while you learn.

The author is a Hong Kong-based journalist.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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