Did you know the UDHR protects minorities’ linguistic rights?

Did you know that the United Nations recognized linguistic rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Article 2 of UDHR describes that all individuals are entitled to the rights declared without discrimination based on language. Article 19 entitles individuals have the right to freedom of expression, including the right to choose any language as the medium of expression.

In response to further awakening to individual’s linguistic rights, the PEN International presented the Girona Manifesto in 2011. This text advocates for greater protection and promotion of the World’s language, including those at risk of extinction.

As much as us linguists are worried about the future of many endangered languages and dialects, it seems optimistically, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, that actions are finally taken to defend peripheral language and perhaps, to save the dying norms and traditions of various cultures.


Strained family ties, broken Urdu and personal regrets

Normally, linguists analyze language death on a societal basis, but we propose that such process also occurs within a minority community in a foreign context. As the prevalent language dominates minorities’ choice of language, they may neglect linguistic practices of their culture. Whatever reason of such switch maybe, this preference of dominant language over the ethnic language would ultimately lead to its decline within a minority community.

Born in Pakistan and raised in Hong Kong, Noman and Sehrish both belong to South Asian minority groups in the local community. They are proficient in Cantonese and English, but are less competent in Urdu, their native language. Previously, we described the ascension of socioeconomic status, the jeopardized cultural continuity and discrimination with the use of Urdu and Cantonese as a ethnic minority in Hong Kong. While the above are factual and relatively straightforward experience to comprehend, during our interview about the experience as ethnic minorities in Hong Kong, we uncovered a more complex layer of emotions and sentiments with their ever-growing and insufficient exposure to Cantonese and Urdu respectively.

Whereas Sehrish remained frustrated in her efforts to explain Pakistani traditions to her peers, Noman, who is also less competent in Urdu, expressed a growing sense of exasperation while communicating his thoughts and opinion to his parents. To further complicating matters, neither of them speaks Cantonese nor English. In turn, this has severely weakened family ties in Noman’s household. Raised in a dissimilar environment to that of his parents, he was unappreciative of their traditions and cultural norms, particularly to the concept of gender conformity. Disgruntled, he described how his parents remain rooted in the idea of gender conservatism – education opportunities for female members of the family are not as readily available as what he currently enjoys. In the past, conflicts had arisen from Noman’s disapproval and his parents’ acknowledge of Pakistani culture. Attributing his open-mindedness to the exposure to Cantonese, he sees this originally foreign, but now familiar language as a gateway to introduce modern and more equitable perspectives, unlike that of his ethnic culture, on important gender issues. Similar to what Boroditsky predicted, Noman’s experience with Cantonese influenced his interpretation of ethnic and global cultures. But perhaps, this has also, at the same time, hindered and possibly, undermined Noman’s personal understanding to the Pakistani culture.

Although Noman continues to dismiss the Pakistani conservatism and certain parts of its traditions, he is sentimental for straining family ties with his incompetence in Urdu. Having never received a proper education on Urdu, he expressed regret on his inability to converse fluently in the language and highlighted that it has inadvertently affected the family relationship and his perception on Pakistani norms.

Running out of words to describe your culture?

The Whorfian-Sapir analysis of linguistic relativity in the past century certainly fanned a series of heated discussion on the relationship between a language and a culture. Whorf proposed that individuals “see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.” (Harrison, 2007) In this view, people would perceive and experience the World differently as long as they speak different languages and thus, the linguistic structure of a language would alter its user’s perception of reality.

However, we must question if language and culture are two distinctive concepts. Is a language particularly dominant in influencing perceptions and ultimately, the culture of a society? In her comparative study on Japanese and English, Lera Boroditsky suggested otherwise. She held that “language and culture are not competitors” and “they mutually influence and reinforce each other”. (Boroditsky, “How Does Our Language Shape The Way We Think?”)

The two interviewees of this project acknowledged Boroditsky’s comprehensive interpretation of the relationship between language and culture. Both of them suggested that without relating to cultural context, the process of translation could never transfer a particular interpretation of one language to another. Born as Pakistanis but raised in Hong Kong, Noman and Sehrish provided us an eye-opener on the death of Urdu and their Pakistani culture within the minority community in Hong Kong.

حلال, or Halal in Urdu, refers to subjects that are permissible under the Sharia law of Islam. It is more popular to coin this practice with reference to the cooking methods and dietary practices of Muslim across the World. However, as Sehrish explained to us, Halal is an overarching concept and covers multiple aspects of the Pakistani and generally, the Muslim way of life. In this sense, the meaning of Halal goes beyond a simple definition of meat consumption. Halal implies a rich cultural, historical and religious context in the Pakistani culture and partly narrates the Islam. In Urdu, Halal is a comprehensive interpretation of reality, but, as she noted, the Cantonese equivalent retains a singular definition and thus, many of her friends regard Halal as a dietary habit. Lacking the corresponding cultural context, she found it problematic to fully explain the practice and its historical origins to her peers from Hong Kong.

