[lg policy] Mother-tongue language policy: how Hong Kong failed where Singapore succeeded

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Mon May 21 10:45:30 EDT 2018


 Mother-tongue language policy: how Hong Kong failed where Singapore
succeeded

Regina Ip says the effectiveness of Singapore’s bilingual education should
be credited to Lee Kuan Yew’s foresight and sound policies, which Hong
Kong – now caught in a row over the status of Cantonese language – sorely
needs
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 May, 2018, 9:15am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 May, 2018, 7:39pm

Comments: 38
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[image: Regina Ip] <http://www.scmp.com/author/regina-ip>
Regina Ip <http://www.scmp.com/author/regina-ip>
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Related topics
Education <http://www.scmp.com/topics/education> Hong Kong schools
<http://www.scmp.com/topics/hong-kong-schools> Anti-mainland China
sentiments <http://www.scmp.com/topics/anti-mainland-china-sentiments> Hong
Kong localism and independence
<http://www.scmp.com/topics/hong-kong-localism-and-independence>
More on this story
[image: Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) officiates at the swearing-in
of the Hong Kong government at the Convention and Exhibition Centre, Wan
Chai, on July 1, 2017. The Hong Kong government’s protocol division has
decreed that the day is no longer to be referred to as “the handover” but
“return to China/the motherland” or “resume the exercise of sovereignty
over Hong Kong”. Photo: Sam Tsang]
<http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/2144681/debate-over-cantonese-and-handover-highlight-hongkongers>
* Insight & Opinion <http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion> * Debate
over Cantonese and handover highlight Hongkongers’ political helplessness
<http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/2144681/debate-over-cantonese-and-handover-highlight-hongkongers>
6
May 2018
[image: Teaching more Mandarin doesn’t mean replacing Cantonese, but
clearly, it is being resisted. Photo: K. Y. Cheng]
<http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/2144791/cantonese-stay-tip-our-tongues>
*Opinion <http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion>*Cantonese to stay on
the tip of our tongues
<http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/2144791/cantonese-stay-tip-our-tongues>
4
May 2018
[image: Cantonese matches the uniqueness of Hong Kong. Photo: Shutterstock]
<http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/2145001/you-could-never-replace-cantonese-language-hong-kong>
*Opinion <http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion>*You could never
replace Cantonese as the language of Hong Kong
<http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/2145001/you-could-never-replace-cantonese-language-hong-kong>
18
May 2018
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An article written by a Chinese University consultant, Song Xinqiao, on the
implementation of Mandarin education in Hong Kong and uploaded onto the
website of the Education Bureau reignited a firestorm
<http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/2146238/any-attack-cantonese-language-will-only-strengthen-hong-kong>
on the status of Cantonese as the mother tongue of Cantonese people in Hong
Kong. In his article, Professor Song argued that “mother tongue” should be
defined as the language of the Han (Chinese) race. By that token, the
mother tongue of the Chinese people, including Cantonese in Hong Kong,
should be Hanyu, taught in modern China as Mandarin, but also known as
Putonghua in Hong Kong.
China at a Glance
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Song’s thesis is premised on his vision of a hierarchy of languages in
China, with Mandarin, the lingua franca, at the pinnacle, and superior to
all dialects.

Song’s view runs counter to to linguists’ definition of “language”. Under
their definition, Cantonese would be regarded as a separate language
because it is not mutually intelligible with Mandarin or other dialects of
China. However, while technically justifiable, such a view would no doubt
be deemed unacceptable by those cagey about the advocacy of Hong Kong as a
separate political entity
<http://www.scmp.com/topics/hong-kong-localism-and-independence>.

Mandarin may be king, but it can’t sideline Cantonese in Hong Kong
<https://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/2144817/mandarin-may-be-king-it-cant-sideline-cantonese-hong-kong>

As had happened with the aborted effort in Guangzhou some years ago by then
Guangdong party secretary Wang Yang to launch a Mandarin promotion
campaign, Professor Song’s nationalist model reopened old wounds about the
rising dominance of Mandarin in Hong Kong. At the root of the resentment
lies deep-seated fears about the displacement of Cantonese – both the
language and the people – by the mighty mainland.

