Writing Chinese: A challange for Hong Kong Chinese and ethnic minorities.

Research output: Chapter in book / Conference proceedingChapter in an edited book (as author)Academic researchpeer-review


This chapter discusses the challenges faced by Chinese and South Asian Hongkongers to acquire, develop and maintain literacy in Standard Written Chinese (SWC). Language acquisition or learning is mediated by speech (DeFrancis 2002; Erbaugh 2002; Perfetti and Dunlap 2008). The relative ease of literacy acquisition, development and maintenance depends largely on how closely speech sounds are mapped onto more or less discrete graphic units of the target language. Being non-alphabetic and morpho-syllabic, Chinese characters (hanzi, 漢字) are orthographically deep, difficult to acquire, and easy to forget. Since the lexis and grammar of SWC are essentially based on Mandarin, speakers of Chinese ‘dialects’ such as Cantonese do not have the benefit of ‘writing as one speaks’. Considerable effort is needed to master Mandarin-based words, which in Hong Kong (and Macau) Special Administrative Region are taught and learned in Cantonese. Although colloquial written Cantonese elements are widespread in mass and social media, they are banned and excluded from school literacy. E-gadgets being so widespread and convenient today, Chinese characters are increasingly inputted electronically rather than composed by hand. That trend accentuates the challenge of remembering and retrieving Chinese characters. If Cantonese-L1 Hongkongers find it difficult to develop and maintain literacy in their ‘mother tongue’, one can easily imagine the linguistic predicament faced by South Asian Hongkongers who need to struggle with learning Cantonese in addition, and who see their life chances significantly curtailed by the Chinese literacy requirement for higher education and civil service positions since the return of sovereignty to China on 1 July 1997.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe tyranny of writing
EditorsKasper Juffermans , Constanze Weth
Place of PublicationLondon
PublisherBloomsbury Academic, An imprint of Bloomsbury Pub. Plc
Number of pages163
ISBN (Print)978-1-4742-9246-7
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2018


  • literacy development, written Chinese, ethnic minority language,
  • writing system


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