My Take

Cantonese vs. Putonghua: Motherland doesn't mean mother tongue to Hongkongers

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 November, 2015, 12:25am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 June, 2018, 6:05pm

Here we go again. Another study claims our English standards are declining. And some pundits rush to condemn mother-tongue teaching as the cause.

The latest English proficiency index compiled by EF English First, an international English-training institute, ranks Hong Kong 33rd among 70 countries and territories - a slight decline from 31st last year. But do these rankings actually mean anything?

TEST YOURSELF: Take the EF English Proficiency test here

The issue of language decline is complicated. Here I will only tackle one aspect: what, exactly, do we mean by mother-tongue teaching, which was adopted as official policy for most government and aided schools after the 1997 handover?

For most people, it probably means teaching in Cantonese, the first language of about 90 per cent of the local population. But to an education official, it means teaching in Chinese, which could mean either Putonghua or Cantonese.

And after 1999, when the Curriculum Development Council first declared "a long-term goal" of making Putonghua the medium of instruction (PMI), it increasingly means Putonghua.

The PMI programme in about 160 local schools is currently supported by an official scheme. But many other schools have switched to PMI on their own. 

A survey by Societas Linguistica Hongkongensis, a Cantonese language promotion NGO, found in March that almost three out of four primary schools and more than one out of four secondary schools have adopted PMI.

Now I am all for teaching Putonghua - and English - in schools. But growing up as a native Cantonese speaker, Putonghua was as foreign to me as English. It makes no sense to call it my mother tongue when it is more like a second or third language.

READ MORE: ‘Mother-tongue teaching policy to blame’ as Hong Kong slides down English proficiency index for second year in a row

At which point, PMI advocates counter: Putonghua is the Chinese language while Cantonese is only a dialect. This means pupils have to "switch codes" - because you allegedly can't write in Cantonese. With Putonghua, you speak the way you write.

But how you speak Cantonese depends on your education and social experience, just like many other languages. The more educated and professional you and your friends are, the less slang you use and the more literate you speak. If you want to blame "mother-tongue" teaching for our language decline, may be it's because PMI is not the mother tongue for most pupils.