Both Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor
<http://www.scmp.com/topics/carrie-lam> and Secretary for Education Kevin
Yeung Yun-hung tried to shrug off questions
<http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/politics/article/2144578/should-mandarin-replace-cantonese-hong-kong-says-no>
on their mother tongue. But issues relating to the status of Cantonese are
likely to rear their ugly head any time debates on languages surface.
00:06 / 00:10
<http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/2146704/link>

How a Mandarin course caused chaos at Baptist University
<https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/education/article/2130419/how-compulsory-mandarin-course-caused-chaos-hong-kong>

The sensitivity surrounding language debates is not hard to understand, as
language is closely related to race, culture and identity, and impinges on
politics as well as education. In handling these issues, Hong Kong should
have taken a leaf from the policy decisions of Singapore
<http://www.scmp.com/topics/singapore>.

Being a multicultural and multilingual society, Singapore has long had to
grapple with similar issues, ranging from the technical issue of language
acquisition, to the ultra-sensitive political issue of deciding which of
the many languages and dialects in Singapore should be “first among
equals”, without upsetting the social and ethnic groups closely identified
with their different mother tongues.

Benefits of knowing three languages speak for themselves
<https://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/2145075/benefits-knowing-three-languages-speak-themselves>

The memoirs of the late Lee Kuan Yew
<http://www.scmp.com/topics/lee-kuan-yew>, Singapore’s founding father,
show that he had thought hard about these issues, and provided solutions
which were politically viable and practically sensible. For Lee, whose
mother tongue was English by virtue of the English-language education he
received growing up, he found English to be his “stepmother tongue” rather
than “mother tongue – “not completely accepting the values of a culture not
our own”.

Deciding that English is the international language of business and
commerce, which would connect Singapore to the US, Europe and the
English-speaking world after Singapore became independent, Lee decided to
adopt a policy of “one language, many tongues”. He designated English as
the official or working language, and Malay, Tamil and Chinese as the
“mother-tongue languages” of the Malay, Indian and Chinese people of
Singapore, leaving the Chinese people to adopt the dialect of their own
province or locality as their mother tongue.

Politics and the English language: why Singapore is ahead of Hong Kong
<https://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/2041642/politics-and-english-language-why-singapore-ahead-hong-kong>

>From 1978 onwards, sensing that the US and China would be the dominant
powers in the next 50 to 100 years, Lee launched a campaign to promote
Mandarin. The campaign was not without controversy, but it was pushed with
such efficiency that the percentage of the population fluent in Mandarin
rose from 26 per cent in 1980 to over 60 per cent in 1990, and continued to
increase.

Hong Kong faced situations similar to Singapore’s in many respects – the
need for children to acquire proficiency in both English and Chinese, but
with mixed results. In the public school system, it is hard to find
teachers, let alone students, who are truly proficient in both official
languages and in speaking Mandarin.
Large numbers of Hong Kong students trail their Singaporean counterparts in
their mastery of English and Mandarin

Affluent parents vote with their feet and send their children to
international schools to equip their children with better English. Parents
pay a premium for international schools that offer rigorous courses in
Chinese language and culture, taught in Mandarin.

Even more troubling was the launch of Hong Kong’s misguided “mother tongue”
policy in 1998, which restricted the adoption of English as the medium of
instruction to 100-odd schools whose teachers and students were deemed
capable of teaching and learning in English. This led to a significant
decline in the English standard in schools that taught in Chinese.

A mounting outcry from parents led the government to “fine-tune” (in effect
abandon) this policy in 2008. The irony is that it was the policy’s failure
to help children acquire proficiency in languages deemed vital to their
future – English and Mandarin – that resulted in a backlash and the
ultimate demise of the mother-tongue policy.

Lifelong benefits of speaking many languages – and the myths
<https://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/families/article/2117719/how-hongkongers-benefit-speaking-many-languages-and-we-dispel-few>

If the success of Singapore’s language policy is to be adopted as a measure
of our own efforts, Hong Kong should be regarded as having failed on both
the technical and political fronts. In terms of educational attainment,
large numbers of Hong Kong students trail their Singaporean counterparts in
their mastery of English and Mandarin, the languages on which we
increasingly rely for a living. Politically, our government does not seem
able so far to wrap its head round all the contentious language and
identity issues that continue to simmer in Hong Kong.

The existence of many tongues should not be an impediment to a unified
vision of our future and destiny but, in Hong Kong, a lack of foresight and
policy mistakes mean that language debates will continue to engender
discord.

*Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a lawmaker and chairwoman of the New People’s
Party*
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Lee’s
mother tongue wisdom
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-- 
=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+=+

 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
http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/~haroldfs/

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