24 October 2016
Following the Umbrella Movement, Hong Kong students have become more wary about the government's attempts to promote Mandarin in local schools. Photo: HKEJ
Following the Umbrella Movement, Hong Kong students have become more wary about the government's attempts to promote Mandarin in local schools. Photo: HKEJ

Why our young generation will stay on guard over language policy

The Curriculum Development Council (CDC) has just completed a consultation on Chinese Language curriculum, in which one of the most controversial new teaching objectives is to equip students with the ability to recognize and read simplified Chinese characters.

When you look at the Hong Kong government’s language policy as a whole, it is not surprising at all, as it is simply a ring of many in a chain.

After the 1997 handover, the government was very keen on implementing mother-tongue teaching and advocating biliteracy and trilingualism. While the former had been severely questioned, there had not been much opposition to the other policy.

A key aspect of the biliteracy and trilingualism policy is centered on the promotion of Mandarin, although lavish resources have also been spent on Chinese and English languages, as usual.

The main reason for advocating the use of Mandarin is obviously political. Mandarin is the official language of mainland China, and it serves as the best starting point for constructing national identity in Hong Kong youth.

The promotion of Mandarin is extensive, from school level via curriculum and public exams, to public sphere such as radio, television and public utilities announcements.

Fundamentally it begins from education. Hence, Mandarin has been included in compulsory curriculum in the primary and junior secondary education since 1998. By 2000, it has been listed as one of the selective subjects in Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination (HKCEE).

Setting Mandarin/Putonghua as a medium of instruction, or PMI, is the ultimate goal of the authorities.

Yet, thanks to a serious setback in implementing mother-tongue teaching, the Education Bureau finds its hands tied in giving a push to PMI.

Authorities are now promoting Putonghua as the medium of instruction in Chinese language lessons (PMIC) in a low-profile manner, as there’s no research data backing up the advantages of using Mandarin over Cantonese in the instruction of Chinese language.

As early as in 2003, the Standing Committee on Language Education and Research (SCOLAR) endorsed the CDC’s decision on setting PMIC as a long-term objective, though there is no timeframe for the implementation.

I couldn’t locate the exact CDC document that calls for setting PMIC as a long-term objective in language policy. At best, I was only able to trace back to Education Commission report No.6 — “Enhancing Language Proficiency” — that was issued in March 1996.

In the document, the commission advised SCOLAR to study whether Mandarin should be an independent subject or integrated in Chinese Language. Nonetheless, it didn’t touch upon PMIC.

In simpler words, the CDC has been in support of PMIC without detailed research or consultation. Meanwhile, the SCOLAR, though it didn’t set a timeframe for PMIC in 2003, worked out a large-scale plan between 2008 and 2014, allocating HK$200 million for applying PMIC in 160 primary and secondary schools in four phases. It has been the biggest and extensive execution ever done by the SCOLAR.

According to unofficial data, over 70 percent of primary schools and 40 percent secondary schools have adopted PMIC as of 2014. Hence, though the government hasn’t yet formally introduced PMIC policy, it is making steady progress in schools.

No wonder Hong Kong parents have been complaining that it is getting so difficult to find a school that uses Cantonese as the medium of instruction in Chinese language lessons.

Sadly, as of today, there have been no specific research findings indicating the usefulness of Mandarin in raising the level of Chinese language skills.

On the contrary, there are reports confirming that students using Cantonese have beaten peers who use Mandarin, in terms of proficiency in Chinese language.

Launching PMIC is a political ploy for constructing “national identity” and to speed up the amalgamation of Hong Kong and mainland China. PMI and learning of simplified Chinese characters are the obvious next moves.

Chinese language is going to be redefined, where “written Chinese is regarded as Standard Chinese, and Mandarin for colloquial use”. Cantonese might soon be labeled as a dialect for family and regional usage only.

Hong Kong youngsters, I believe, wouldn’t let go of their real mother-tongue easily and will stay on guard against PMI and simplified Chinese characters, especially in the post-Umbrella Movement era.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 11.

Translation by Darlie Yiu

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate Professor, Department of Education Studies, Hong Kong Baptist University

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