Language-in-education policies in Hong Kong: Empowerment and identity

Siu Yin Annie TONG, Robert Damian ADAMSON

Research output: Contribution to conferencePapers


Language-in-education policies have been and remain of signal importance in Hong Kong, as they involve complex questions of empowerment, cultural integrity and identity (which are key themes of this conference), in a place that has created an ecosystem for schooling that brings together the legacies of Chinese educational traditions, British colonialism, market-based ideologies, hierarchical social structures and multifaceted identities. Migrants from southern China endowed Hong Kong with the Cantonese language and a distinct sense of identity. Colonialism brought the English language to prominence, being perceived as a key to economic prosperity and driving a wedge between the haves and have-nots, and this phenomenon has endured in the post-colonial era, with English serving as a major language of international trade and other manifestations of globalisation. The handover of sovereignty in 1997 to the People’s Republic of China—a motherland from which Hong Kong had become culturally, politically, educationally and, to some extent, linguistically estranged—as a northern form of Chinese was adopted as the standard language or Putonghua—added further complexity to the linguistic environment. In this paper we use documentary analysis to study language-in-education policies for primary (elementary) and secondary (high) schools in Hong Kong over the past two decades and we compare the impact of the policies on the role and status of the three key languages—Cantonese, Putonghua and English. We argue that these language-in-education policies have been mainly driven by economic utilitarianism and political exigencies. As a result, Hong Kong students are nowadays empowered to become national citizens of the People's Republic of China through learning Putonghua and citizens of the "globalised village" through learning English but these gains have been made to the detriment of the linguistic and cultural vitality associated with the majority local language, Cantonese, which is now seriously threatened.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2013
Event2013 Comparative International Education Society’s Western Regional Conference - Los Angeles, United States
Duration: 01 Nov 201330 Nov 2013


Conference2013 Comparative International Education Society’s Western Regional Conference
Country/TerritoryUnited States
CityLos Angeles


Tong, A. S.-y., & Adamson, B. (2013, November). Language-in-education policies in Hong Kong: Empowerment and identity. Paper presented at the 2013 Comparative International Education Society’s Western Regional Conference, Los Angeles, CA.


  • Language policy
  • Trilingualism
  • Identity
  • Hong Kong


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