Liang Hongfu

Mandarin proficiency will aid Hong Kong

By Hong Liang (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-06-03 06:38
Large Medium Small

As the schools in Hong Kong get ready to bolt their doors for the long summer vacation, perhaps those educators, principals and teachers should spare some of their leisure time reflecting on a seemingly taboo subject - teaching in Mandarin.

It's no secret that the earlier government initiative, of adopting the Cantonese dialect rather than the English language as a medium of instruction in schools, had failed to win any support from parents.

The government believed that teaching in Cantonese, the mother tongue of the vast majority of Hong Kong students, would make it easier for them to understand the lessons. But the rationale of the policy failed to convince parents who worried that the expected fall in the standard of English would seriously handicap their children when they become old enough to enter the job market.

The government has apparently abandoned this highly unpopular policy by allowing schools once again to choose their medium of instruction. Throughout the long "mother tongue" debate, no serious thought was given to the use of Mandarin in Hong Kong schools.

Many schools in Hong Kong have introduced Mandarin as part of their curriculum. But it is taught as a second language, like French or Spanish. As a result, not many middle-school students take their Mandarin lessons seriously.

It is not surprising to find two Hong Kong persons talking to each other in English. In fact, it is trendy to talk in Cantonese infused with many English phrases and terms. But most Hong Kong people still feel uncomfortable speaking in Mandarin despite the progressive economic and social integration with the mainland.

To maintain its position as a leading financial center in this region, there is a compelling reason for Hong Kong to maintain its unique identity made up of myriad attributes, including the rule of law, a low and simple tax regime, an efficient government relatively free from corruption and an established pool of English-speaking talent in finance, technology and other professions.

Hong Kong should try to add Mandarin proficiency to that list because more and more business will come from the mainland.

Perhaps it's time for the Hong Kong government to consider prescribing the use of Mandarin as the primary medium of instruction in all public-funded schools.

Many Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong students can adjust to an all-English education quite readily at an early age. It should be just as easy, if not easier, for the students of tomorrow to adapt to learning in Mandarin.

Some educators have expressed concern that a widely adopted Mandarin education could marginalize the colorful and expressive Cantonese dialect, which is widely considered to be the source of Hong Kong's creativity in the performance arts. But I don't think anyone who learned Cantonese as a mother tongue will easily forget it.

I went to an all-English school when I was 11 years old. But I still talk to my friends in Cantonese and continue to pick up the nuance of the dialect as it evolves in the cultural and social environment of Hong Kong through watching television and reading newspapers.

There is at least one middle school in Hong Kong that has been teaching in Mandarin for years. I have several friends who studied there. They speak in Cantonese but remain proficient in both Mandarin and English. They never seem to have any problem finding jobs.