How does language matter in mainland Chinese university students’ social integration in multilingual Hong Kong?

Dr. Matthew Sung discusses the role of language in influencing mainland Chinese students’ social integration in multilingual Hong Kong.

Hong Kong universities are becoming increasingly international. Between 1998 and 2018, the number of international students in Hong Kong universities grew from under 2,000 to over 40,000. The proportion of international students has also increased from 2% to 17% within the same period. Notably, 71% of international students were from mainland China. They are drawn to Hong Kong because it is perceived as a bridge between the domestic and international. But in what ways do mainland Chinese students experience Hong Kong as a bridge to the international during their time here?

While others have examined how these students handle cultural adjustment, my research sheds light on their experiences in the realm of language. In the multilingual context of Hong Kong, English is the official medium of instruction in universities, Cantonese is the most commonly-used language in everyday interactions, and most local students have at least basic proficiency in Mandarin. How do mainland Chinese students interact with these circumstances? For instance, how and why do they acquire Cantonese? What is their experience of studying in universities where English is the instructional medium? When and where can they use Putonghua?

My research study recruited 22 mainland Chinese students from a Hong Kong university and conducted three rounds of semi-structured interviews to learn more about their language learning experiences and usage. For the most part, this qualitative study revealed many obstacles for social integration through language.

The mainland Chinese students understood Cantonese as the language for integration into the social circles of local students. Consequently, a number of interviewees took the initiative to learn Cantonese. However, they found that ‘authentic’ Cantonese appeared to be a symbol of Hong Kong identity whereas accented Cantonese would be viewed as ‘unauthentic’. Since these students were unable to speak with a ‘standard’ accent, they struggled to gain meaningful interactional opportunities despite attempts to engage in Cantonese-mediated interactions. They did not find an atmosphere of tolerance towards Cantonese learners.

It was not uncommon for them to encounter resistance from locals when using Cantonese. Such resistance was met in everyday encounters. One interviewee was humiliated at a restaurant. She recalls: “I ordered in Cantonese. But the waiter looked at me with contempt and said, “Miss, why don’t you speak Putonghua?” I just had a weird feeling. I wanted to integrate into the community, so I’ve learnt Cantonese. Perhaps my pronunciation wasn’t accurate. But you can’t make me feel embarrassed or uncomfortable, to be honest.”

Interviewees encountered similar struggles within the university setting. For example, one interviewee told her group mates that they could speak Cantonese to her. However, the request fell on deaf ears as her fellow students continued using Putonghua when speaking with her. Another interviewee would attempt to speak Cantonese during group projects, but found that the rest of the group would simply reply in Putonghua. This damaged their self-esteem.

Difficulties in the use of Cantonese ran in parallel with unprecedented challenges in the use of Putonghua. Many interviewees recounted being affected by the negative cultural stereotyping of mainland Chinese among Hong Kong people. One interviewee puts it this way: “When you speak Putonghua, Hong Kong people will think of those stereotypes… If you don’t speak Cantonese, you are from the mainland.” Another interviewee recalls using Putonghua to speak with fellow mainland Chinese friends on the subway, but simply because they used Putonghua, they would receive glares from bystanders. Some went so far as to refrain from using Putonghua altogether in order to avoid being identified as a ‘mainland’ student on campus.

Curiously, mainland Chinese students also discovered a stronger sense of their ‘mainland’ identity through language. Some interviewees reported that whenever they would spend time with other mainland Chinese students, Putonghua would be their medium of communication while they connected over shared concerns such as taking the gaokao (national examination for secondary school) or arranging for transport to their hometown during the Lunar New Year. In effect, the reconfigured use of Putonghua within the context of multilingual Hong Kong simultaneously hindered their social integration and reinforced their sense of connection with other mainland Chinese students.

As for English, most mainland Chinese students were required to take the course, ‘English for Academic Purposes’, in the first two years of their study programmes. Most interviewees agreed that English was a commodity worth investing in because they regarded it as the language used in academia as well as the leading world language. Learning English would open up opportunities for finding work after graduation. Yet, using English with a mainland Chinese accent could sometimes lead to being ostracized by local students. Moreover, many interviewees felt that their English proficiency was not improving even after interacting with exchange students who were native speakers of English.

The aforementioned issues are just the tip of the iceberg. My study has highlighted the nuances of language in higher education beyond a few courses here and there, or rudimentary mentions of it in university policy. Based on the experiences of the interviewees, language is an issue with much wider ramifications for social integration both within and without the university setting. For the most part, mainland Chinese students encounter difficulties when entering both Cantonese-mediated and English-mediated environments. Moreover, mainland Chinese students entering a multilingual setting unexpectedly discover Putonghua as a marker of identity.

These findings invite further research to determine how universities can shape language policy that supports students as much as possible. What would it take to enable mainland Chinese students to learn Cantonese in suitable learning environments? How can English-medium universities enable English learning for non-native speakers both inside and outside the classroom? What is the place of Putonghua in universities? Should efforts be focused on university policy at the top, or encouraging more open-minded attitudes from the bottom? Ultimately, resolving these questions of language will help pave the way for Hong Kong universities to become the bridge between domestic and international, something which both mainland Chinese students and the universities themselves hope for.

Further reading

Sung, C. C. M. (2020). Mainland Chinese students’ multilingual experiences during cross-border studies in a Hong Kong university: From a language ideological perspective. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development. Advance online publication.

Sung, C. C. M. (2020). Investing in English-mediated practices in the EMI university: The case of cross-border mainland Chinese students in Hong Kong. Lingua, 243, Article 102919.

Sung, C. C. M. (2020). Cantonese learning, investments, and identities: Mainland Chinese university students’ experiences during cross-border studies in Hong Kong. Learning, Culture and Social Interaction, 26, Article 100415.

Author’s Bio

Dr. SUNG Chit Cheung Matthew (宋哲彰), CityU

Dr. Matthew Sung is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at City University of Hong Kong. He holds a doctoral degree from Lancaster University, UK. He previously taught at the University of Hong Kong and Lingnan University. His current research focuses on the role of language in students’ experiences in international higher education.

Managing Editor: Tong Meng

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