(SCMP, October 24, 2002) The defence in a court case involving three mainlanders has requested that the proceedings be held in Putonghua, their native tongue. It is a request which sounds very reasonable and whose rejection could provoke accusations of unfairness. Why shouldn't the accused be allowed to conduct his defence and cross-examine his accusers in his own tongue? But the real issue at stake is not whether the accused can use Putonghua, instead of Cantonese or English, the languages commonly used in local courts, but whether it entails compelling every party in the case to adopt their preferred language. If there is such compulsion, then the answer has to be no. For reasons of history, Hong Kong has an English-style common law legal system, which is built around the English language. Before Chinese was made an official language in 1974, all proceedings in court were conducted in English. After 1974, the use of Chinese was permitted in the lower courts. Since the late 1980s that has applied also in the higher courts. But even today, many Chinese-speaking judges still prefer to conduct proceedings in English, the language in which they received their legal training. The long-standing practice has been to provide interpreters to translate the testimony of non-English speaking parties into English. There has been no attempt to define what Chinese means phonetically, although it is commonly understood to mean Cantonese, the predominant local dialect. Nor is a precise definition necessary. For irrespective of which Chinese dialect is used by a party in court, a suitable interpreter can be found to translate his or her testimony into English. Conducting a trial through interpreters is very inconvenient, to say the least. Some would even say it is inherently unfair, because defendants who do not speak English will never be fully aware of what is going on in court. Yet no one has seriously challenged the administration of justice in Hong Kong due to problems of interpretation. Where gross errors of interpretation were found to have led to a miscarriage of justice, they were addressed and rectified. In the Hong Kong context, it is important to ensure that every party in a proceeding be able to use their preferred language, have their testimony competently translated into English, and get the same justice. No one party should be allowed to dictate the language the other parties should use. * To keep abreast of local issues and events, read the main news section of the South China Morning Post. Glossary provoke (v) to bring about deliberately at stake (phrase) in danger of being damaged or lost Example: About 700 lives were at stake in the Chechen standoff. (SCMP, October 25, 2002) entail (v) to follow something as a necessary consequence Example: Fifteen North Korean refugees sheltered in a German Embassy school in Beijing. A German Embassy spokesman confirmed an agreement had been reached with China, but refused to say what it entailed. (SCMP, September 6, 2002) to say the least (phrase) it is used when one is suggesting the situation is actually much worse or serious than it is inherently (adv) existing as an essential, inseparable part of something Example: Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, publisher of Apple Daily and Next magazine, disagreed that he had changed that community's expectations. 'It was inherently there! We can't make something out of nothing,' he said. (Post Magazine, October 13, 2002) Discussion points - How is verbal language important? Is it more important than sign or body language? - What is the best way to learn a second language? - Let's play a game. Student A makes up a sentence of about 10 Chinese words and tells student B in Cantonese without letting the rest of the class hear them. Student B translates the sentence into English and relays the message to student C. Student C translates it back to Chinese and tells the rest of the class in Mandarin. How much of the message has been lost?