29 February 2020
Lily Li is known for her Putonghua fluency, but she is against overstating its importance at the expense of the Hong Kong local dialect. Photo: HKEJ
Lily Li is known for her Putonghua fluency, but she is against overstating its importance at the expense of the Hong Kong local dialect. Photo: HKEJ

Are we overstating the importance of Putonghua?

Many Hong Kong parents tend to buy the idea that if Putonghua is used as the medium of instruction for Chinese classes, the kids will grow up more fluent in the language, which could be critical for their career and financial future.

But a former host of a Putonghua teaching program doesn’t agree.

Twelve years ago, when the city was still reeling from the devastating impact of SARS, attracting mainland tourists was considered one of the key ways to revive the local economy.

It was against such backdrop a TVB program focusing on teaching people Putonghua (much less widely spoken in Hong Kong at that time) was launched. And Lily Li was the host of that program.

But today, Li is warning against the overstatement of the importance of Putonghua and alerting the public to the potential loss if our next generation cannot speak Cantonese properly and appreciate the beauty of our local dialect.

China is a big country with many provinces and a huge population. It is precisely the cultural diversity that makes the nation interesting, Li says.

Li is not questioning the importance of Putonghua, but suggests that it shouldn’t come at the cost of Cantonese.

“Putonghua is a must-learn, but that doesn’t mean we have to give up Cantonese, which is part of our daily life, part of who we are.”

If we want our kids to speak better Putonghua, separate language classes will suffice, she says.

One of the arguments for switching from Cantonese to Putonghua teaching is that it can raise the students’ overall Chinese language standards.

“Take a taxi driver in the mainland. He can most likely speak fluent Putongua, but does that automatically mean he can write good essays as well?” Li asks.

“Many great scholars of Chinese literature or prominent writers also have their own mother tongues,” she points out.

Li’s view is shared by some teachers.

There has been plenty of heated debate among teachers. Apparently, the teaching results are far from conclusive.

Usually, the arrangement works better for faster learners or students already adept at spoken Putonghua. But according to reports, in the case of people of moderate or average ability, Putonghua impedes rather than enhances Chinese language learning because students have to first figure out what teachers are talking about. Some kids in fact became less motivated to learn.

From Li’s own experience, it takes a lot more than having Chinese lessons in Putonghua to possess all-round proficiency in Chinese, including listening, oral and reading skills.

Li used to be an avid reader of science fiction written by a famed local writer. During her teenage years, she also took particular interest in romance stories from a Taiwanese author.

Before taking up the Putonghua program job, Li spent two years with Phoenix Satellite Television, where she honed her writing technique.

Given the Chinese background of the company, her bosses and many colleagues were from the mainland. Most of them had never set foot in Hong Kong before they got relocated here, so Putonghua was typically the only way to communicate.

“My Putonghua improved a lot during that period. I often asked my colleagues Putonghua questions and they asked me how to say things in Cantonese,” Li recalls.

But like it or not, more schools have opted to use Putonghua to teach Chinese. A report last year quoted an unofficial survey as showing that more than 70 percent of primary schools have already adopted the scheme.

Some parents are happy to see their children pick up the correct pronunciations at an early age, a chance they didn’t get. But Li points out the trade off.

A lot of words used in ancient literature can only be found in Cantonese, and the phonetics of many poems from the Tang and Song dynasties sound more beautiful when cited in our local dialect, Li explains.

Rather than putting too much emphasis on Putonghua, Li also reminds us of the importance of English.

Asked if she has children, how would she rank the importance of Cantonese, Putonghua and English in their education, Li gave this reply: Cantonese would be first priority, English second and Putonghua third.

“Speaking Cantonese is how the family members communicate, how we spend time together, that is our heritage,” Li says.

For career pursuit, Li regards English to be more important than Putonghua.

“China is a very important market, but China is not everything. There is a whole world out there,” she says.

The recent downturn of Macau’s casino industry and Hong Kong’s retail sector are great examples that attest to Li’s point and warnings of over-reliance on China.

“Don’t forget that while we are pushing our kids to learn Putonghua, those in the mainland are actually trying hard to brush up their English. Look at how many Chinese officials are sending their children abroad. And don’t forget while multinationals are hiring lots of mainlanders to help them develop business, they prefer those who can speak good English.”

In a separate occasion, one veteran financial professional said something similar.

It’s important for Hongkongers to learn Putonghua, but the city will gain only if that language ability is put to use to link up China with the world, the professional said.

Hong Kong’s unique value lies in its international exposure. Given this, parents should help their kids develop a world vision and prepare them for tapping global opportunities, not just those in China.

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Li currently hosts a lifestyle program for Digital Broadcasting Corp. Photo: HKEJ Broadcasting Corp. Photo: HKEJ

EJ Insight writer