Brouhaha over Putonghua is a recipe for failure
Localists must understand that to succeed in the world today, you must be able to speak and write the languages of business
My late father was a teenager when the Japanese occupied Hong Kong. By the end of the war, he and many of his friends were fluent in Japanese, having been forced to learn the language and sing the national anthem at school.
After the war, he made a conscious effort to unlearn Japanese, as he considered it the language of imperialism. By the time he qualified as a solicitor, he couldn’t speak the language anymore, though he still understood it when spoken to.
That was unfortunate as it was the 1960s, when the Japanese economy was taking off. Many Japanese companies such as car dealerships came to Hong Kong to set up shop, and they all needed legal services. There were clearly good business opportunities for my father. But he became self-conscious and easily embarrassed when he tried to speak Japanese.
The lesson he wanted to impart to his children was that learning a new language or dialect is never a bad thing, under whatever circumstances. And never let pride get it the way of learning new things.
It’s therefore sad that many young people today, especially those who are politically motivated, are increasingly rejecting Putonghua and simplified written Chinese scripts in the name of localism.
Since 1997, the government has actively promoted biliteracy and trilingualism – often referred to as mastering two languages (Chinese and English) and three ways of speaking (Cantonese, Putonghua and English).
It’s a tall order. But as a goal, there was for many years a consensus that such abilities were necessary for success. That consensus has broken down, thanks to our highly divisive politics.
The issue is so highly charged that mere mention of teaching simplified Chinese characters in schools is enough to spark an outcry. The latest furore focuses on the Curriculum Development Council, which has just completed a consultation on Chinese language curriculum. It wants to adopt the teaching of simplified characters but only as an eventual goal with no time frame for introduction.
Critics and activists say such a policy is just to placate Beijing. That may well be the case, but so what? Cantonese localism is all very well. But you need Putonghua and English to succeed in the world today.