Boroditsky, while recognizing language’s role in influencing our conception of reality, also dubbed language as cultural creations. Languages, she argued, are products that satisfy our needs to express and communicate within a society, and thus, they reflect beliefs, norms and practices of the respective community. (Boroditsky, “How Does Our Language Shape The Way We Think?”) In turn, its usage shapes our perceptions and sways our reactions to societal conceptions. A virtuous cycle emerges as these reactions constitute a part of our norms, beliefs and most importantly, our culture.

During our conversation, Sehrish revealed to us that she only uses Urdu in her home and the prominence of Cantonese and English in Hong Kong has reduced the number of opportunities to practice and to become more competent in such language. Having never received a formal education in Urdu, she spoke of her concern about becoming completely incompetent in this language and she expressed her pessimism of cultural continuity for the next generation of Hong Kong Pakistanis. Given the importance of Urdu in explaining the Halal tradition, the virtuous cycle between Urdu and the Pakistani culture may be broken by the language shift within Pakistani minorities in Hong Kong. Cantonese, Sehrish highlighted, remains insufficient to communicate the cultural and religious context of her traditions.

If we apply Boroditsky’s presumption that language and culture reinforce each other, and if the generations after Sehrish and Noman speak only Cantonese and English, they may find the Halal tradition implausible and cease practicing the highly valued norm. While this is only probable assumption, it nevertheless underlined how vulnerable Urdu is in a minority context.

Whorf once said, “the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds – and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds”. (Harrison, 2007) The loss of a linguistic system is irreversible and if the language shift encountered by the Urdu-speaking minority continues to snowball, it is possible, as frighteningly as it seems, to lose the Hong Kong Pakistani culture and traditions altogether.

Awareness Post #5

It seems that language and culture are two closely knitted units. Without language, we would lack the vital platform to access cultural norms, to comprehend and understand its values and practices. Language, in this context, describes and translates the reality into words.

The Whorfian hypothesis concurs with this assumption and proposes that the ‘real world’ is, to a large extent, unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group. It argues that we perceive reality as we do because the language habits of our community “predispose certain choices of interpretation”.

Benjamin Whorf suggested that “the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds – and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds… In this view different speakers will therefore experience the world differently insofar as the languages they speak differ structurally”.

Following this preposition, Ronald Wardhaugh named a few examples whose interpretation is heavily influenced by its language context. He demonstrated the difficulty to universalize explanatory terms on kinship terminologies, which distinguishes themselves from one culture to another, often due different social conditions.

From left to right: Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf

So… you want to climb the social ladder? Do you speak Cantonese?

Socioeconomic status

Generally, Socio-economic status is a measure of an individual’s or family’s economic and social position in relation to others, based on income, education and occupation.(Northwestern University, 2010.) In our project, we have narrowed down to mainly investigate minorities’ ability of job searching in Hong Kong, which is also closely related to one’s income level.

Cantonese as a barrier in job searching

Noman and Sehrish have both experienced difficulty in looking for jobs in Hong Kong with respect to their inability to articulate in Cantonese. They both pointed out yet again the difficult nature of Chinese which makes them formidable to meet the basic job requirement of knowing how to read and write in Chinese. Apparently, they may be restricted to look for jobs that are completely unrelated to Chinese and in this regard, they have both worked as an English tutor in last year’s summer break and that Sehrish have also worked for a while in a Belgium restaurant as a waitress in which all the administration work were solely based on English. From this, we can see that the language barrier has limited vastly the number of job choices.

The above situation may not be surprising when we take a closer look into the figures presented by the Hong Kong Government and several NGOs. A survey conducted by the Society for Community Organization (SoCO) in the last decade has revealed the fact that unemployment rate of ethnic minorities, including Pakistanis, are disproportionately higher than the general population. Take Nepalese construction worker as an example, the unemployment rate was around 42 percent whereas the figure for Hong Kong’s overall construction labour population was about 20 percent (Lin, 2004). To look more closely on how linguistic barrier has contributed to this phenomenon, the SoCO has reported that some of the minorities were rejected during job searches on the grounds that they did not know the local language (Cantonese), although the job did not require the ability to speak the language (Lin, 2004).

From the government statistics, the most frequent difficulty encountered by the minorities is the language problem, where most of them do not speak Chinese or even English. The situation may be even worse for Pakistanis, in which 45.1% of the Thais claim to be fluent in Cantonese while this is the case only for 10.3% of the Pakistanis. Similarly, over 85% of the Indians are considered to be fluent in English but this only applies to 15.1% of the Pakistanis.(Company, 2000) This shows that perhaps not only Cantonese is a sort of linguistic barrier for them but perhaps also English.

