Mind your language

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 June, 2006, 12:00am

Language is an emotive issue with deep cultural and political significance. This was patently clear to those who wanted to see how Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian would defend himself against accusations of incompetence - by watching his televised address on Tuesday night.

Instead of using Taiwan's official spoken language, Mandarin - or Putonghua, as it is called on the mainland - Mr Chen switched between Mandarin and minnanhua, the local dialect. By using minnanhua, he was trying to highlight his identity as a Taiwanese, whose local roots date back many generations. By contrast, a flood of mainlanders came to Taiwan with the Kuomintang regime in the 1940s, and imposed Mandarin on the native population.

A key platform of Mr Chen's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is independence for Taiwan, and minnanhua has always been its preferred language. The Mandarin-speaking Kuomintang stands for eventual reunification with the mainland.

My Taiwanese friends have told of how, when they were young, they were punished for speaking minnanhua at school, under a strict policy of using Mandarin as the medium of instruction. While the policy was instrumental in ensuring the majority of Taiwanese became fluent in the language, it also bred resentment that has since taken on political overtones. Over the years, DPP politicians have made various attempts to strengthen the official status of minnanhua.

Taiwan's situation has relevance to Hong Kong, where language has also been a battleground. Even now, eight years after most secondary schools were compelled to use Cantonese, not English, as the medium of instruction, some people still feel strongly that Putonghua should have been adopted instead.

This view is particularly popular among those who saw the mother-tongue education policy as a politically inspired decolonisation move. They argue that Cantonese is the mother tongue of most, but not all, Chinese in Hong Kong, and that it is far more important for the population to master Putonghua.

In fact, the major consideration behind using Cantonese was that students should use the language they are most familiar with to learn in the early stage of their education. If there were any political concerns behind that policy, they would probably still be stacked against using Putonghua.

What if Putonghua had been made the medium of instruction in 1998? At best, it might have been regarded as a desirable move to ease Hong Kong's integration with the mainland. But given the jittery climate after the handover, it's more likely that something worse would have happened. It might have made Hongkongers feel that they would be subjugated by Putonghua - yet another 'foreign tongue' - under 'one country, two systems', much as the Taiwanese had felt about being forced to learn in Mandarin.

Politics aside, the majority of our teachers would be unable to teach in Putonghua. This is the most important factor that should be borne in mind by those inclined to read politics into every policy.

There is no doubt that far more needs to be done to improve the population's proficiency in Putonghua. But any well-intentioned moves in that direction must not be seen as a suppression of Cantonese - which is an important part of Hongkongers' cultural and political identity.

C. K. Lau is the Post's executive editor, policy ck.lau@scmp.com