Language Spoken in Hong Kong

Move over, English. In Hong Kong, Mandarin is fast emerging as a new lingua franca.

Fresh on the heels of a fracas between Hong Kongers and mainland Chinese ignited in part by controversies over language, Hong Kong’s latest official census report reveals Mandarin has eclipsed English as the language second most commonly spoken by residents of the special administrative region.

Agence France-Presse/Getty Images People attend a rally to help stop Mandarin Chinese being promoted to the detriment of Cantonese Chinese in mainland China, the main language used in Hong Kong, on August 1, 2010.

The proportion of Hong Kong residents who report they can speak Mandarin – referred to in mainland China as Putonghua, or “the common language” — clocks in at 48%, according to census figures released this week (pdf), narrowly surpassing the 46% of Hong Kongers who can speak English. In 2001, the last time Hong Kong conducted a census, only a third of Hong Kong residents reported being able to speak Mandarin.

China has worked to promote Mandarin in Hong Kong, particularly in schools, since the former British colony returned to Chinese control in 1997.

Frustration over Beijing’s attempts to spread Mandarin have long complicated China’s already messy web of politics and identity. Tibetans and Uighurs, a Muslim minority in China’s northwest, often complain that their culture is being eroded by the promotion of Mandarin in schools and through the media. In 2010, more than 1, 000 people rallied in southern China to protest what they said was a government effort to gradually eliminate Cantonese, also the dominant dialect in Hong Kong.

Language has played a role in a recent ramping up of mainland-Hong Kong tensions. Earlier this year, a videotaped subway spat between a Hong Konger and a group of mainland Chinese who mocked his Mandarin went viral, sparking an ugly war of words in which one Chinese professor described Hong Kongers as “dogs” and “thieves.”

Hong Kong residents — 96% of whom speak Cantonese, according to the census — may be speaking more Mandarin, but many appear to have conflicted emotions about it. A survey conducted by Hong Kong’s Center for Communication Research found that the number of Hong Kongers who describe themselves as feeling “proud” of Mandarin dropped to 29% in 2010, down from a high of 34% in 2006.

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