One may infer from the aforementioned figures that the Pakistanis are subjected to a relatively lower Socio-Economic status due to their disadvantaged position in working in Hong Kong. In addition, both of our interviewees have worked as an English tutor and this may be a more fortunate case given that they are both receiving tertiary education. Although we cannot draw any conclusion that minorities who are better educated are more competitive in looking for jobs, we can still infer from our interviewees that Cantonese is a definite obstacle for them.

Illustration 5

Socio-economic – Education aspect

Although the aspect of education was not investigated in our interview, from our literature review, we have observed that a majority of the students (56.5%) thinks that they do not have an equal educational opportunities as the local Chinese students in Hong Kong and they have pointed out that they are limited to mainly 2 choices of secondary School, which is Sir Ellis Kadoorie Secondary School (West Kowloon) and Delia Memorial School (Hip Wo). It should be noted that one of our interviewee, Noman also comes from Delia Memorial School (Broadway). The major reason was revealed by Noman that these schools provide curriculums that are specially designed for minorities and claimed that they are indeed easier than the local student’s curriculum.

number 6

Attitude towards Cantonese

Attitude towards the language

During the interview, we have also touched onto how the minorities will overcome this language barrier that may have prevented them from moving up the social ladder. This has also revealed their demand and positive attitude to equip themselves with better Cantonese regardless of its difficulty as they has attributed their desire to work in Hong Kong in the future to the sense of identity as a Hong Kong citizens over the past 15 years of living.

To enhance their competence in expressing themselves in Cantonese, Noman has taken the opportunities offered by the School of Chinese, Faculty of Arts in HKU. A series of course called “Cantonese as a Foreign Language” are offered in 8 different levels as a 6-credit course each where students are advised to choose the most appropriate level of difficulty on the completion of a placement test (Chinese Language Centre, 2013). He has completed level 1 & 2 and is planning to take a few more in the coming years in hopes of raising his competitiveness in the society and eliminating the language barrier that has existed over the past years of part-time jobs searching. Sehrish had also approached the series of language enhancement courses and agreed that she will be more competent if she learn the local language.

The above positive attitude is also reflected in the research conducted by the PolyU. 86% of the 156 respondents who demand more Chinese education consider Cantonese to be fundamental for further study and/or future employment in Hong Kong. Among the remaining 44 respondents, 77.3% thinks the language is too difficult and 20.5% of them mentioned that they will not be working in Hong Kong so the language itself is not useful for them (Chan, 2005). From these figures, it is understandable that the majority of minorities are motivated to learn the language in pursuit of attaining a decent job in their future.



Awareness Post #4

Did you know that although people often give up their mother tongues with free will, the circumstances under which they did so were rarely free?

In his book “Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World’s Language”, anthropologist Daniel Nettle argued languages associated with economic takeoff provides an alluring remedy to alleviate poverty and increase the standard of living. Those in need may, therefore, use the more dominant and popular language in order to advance their socioeconomic status, and thus, diminishes the importance of their mother tongue.

Nettle also hypothesized the downfall of such mother tongue in a “three generational pattern of language shift”. In this scenario, first generation of people exposed to the dominant language will encourage their children to become bilingual in an attempt to promote their socioeconomic status. These bilingual second generation is likely to ask their next generation to familiarize only with the dominant language and thus, the mother tongue of this family will be lost forever in three-generations time.

What kind of opportunities have you gained from speaking a foreign language?

What are the opportunities you gained from speaking a foreign language?

Awareness Post #3

During the climax of British imperialism in late 1800s and early 1900s, colonial governors of Hong Kong debated on the benefits and shortfalls of Anglicization of local education on the island.  Not surprisingly, some advocated for the full assimilation of English education in the Hong Kong education system at the time.

Those advocates believed the spread of English to particular elites of the local community would prove beneficial. This ‘divide and conquer’ policy allowed local civil servants to fill needed clerical position, while refraining the majority of the population from accessing the top of the hierarchy of power in the colony. It is likely for us to deduce that, the use of English amongst the privileged promoted the status of English amongst the colonized population. Reverence and respect were given to those who can master the language and communicate well with their colonial masters.

Correspondingly, this phenomenon describes the prominence of English in the Hong Kong community at this time. The legacy of colonial Hong Kong has left a reverent attitude amongst locals to those who are acquainted this language. From such perspective, it provides a plausible explanation for parents who prefer to send children to English tutorials than that of Chinese.

Colonial Hong Kong, circa 1870s