Sunday, July 12, 2015
I’m just back from a trip to Hong Kong and China. I visit both places every couple of years or so but this was the first time in many years I travelled overland from one to the other. Taking the train from Hong Kong to Guangzhou was my first introduction to China back in the 1980s. At that time Hong Kong was busy, bustling, dynamic, efficient and fascinating, if a little cold-hearted. It still has the world’s most spectacular skyline.
As for Guangzhou, arriving there in the 1980s was like going back in time, its old-fashioned shops and buildings somehow peaceful, despite the crowds, its population moving around by bicycle or very old, slow buses.
Nowadays it is a modern metropolis with an extensive underground railway. The skyline seen from a trip on the river was different even from the last river trip I took there just four years ago.
Every time I go to China I am struck by the increasing numbers of people who speak English, especially those who do so extremely well. I was attending an international conference so it was not so surprising to find many presentations by Chinese academics in excellent English, some of them not even needing to refer to their notes.
But I also found more and more people in railways stations and shops able to speak English quite fluently.
On the fast modern train back to Shenzhen – a huge, Mandarin-speaking city on the border with Hong Kong that was a Cantonese-speaking village in the 1980s – I was having difficulty conversing with the passenger next to me in Mandarin and a young student opposite us translated without any effort whatsoever. Of course Guangzhou is not typical of China as a whole, but while smaller towns may be different, according to my experience this growth in English is certainly to be found in other large cities like Beijing and Shanghai.
In contrast, the use of English doesn’t seem to have changed much in Hong Kong. Visually it looks like a bilingual city, with signage, public notices and transport information in Chinese and English. And there has always been an elite for whom English is a first language. But the majority of Hong Kong’s population get by very well in Cantonese only, and if they need another language it is more likely to be Mandarin than English nowadays. If you want Chinese food - and there is a lot of it - you are unlikely to find an English menu except in restaurants frequented by tourists.
The growth of English in China and its apparent stagnation in Hong Kong provide evidence that political colonisation does not necessarily lead to language colonisation. As in neighbouring Macao, where very few people ever spoke the language of their Portuguese colonisers, few people in Hong Kong needed English in order to prosper economically or culturally under the British authorities. Even though English has long been a compulsory subject at school, many of the people who read it well enough are not at all confident in speaking. Personally, I found it much easier to understand the ticket seller's English explanations at Guangzhou East Railway Station than those of her counterpart at Hong Kong's Hong Hom Station.
In fact at the conference I attended there was a presentation about Hong Kong doctors who have to give evidence in court. The Hong Kong legal system operates in both Cantonese and English and witnesses are asked to choose which they prefer. Many expert witnesses such as doctors and scientists choose to speak in English as this is the language they did their medical training in. But while they may be able to read complex medical English texts, many of them have difficulty understanding quite basic spoken English when asked questions by lawyers.
It will probably be many years before a higher percentage of Mainland Chinese than Hong Kong Chinese speak English, but it seems likely to happen sooner or later.