The Hong Kong Language Problem: How I Found Peace with my University

In my previous post on 16 January called Hong Kong Makeup Your Mind! English, Mandarin, or Cantonese…Aiya!, I outlined my challenges with languages in Hong Kong.  Since then, there have been a few developments and updates on this thorn in my side.

I had an appointment with the Director of the program, she was very friendly and a staunch feminist (of course).  I was able to get behind her thinking on why the program admitted me, knowing that most courses are taught in Cantonese.  The official position of the program was they thought I spoke fluent Mandarin and therefore assumed that I would understand Cantonese.  If you know or have studied the Chinese family of languages or dialects, Mandarin and Cantonese are so different, I would compare them to English and French.  China is a very large country around the size of the European Union. Mandarin, a Northern dialect spoken around the Beijing area, is very different from Cantonese, a Southern dialect spoken around the Hong Kong-Guandong area.  It is incredibly difficult for me to sit in a three-hour class concentrating on understanding the language, rather than what the content of the lecture is.

Frustrated that the program made a huge erroneous leap of an assumption (I mean come on, it is like assuming I would know French if I knew English!), I protested that we find a resolution for my situation.  The program director and I found a few courses (related to my areas of interest) taught in English in the Journalism and Communications department.  She also setup a self-study course for me in Anthropology (another one of my interest areas).

My situation has improved vastly since.  I am now in 1 course completely taught in English (professor is from NYC!), 2 courses that are taught in Mandarin, and 1 course that is bi-lingual (Mandarin and English).  I can breath a sigh of relieve — I understand the course content and can actively participate in class discussions. My classmate loaned me two Learning Cantonese books and I’m reading daily and I am also working to improve my Mandarin.

Moral of the post: Everything works out if you are willing to be flexible!!



  1. Professor Joseph J.Y. Sung(Vice-Chancellor / President) email:
    Professor Paul Lee (faculty of social science dean )email:

    send an email to Joseph Sung and CC to Paul Lee….serious…..u are not deserved to have this situation…..
    couple classmates are complaining the same issue too. hope u can speak out and help the program and the future students….there still have time to solve the program for next academic year….

    “The official position of the program was they thought I spoke fluent Mandarin and therefore assumed that I would understand Cantonese.” <—–this explain is fucking stupid…… it only showed that Choi Poking is not professional and not international…..the only clue that she found out that and assumed that u speak chinese is from your name, which is a serious mistake and discriminating all the others who dun speak Canto…..Why they dun stated on the info or on the website….I described this attitude as cheating…..Everyone knows that the offical lang are english, cantonese and mandarin. it stated on the Basic Law. the program website is written in Eng. all the email is written in Eng….Now u r telling me that u expect everyone can speak canton and know the program teach in Eng…Gosh she must be kidding….

  2. I’m with you on this one — I do not see why they would think you could understand Cantonese just because you know Mandarin. Linguistically speaking, they aren’t dialects, they are separate and distinct languages, like your example of French and English. Languages are often subject to the vagaries of politics: Norwegian and Swedish are called different “languages”, even though speakers can understand each other, and all Chinese languages are called “dialects”, even though they are mutually unintelligible. I’m glad the school has been able to work out something for you!

  3. Another possible explanation is the ‘linguistic confusion’ and the variable meaning of “中文” I ran into in HK/Guangzhou.

    When I studied Mandarin, we learned “中文” as a general term for the Chinese language. So, you’d ask someone, “你說中文嗎?” (BTW, how’s your 汉字? Are you learning 繁体字 now? My ability to read/write 繁体字 was CRITICAL in HK, since I don’t speak Cantonese at all OR Mandarin at your level ) This worked fine in my American Chinese language class, but it had HIGHLY variable results IN China, depending on where I was.

    In Beijing, it got me into Mandarin conversations. In Guangzhou, it cause people to start speaking Cantonese. The logic seemed to be this: Chinese people(中國人/唐人/華人, whatever you call yourself) speak the Chinese language (中文). But the specific Chinese you speak may vary with the region you’re from. I found a LOT of native Guangzhou folks considered 中文 to be 廣東話. They didn’t call Mandarin 中文, they called it 普通話 or 國語. This confused the HECK out of me during a visit to a 国美/國美 electronics store in Guangzhou. I kept asking the guy if he spoke Chinese (你說中文嗎?), he’d say “yes”, then I’d only understand about 10% of what he said! After figuring out he was speaking Cantonese, I discussed this issue with other Cantonese friends in Guangzhou and asked random people when I was in Hong Kong. I got the same basic answers, sometimes in a, “Duh! Of course!” fashion. For a LOT of native Cantonese-speakers, 中文=Cantonese. Mandarin is 國語 or (sometimes, derisively…Lingnan cultural differences is a WHOLE different issue) 普通話.

    So, the thinking might have been, “Hmm,矫晓鸣…她说中文。好!” with the SPECIFIC form of “中文” being overlooked. NOT a mistake an educational institution should have made, but a fairly common point of linguistic confusion in HK/Guangdong, at least in my experience.

    In any case, glad you got things worked out. Are you planning to learn Cantonese while you’re in HK? I’d suggest it, since you’re in one of the best places to learn it. One of my regrets from my time in GZ was that I didn’t make more of an effort to learn Cantonese.

    Oh, and Happy Lantern Festival! It’s still the 6th here in America. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s