New Hong Kong government, same old lousy attitude towards English

Yonden Lhatoo asks whether the new administration, in the footsteps of the ones before, is violating the city’s official language law by sidelining English usage

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 July, 2017, 5:16pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 July, 2017, 7:33pm

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss, the song goes. Her detractors have always said that about Hong Kong’s fourth chief executive, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who took the reins last week from the unpopular Leung Chun-ying.

To be fair, she’s already distancing herself from some of her predecessor’s policies, as per that new style of governance she has repeatedly promised, but the signs are not very encouraging when it comes to an old problem – the neglect of the English language.

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Quite the contrary, this looks like a new government with the same old lousy attitude towards the lingua franca of the world. All three previous chief executives, with varying degrees of apathy, did not do much about this city’s English standards. Et tu, Mrs Lam?

There’s a bit of a disconnect with those of us who can’t read Chinese

Just take a look at her new Facebook page, launched last week to, ostensibly, reach out to the public through social media, in keeping with her campaign slogan, “We Connect”. There’s a bit of a disconnect with those of us who can’t read Chinese.

She does not post messages in English, so you’ll have to rely on the default translation tool that Facebook provides if you’re trying to figure out what she’s sharing.

This gibberish is how it translates her description of her question-and-answer session with lawmakers on Wednesday: “When I came to the Legislative Council, I came back to the Legislative Council, and I came back to the Legislative Council, and I was in a bit of a bit of excitement, because I really wanted to talk to members of the Legislative Council. Attention to all sides. After an hour and a half-hour question, my immediate feeling is that I have never been so calm!” Um ... sure, whatever.

To her credit, after we reached out to Lam about her Facebook page, she ordered her staff to look into it and we were told they would start posting “important content" in English as well “in future”.

But it’s not just her Facebook page. Her media briefings are also Cantonese-only affairs, no matter how important the occasion, with a token answer in English when someone gets in a question.

Pretty much the only minister in Lam’s governing team who consistently makes an effort to repeat statements in English for the benefit of a non-Chinese audience is Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung. There would have been two if Ko Wing-man had chosen to stay on as health minister.

Under the Official Languages Ordinance, both Chinese and English are “the official languages of Hong Kong for the purposes of communication between the government or any public officer and members of the public”. The law even goes a step further to declare that “official languages possess equal status” and “enjoy equality of use”. Yeah, right.

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I’ve heard old hands in the civil service with some context of the language law and past practice suggest that the government is probably breaching the ordinance with Chinese-only press releases, media briefings and minsters’ regular blogs.

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The counter to all of it is the old chauvinistic comeback that this is China at the end of the day, not a British colony, and it’s only natural that there is more emphasis on Putonghua than English as the second language after Cantonese.

Way to build a “world city”. But if that is indeed shaping into the mainstream attitude, has anyone thought of actually amending the law to reflect it? Let’s at least be honest and dispense with the pretences and lip service.

Let’s admit it, Hong Kong’s English standards will never rise

I don’t hear much talk these days from Lam, a devout Catholic, about “God” telling her to do things, but if they are still conversing, I wish the good Lord would speak to her in English.

Yonden Lhatoo is the chief news editor at the Post