Hong Kong students the real losers in language battle

Baptist University clash over mandatory Mandarin test is sadly part of the larger localist campaign against real or perceived incursion by China   

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 January, 2018, 2:31am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 January, 2018, 2:44pm

The breakdown of communal consensus and the social fabric is a destructive and dangerous thing. The question of what constitutes the local language and the national language goes to the very heart of the matter in Hong Kong.

Twenty years ago, everyone agreed that Hong Kong people should strive to become trilingual in Cantonese, Mandarin and English. It’s true that not everyone can master more than one language, but a working knowledge of the other two has long been considered desirable.

Now, Mandarin is being seen by some as the language of the enemy, and so is to be rejected. The other side of the coin is the belief that Cantonese ought to be protected and promoted.

How a compulsory Mandarin course caused chaos at Hong Kong Baptist University

That is the real reason behind the controversy at Baptist University. To outsiders, it must seem bizarre that a national language test should be considered controversial. Even if students object to it, it’s hardly newsworthy. But in Hong Kong today, it cuts right down to the localist debate over identity and its distinctive roots in the culture and history of Hong Kong. And what can be more integral to our core self than the language we speak in defining ourselves and the world? 

It’s hard to get a fix on the furore because the students and those who support them have put forward various extraneous arguments against the mandatory test.

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One is that Mandarin is useless, or at least not very useful. Another is that even if it’s useful, well, many things are useful to learn in life, so why pick Mandarin? Thus Baptist’s student union president Lau Tsz-kei, who led an eight-hour stand-off at the university language centre, asked why not make first aid mandatory since it too is useful.

A prominent commentator has asked why Baptist management doesn’t make Hawaiian dance mandatory; it’s more fun! 

Outraged Hong Kong Baptist University students plan Friday march after suspension of pair

I presume most Baptist graduates don’t aspire to be paramedics or Hawaiian dancers, but many would work for corporations and public bodies that often use Mandarin.

But utility is not the real issue. The struggle by militant students is against the language itself and the perceived attempt by the school administration to promote it, and by extension, to advance mainland influence.

It’s part of a larger localist battle against real or perceived mainland incursion. Sadly, the students are undermining their own education and career prospects in the service of a hopeless ideology.