[lg policy] Hong Kong: Why our young generation will stay on guard over language policy

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Sat Mar 19 14:12:47 UTC 2016

 Why our young generation will stay on guard over language policy

The Curriculum Development Council (CDC) has just completed a consultation
on Chinese Language curriculum, in which one of the most controversial new
teaching objectives is to equip students with the ability to recognize and
read simplified Chinese characters.

When you look at the Hong Kong government’s language policy as a whole, it
is not surprising at all, as it is simply a ring of many in a chain.

After the 1997 handover, the government was very keen on implementing
mother-tongue teaching and advocating biliteracy and trilingualism. While
the former had been severely questioned, there had not been much opposition
to the other policy.

A key aspect of the biliteracy and trilingualism policy is centered on the
promotion of Mandarin, although lavish resources have also been spent on
Chinese and English languages, as usual.

The main reason for advocating the use of Mandarin is obviously political.
Mandarin is the official language of mainland China, and it serves as the
best starting point for constructing national identity in Hong Kong youth.

The promotion of Mandarin is extensive, from school level via curriculum
and public exams, to public sphere such as radio, television and public
utilities announcements.

Fundamentally it begins from education. Hence, Mandarin has been included
in compulsory curriculum in the primary and junior secondary education
since 1998. By 2000, it has been listed as one of the selective subjects in
Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination (HKCEE).

Setting Mandarin/Putonghua as a medium of instruction, or PMI, is the
ultimate goal of the authorities.

Yet, thanks to a serious setback in implementing mother-tongue teaching,
the Education Bureau finds its hands tied in giving a push to PMI.

Authorities are now promoting Putonghua as the medium of instruction in
Chinese language lessons (PMIC) in a low-profile manner, as there’s no
research data backing up the advantages of using Mandarin over Cantonese in
the instruction of Chinese language.

As early as in 2003, the Standing Committee on Language Education and
Research (SCOLAR) endorsed the CDC’s decision on setting PMIC as a
long-term objective, though there is no timeframe for the implementation.

I couldn’t locate the exact CDC document that calls for setting PMIC as a
long-term objective in language policy. At best, I was only able to trace
back to Education Commission report No.6 — “Enhancing Language Proficiency”
— that was issued in March 1996.

In the document, the commission advised SCOLAR to study whether Mandarin
should be an independent subject or integrated in Chinese Language.
Nonetheless, it didn’t touch upon PMIC.

In simpler words, the CDC has been in support of PMIC without detailed
research or consultation. Meanwhile, the SCOLAR, though it didn’t set a
timeframe for PMIC in 2003, worked out a large-scale plan between 2008 and
2014, allocating HK$200 million for applying PMIC in 160 primary and
secondary schools in four phrases. It has been the biggest and extensive
execution ever done by the SCOLAR.

According to unofficial data, over 70 percent of primary schools and 40
percent secondary schools have adopted PMIC as of 2014. Hence, though the
government hasn’t yet formally introduced PMIC policy, it is making steady
progress in schools.

No wonder Hong Kong parents have been complaining that it is getting so
difficult to find a school that uses Cantonese as the medium of instruction
in Chinese language lessons.

Sadly, as of today, there have been no specific research findings
indicating the usefulness of Mandarin in raising the level of Chinese
language skills.

On the contrary, there are reports confirming that students using Cantonese
have beaten peers who use Mandarin, in terms of proficiency in Chinese

Launching PMIC is a political ploy for constructing “national identity” and
to speed up the amalgamation of Hong Kong and mainland China. PMI and
learning of simplified Chinese characters are the obvious next moves.

Chinese language is going to be redefined, where “written Chinese is
regarded as Standard Chinese, and Mandarin for colloquial use”. Cantonese
might soon be labeled as a dialect for family and regional usage only.

Hong Kong youngsters, I believe, wouldn’t let go of their real
mother-tongue easily and will stay on guard against PMI and simplified
Chinese characters, especially in the post-Umbrella Movement era.

*This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 11.*


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