HomeThe Asia-Pacific Education Researchervol. 18 no. 1 (2009)

'I love Cantonese but I want English' - A Qualitative Account of Hong Kong Students' Language Attitudes

Mee-ling Lai

Discipline: Education, Languages




This study was conducted to find out Secondary 4 students' attitudes towards the three official spoken languages of Hong Kong (i.e., Cantonese, English and Putonghua). The target respondents were the first cohort of students under the mandatory mother tongue education policy, which was implemented one year after the sovereignty of Hong Kong was returned to China from Britain. The statistical analysis of 1048 questionnaires showed that students loved Cantonese (their mother tongue) most but wanted English (the colonial and international language) the most highly for its instrumental values. From both the integrative and instrumental perspectives, Putonghua (the language of the new ruler) was rated the lowest. Although the quantitative approach helped to draw up generalizable patterns of attitudes, it did not allow respondents to express their feelings and beliefs behind their responses. This paper reports on the qualitative part of the research which aimed to reveal the complexity of students' attitudes towards the three spoken languages. From the interviews of 40 sample students, it was found that their language attitudes were mainly formulated on their perceptions of identity and an evaluation of power which each language symbolized. Putonghua was rated the lowest because it was considered an outlier in the dichotomized world which required only a home language (i.e., Cantonese, the mother tongue) for in-group communication and an international language for outside contact (i.e., English).