Hong Kong people take Mandarin with a pinch of salt

This file picture shows students at Hong Kong's Elegentia College in Sheung Shui. -- PHOTO: PEARL LIU 
This file picture shows students at Hong Kong's Elegentia College in Sheung Shui. -- PHOTO: PEARL LIU 

Can teaching the Chinese language in Mandarin, instead of in Cantonese, help Hong Kong students get a better grasp of it?

The question has become a subject of heated debate in the southern Chinese city, as the locals are gripped by a growing sense of unease that their culture would be eroded by the promotion of Beijing’s official language.

“Cantonese is Hong Kong children’s mother tongue. Using Mandarin as a medium of instruction in Chinese classes means more barriers and burden for the children,” said Chinese language Professor Tang Chiu Kay at the University of Hong Kong.

“Being able to speak Mandarin is not equivalent to a high level of proficiency in Chinese. With little linguistic and cultural knowledge, a learner is still poor in the language,” Prof Tang told the Ming Pao Daily newspaper, adding that Cantonese inherited more characteristics of ancient Chinese language than Mandarin.

His comments came in the wake of a blunder by the city’s Education Bureau, which provoked the ire of Hong Kongers late last month when it said on its website that Cantonese is “a Chinese dialect that is not an official language”.

Some Hong Kongers slammed the bureau for downgrading their mother tongue in a city where nearly 97 per cent of the population speak Cantonese.

“The bureau’s move is to promote teaching Chinese in classrooms using Mandarin,” said assistant Chinese Professor Chin Wan Kan at Lingnan University.

“Defining Cantonese as not official doesn’t make sense. We never say if British English is official, although many prefer the British accent and spelling,” he told the South China Morning Post.

In view of the mounting criticism, the bureau removed the statement a few days later and owned up to “an inaccurate interpretation of Cantonese”.

Mandarin, based on the Beijing dialect, was adopted as China’s national language in the early 1900s, which fed into the development of the written vernacular Chinese in the modern era.

But Cantonese, with its origin from Guangdong province, remains a dominant language in southern China, including Hong Kong and Macau.

The Hong Kong government set a long-term target in 2000 to make Mandarin a medium of instruction in all schools, three years after the return of the former British colony to Beijing.

To date, at least 160 primary and middle schools have participated in a scheme launched by the government in 2008 to promote the use of Mandarin in education. Some media estimated that another 20 per cent of the city’s 1,088 schools have jumped on the bandwagon to teach Chinese in Mandarin.

“Teaching Chinese in Mandarin is so prevalent in primary schools, and it’s gaining ground in middle schools,” Mr Fong King Lok, a director of Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union, told Radio Free Asia.

He noted that the switch to Mandarin was hailed by many parents, who believed that a good command of the language would help their children carve out a career in mainland China.

About three in five Hong Kongers were in favour of more cultural and economic exchange with the world’s second largest economy, a survey conducted by The Chinese University of Hong Kong showed. More than half of the 812 respondents supported of idea of working or setting up their own businesses in mainland China. 

But the effectiveness of teaching the Chinese language in Mandarin in Hong Kong has been called into question.

“No conclusive evidence has been accumulated to support the claim that learning Chinese in Mandarin can improve students’ language skills,” said the Education Bureau in a Q&A session on its website. “Two studies have found that these students are on a par with those learning Chinese in Cantonese.”

Still, this statement has been removed recently, with the bureau saying a review on the website was in process.

Another five-year study found that the medium of instruction, be it Cantonese or Mandarin, did not affect high achievers’ reception of knowledge, said Dr Lau Siu Ling, Principle of Po Leung Kuk Choi Kai Yao School.

However, slow learners showed better performance in writing and speaking after having Chinese classes in Mandarin, said Dr Lau.

“The speech of Mandarin is very close to Chinese writing, so it has certain benefits to those learning the language,” she said.

Writer Chip Tsao told Commercial Radio Hong Kong that using Mandarin or Cantonese as a medium of instruction is not an issue.

To him, the factors influencing the effective teaching of Chinese language are the textbooks selected, teachers’ charisma and their teaching methods.

He pointed out that many Chinese scholars of the last generation did not learn the language in Mandarin.

And before the adoption of Mandarin as a national language, people speaking different dialects communicated in a common writing system, Literary Chinese, which was not modelled on any dialect and had a huge impact on East Asian culture.

“Moreover, if Guangdong is not treated as an independent kingdom, but a province in China, then Cantonese is also Chinese. Is there anything wrong in using it as a medium of instruction?” said Mr Tsao, known for sarcasm in his writing.