Language barrier lets the city down

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 July, 2012, 12:00am


There is every reason why Hong Kong should strive to be proficient in Chinese and English, beyond the legal provision that both are official languages. A population that is 93.6 per cent Chinese and the city's close links to the mainland make the former a given, while the latter is necessitated by English being the global language of our regional and international strengths, business, finance, exchange, science and technology. It should be expected, therefore, that all branches of government lead the way through being as bilingual as possible. When they fail to do so, our city is being let down.

That is what district councils, the most grass-roots part of government, are doing by making minimal use of English. With a few exceptions, the language is rarely heard or seen in meetings, reports are generally issued only in Chinese and websites offer the barest translated information. Yau Tsim Mong councillor Chan Wai-keung highlighted the problem in this newspaper last week, saying that his colleagues were doing the district's more than 12 per cent non-Chinese residents a disservice by insisting on carrying out business only in Chinese. He rightly called the matter 'linguistic discrimination'.

But it is not only the district councils that ignore their obligation. Not all documents in the Legislative Council's archives are available in English. Foreign residents and journalists have long complained that they are being left in the dark about government decisions as many press releases are issued only in Chinese. This is despite a high degree of fluency in both languages being necessary for jobs in the civil service.

The government clearly does not lack the means to ensure that the proceedings of meetings and reports are available in English as well as Chinese. By not producing translations, residents are being excluded from discussions and decisions affecting them. Authorities have promised - and are obligated - to strive for transparency and inclusivity. We cannot call ourselves an international city if the best possible environment for a bilingual society is not in place.