[lg policy] Benefits of knowing three languages speak for themselves

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Tue May 8 10:18:04 EDT 2018

Benefits of knowing three languages speak for themselves

Latest controversy regarding the use of Mandarin against Cantonese arises
in Hong Kong that, together with English, should be striving to be
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 May, 2018, 5:27am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 May, 2018, 5:27am

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It goes without saying that Cantonese is the mother tongue of Hong Kong
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Intriguingly, an article on the Education Bureau website argues that it
should be Mandarin instead. The issue in question is perhaps a topic of
interest to language experts.

But debate of such kind is uncalled for, especially when Cantonese and
Mandarin are unnecessarily placed against each other in an increasingly
politicised context. What matters most is that our official policy of
biliterate – Chinese and English – and trilingual – English, Mandarin and
Cantonese – shall continue.

The controversy arose when the article, written by a former official of the
central government’s State Language Commission and uploaded to the bureau’s
website along with 24 others some time ago, was singled out for criticism
in an online forum recently.

Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung Yun-hung said the article was meant to
provide different views of Mandarin teaching and did not represent the
government’s position. But amid growing tension between the city and the
mainland, conspiracy theories abound.

This is not the first time that Cantonese has been seen as belittled by the
authorities. The bureau came under fire four years ago with another article
arguing that Cantonese was just a dialect rather than an official language.

What intensifies the latest row further is the response of Chief Executive
Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor. When asked by a lawmaker at the Legislative
Council what her mother tongue was, Lam said the question was meaningless
and did not answer.

The city’s leader may not have wanted to be dragged into a row where the
language issue was politicised, but her reply was seen as different to that
of Yeung, who agreed that Cantonese was Hongkongers’ mother tongue.

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Even when Lam said there was no plan to change the language of teaching for
now, she was criticised by some as reluctant to defend Cantonese.

The controversy owes much to the perception of how “one country, two
systems” is implemented in Hong Kong.

There has been growing unease over the shifting emphasis from two systems
to one country. Any perceived threat to our system, including our
vernacular language, will be guarded against. That does not mean Mandarin
should be kept at bay, though.

Cantonese is unquestionably what Hong Kong Chinese grow up with and use in
their social life. In the business sphere, however, English remains
essential, with Mandarin becoming increasingly important too. The three are
not necessarily in conflict.

The Basic Law also recognises both Chinese and English as official
languages. It is in the city’s interest to keep up with the trilingual
policy. Instead of dwelling on the linguistic value and political
connotation of the languages, efforts should be made to enhance Hong Kong
as a trilingual city.


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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