Meet the American Professor Trying to Save Cantonese From Dying in Hong Kong

As the use of Cantonese begins to decline in Hong Kong due to the growing widespread use of Putonghua (mainland China’s unifying language), an unlikely crusader has stepped up to fight for its preservation.

Hong Kong-based Robert Bauer, an American honorary linguistics professor at the University of Hong Kong has expressed concern that the traditionally predominant language in the city is in danger.

According to SCMP, the professor stated that Cantonese is at risk of dying out ”in another couple of generations” if the current trend is not changed.

“As far as the future of Cantonese is concerned, I have to say I’m not very optimistic,” Bauer was quoted by the Post as saying. “There are economic, social, educational and political pressures. The situation may be beyond saving.”

He is further worried by the thought that there might not be many Hongkongers who are concerned about preserving Cantonese. 

That’s why Bauer, who himself is a fluent speaker of Cantonese, has initiated compiling a Hong Kong Cantonese-English Comprehensive Dictionary. He aims to at least have a record of what he considers a significant part of the culture of Hong Kong.

“It’s not just a language, it’s everything that’s tied up with it – the knowledge, the history, the culture,” he explained. “Languages encode certain kinds of knowledge and those pieces of knowledge are not recognized in other languages, so if the language dies out, that knowledge is also lost.”

He noted that Cantonese, being placed on a list of items of intangible cultural heritage, is never a good thing as it meant the language is already endangered.

“That’s a warning to us,” he said.

Bauer said his dictionary will be more than the traditional dictionary as it is intended as a reference point which is useful in daily life. He also plans to include colloquial terms that are commonly spoken by a Hongkonger every day. Bauer understands that Cantonese, just like any other language, is constantly evolving, so he tries to keep himself updated for the newest colloquialisms.

“I’m trying to document the culture, the society through the language,” he further noted. “I want to be as helpful as possible. I want people to be able to turn to it to get the information they want.”

He first learned Cantonese when he was an exchange student from the United States to Taiwan back in 1974. To improve his grasp on the language, he decided that moving to Hong Kong would be his best way of doing so.

He would later permanently relocate to the city In 1997, which was shortly before the British handed the Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty. 

“Basically, the government ignores Cantonese,” he said. “A few years ago, the Education Bureau produced a video to teach Putonghua. In this video, a beautiful young lady is the Putonghua teacher, and Cantonese interference is depicted as this evil devil. I thought: ‘this is terrible!’ There’s no attempt made to encourage children to keep both languages.”

Bauer’s work has earned him a nomination from HKU to SCMP’s Spirit of Hong Kong Awards in the Cultural Preservation category. The recognition focuses on individuals whose “contributions often go unnoticed yet are vital to the everyday success of Hong Kong.” 

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