Hong Kong should be taking pride in its own language

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 November, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 November, 2000, 12:00am

Like your correspondent Banu Suresh (letter headlined, ' 'Native English' must be a 'white' thing', South China Morning Post, November 15), with whose plea I fully agree, I also have a comment to make on Tim Hamlett's column headlined, 'English not such a class act at SAR's universities' (Post, November 13).

Since returning to Hong Kong from Europe to resume my post in tertiary education after a year away, I have noticed two topics continually being raised in a confused and often arrogant manner. The first concerns the use of English in teaching, the second concerns Hong Kong's status as an international city. Tim Hamlett brings the two together in the final sentence of his column with the bizarre assertion that reduced use of English in Hong Kong universities might somehow affect Hong Kong's ' 'international city' aspiration'.

I do not understand what speaking English and being an international city have to do with each other. English speaking and international are (luckily) not yet one and the same thing. The great international cities of the world include Paris, Rome, Beijing and Tokyo, as well as naturally English-speaking metropolitan centres such as London and New York. Hong Kong is already an international city in most people's eyes and does not need to demote itself to the aspiring category. It is a lively, eclectic and culturally diverse Chinese city that has also had 150 years of British influence. People come here to visit, because it is Chinese not because people speak English.

Use of English in Hong Kong is a more important topic. Cantonese and written Chinese is the mother tongue and primary form of expression of 90 per cent of the population. At all levels of education this should therefore be the primary language used to ensure that students can receive, articulate and express their academic learning in the most effective way. It seems reasonable for students to request that more of their classes be in Chinese. Would Mr Hamlett have enjoyed taking classes in Chinese when he was a student at university? Do the French or Italians insist that their university courses are taught in English? Of course not. An ability to read and understand English is important for reading texts, but the rest should where possible be in the mother tongue. Because being able to express yourself well and clearly in your mother tongue is a prerequisite for being able to learn and speak another language effectively, at any level. By all means offer well run and effective classes to teach the English language (at tertiary level as well where required), but don't force students to imbibe knowledge in all areas of learning in a foreign language. This can be extremely detrimental to a students' creativity, confidence and a serious block to their educational development. In my own establishment students will often be tongue tied if asked to comment or contribute in English but open, original and confident in their comments in Cantonese.

So to ensure its continued status as an international city (as opposed to an ex-British colonial city) Hong Kong should be more concerned about nurturing good spoken Cantonese and written Chinese skills and less obsessed with trying to ram a foreign tongue down people's throats at every turn.

It should take pride in its own language and not allow it to be endlessly diluted and bastardised. Good spoken and written English will then come much more easily when genuinely required and when it is taught as a separate subject. Most European countries have been following such a model successfully for decades.


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