Knowledge Exchange

The Many Languages of Hong Kong


To the casual observer, Hong Kong appears to be a Cantonese-speaking city with some English and Putonghua added in. But like major cities the world over, Hong Kong has attracted people from many different places. Beneath the homogeneous Cantonese front is a mosaic of languages and cultures, and now they are the focus of a website launched in the School of English.

The website, LinguisticMinorities.HK, is a project of Assistant Professor Dr Lisa Lim  to recognise the richness of Hong Kong’s linguistic environment and give a voice to those communities whose languageslisa are marginalised or in danger of dying out. Her initiative is in line with the increased attention
world-wide to linguistic and cultural diversity, especially urban linguistic diversity, and language documentation
and description as a
scholarly enterprise, as
well as the growing
awareness of heritage and conservation in the Hong 
Kong community.  
The website amasses information, resources and research on linguistic minorities, including the final-year projects of Language and Communication undergraduates who go into the field and interview speakers of minority languages. They have covered over a dozen communities so far – from Filipina domestic helpers to Hakka grandparents to African and South Asian families.

Some of the languages they focus on are dialects from China that are decreasingly being passed down to younger generations, such as Weitou, Hakka and Chiu Chau, or even in danger of dying out, such as Tanka, the language of boat-dwelling fishermen.

“We are trying to highlight the diversity of minorities in Hong Kong who are often overlooked,” Dr Lim said.

“The Census and Statistics Department can provide data in broad brushstrokes on the proportion of minorities who speak selected languages, but we are on the ground, doing detailed research and scratching far below the surface to reveal everyday issues and challenges. People talk to us about their identities, why they prefer one language over another, their frustrations.”

For example, South Asian children have very limited opportunities to study their native languages in local schools. This puts them at a disadvantage given the importance of mother-tongue learning.

Feedback on the website has been very positive. The linguistic communities appreciate the interest in their language situation, the students, whose high quality of work inspired the website, find it gratifying and eye-opening to engage in fieldwork and contribute to a collective resource, and journalists and other scholars have said the website plays an important role in showcasing the linguistic diversity of Hong Kong.

Dr Lim hopes that the website, which is supported by the Knowledge Exchange fund, can contribute to decision-making on policy on diversity and inclusion, and be further developed so that the linguistic communities can become more involved “and have some ownership of the website”. A Chinese version is currently being developed, and versions in the minority languages are also in planning.

For her work on, Dr Lisa Lim was awarded the Faculty Knowledge Exchange Award 2014.