For Hong Kong South Asians, a lack of Cantonese is said to be the primary barrier to integration into the Hong Kong mainstream. My research rejects that claim by demonstrating the links between language ideologies and underlying ethnic and class hierarchies. I draw on work from language ideology and linguistic ethnography to trace the construction of links between language, ethnicity, and national belonging through ethnography conducted in a multiethnic Hong Kong secondary school.
Categories such as “non-Chinese speaking” are shown to be rooted in ethnic differences, not actual linguistic skill. In Hong Kong, particular linguistic repertoires are evaluated along dimensions of “local/non-local” and “elite/non-elite.” Speakers occupying different social positions are expected to have different linguistic resources, and the resources they do possess are evaluated on different scales. Accordingly, South Asians are constructed as non-locals and non-elites, who are expected not to know Cantonese but said to need it. This contrasts with other groups, such as non-local and elite expatriates, who are neither expected nor encouraged to learn Cantonese.
I describe how these discourses are taken up, reproduced and modified within the school setting. Examining how students style their own language use reveals the tensions between dominant ideologies and students’ actual practices and identifications. Linking these locally negotiated meanings to Hong Kong’s broader ideological landscape demonstrates how discourses about language may be used as a tool to naturalize social stratification and exclusion. Learning Cantonese cannot therefore be considered the key to integration, and in fact discourses of “integration” and “diversity” themselves collude to reinforce the outsider status of South Asians.