Relax civil service language policy to attract best talent

Richard Sheung says language requirements constitute radical localisation

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 August, 2014, 4:59pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 August, 2014, 1:42am

As one of the newly recruited government translators back in the early eighties, I can still remember that we were bemused by the quaint title of our post "Chinese Language Officer". It was not as though Chinese was the only language that we knew, nor were we the only officers who knew Chinese.

It was shortly before the signing of the Joint Declaration and the colonial government was still dominated by expatriate officers at the more senior levels. English was indisputably the working language of the civil service. But, back then, English was the only language requirement for officers, local and expatriate. This partly explained why the translators, with their officially recognised Chinese skills, were classed as Chinese Language Officers.

We provided translation and Chinese secretarial support to the expatriate and local officers alike in dealing with the public, while, internally, official business was conducted in English. The expatriate officers had the advantage of English, but the local officers were bilingual, and capable of direct communications with the public they served.

If the usefulness of bilingualism was downplayed by the colonial government, it is embraced with a vengeance by the SAR government.

All government officers must now have native Chinese competency as well as a good command of English. Written communications with the public are entirely in Chinese, unless the citizen prefers English. Policy papers and public speeches that are primarily intended for a local audience are originally drafted in Chinese, with greater care and flair, with an English translation that may carry less weight.

All is as it should be. But if we seriously believe, rightly or wrongly, that the official use of English is somehow the price for being an international city, it is not difficult to see, too, that English is now our greater postcolonial challenge.

How viable is English as a working language among its non-native speakers who already have a shared mother tongue that they can use more effectively and are expected, quite rightly, to use more extensively? The new bilingual policy spells the most radical localisation, which ironically bars even our local ethnic minorities, let alone the white expatriates who used to be the international face of Hong Kong. To serve in the SAR government is to be Chinese, or at least Chinese-literate.

Is it not time for us to rethink the whole idea of a bilingual civil service and our bilingual heritage? Bilingualism is rarely the complete and equal mastery of two languages. The point of being bilingual is so we can use our second language advantageously, i.e., to broaden our experience by dealing with people who don't speak our mother tongue. Bilinguals should be ready and happy to work with speakers of other languages, including, of course, the monolinguals.

The greater use of Chinese in government communications to achieve greater clarity and cost efficiency is entirely reasonable. The continued use of English in our civil service must be justified by the continued advantage of international experience that may be gained by, for example, opening a controlled percentage of its positions, which are not politically sensitive, to a wider pool of talent. For, otherwise, the English requirement serves no useful purpose but to deter those among us who may equally qualify, but have inadequate English.

The SAR government can suitably relax its bilingual requirement so we can recruit the best talent, despite their not already acceptable Chinese or English. I need scarcely add that we already have able government translators who can support a more linguistically diverse civil service.

Richard Sheung was a translator with the Hong Kong government before the handover. He teaches in the Department of Linguistics and Translation at City University of Hong Kong