Chinese literacy development: Key to ethnic minority groups' integration and social mobility in multilingual Hong Kong

Chor Shing David LI

Research output: Contribution to conferencePapers


Since the handover in 1997, the language policy in postcolonial Hong Kong is characterized by biliteracy and trilingualism: the ability to read and write Chinese and English; and to speak Cantonese, English and Putonghua. Cantonese is the vernacular of the vast majority of ethnic Chinese, who make up 93.6% of the total population (7.07 million, 2011 census). For the remaining 6.4% (451,183), South Asians make up the largest ethnic minorities: Indonesians and Filipinos each account for 1.9%, followed by Indians (0.4%), Pakistanis (0.3%) and Nepalese (0.2%). Most Indonesians and Filipinos are females working as domestic helpers. By contrast, the other 3 ethnic groups are migrants or were born in Hong Kong. In 2006, there were about 30,000 school-aged South Asian pupils (primary and secondary). The biliterate and trilingual policy accords much greater significance to Chinese, i.e., Standard Written Chinese (SWC), spoken Cantonese and Mandarin/Putonghua (national language of China). South Asian pupils need to learn Chinese, which is difficult due to linguistic and sociolinguistic factors. Cantonese and Putonghua are typologically distant from their respective ethnic languages (e.g. Bahasa Indonesia, Filipino, Hindi, Urdu, and Nepali). SWC, being lexico-grammatically based on Mandarin, adopts a logographic, non-alphabetic script. As few South Asian parents have Chinese literacy, home support for the learning of Chinese is negligible. South Asian communities tend to be insulated, partly due to society-wide stereotyping and racial discrimination. Support within the education system is wanting. The postcolonial government pursues essentially an integrationist policy. The mainstream Chinese curriculum teaches Confucian ethics along with the Chinese language in Cantonese, which is often inconsistent with the cultures and religious values of South Asian families (e.g. Islam and Hinduism). No attempt has been made to customize a separate Chinese curriculum for South Asian pupils, and few teachers of Chinese have any knowledge of their ethnic languages. Alternative achievement levels are recognized (e.g. GCSE Chinese), but they are too low to qualify them for white-collar jobs. Thus few South Asian students succeed in the mainstream school system, while segregation in designated schools fails to create a language-rich environment to facilitate the learning of Chinese. The drop-out and school failure rates are alarmingly high. Such students tend to be condemned to low-pay jobs (e.g. cleaners and construction workers). For South Asian students, social mobility through education is a myth. This study reports on the difficulties experienced by South Asian students when learning Chinese, especially in Chinese literacy development. Through focus group interviews, up to 8 South Asian undergraduate students will be recruited to reflect on the difficulties encountered when learning Cantonese and SWC. They will be trained to collect similar data from primary and secondary pupils in their respective South Asian communities. Policy implications will be discussed.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2013


Li, D. C. S. (2013, July). Chinese literacy development: Key to ethnic minority groups' integration and social mobility in multilingual Hong Kong. Paper presented at 19th International Congress of Linguists (ICL 2013): The Language-Cognition Interface, Geneva, Switzerland.


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