Learning Mandarin could be just the job

Hong Kong students who say it is a burden having to learn the language should look at the opportunities that lie ahead

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 January, 2018, 2:08am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 January, 2018, 2:08am

It is truly bizarre for some university students in Hong Kong to think it’s an unjustified burden to make them achieve a degree of fluency in Mandarin. And there are even scholars who support them.

Let’s leave aside the pro- and anti-mainland politics and just ask, is having a language requirement unreasonable at a university?

My background is in history and philosophy. In my days in North America, we needed an additional language to graduate in philosophy, which usually meant German or French. It was the same with history. I think it’s the same today.

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If you studied Chinese politics or history, Mandarin was a must. Every China specialist, those with a PhD in the field anyway, I have ever come across in Canada and the US speaks Mandarin; the only ones who also know Cantonese come from Hong Kong. However, Mandarin was and is the professional language.

When I became a reporter, I met foreign diplomats and business executives working in Hong Kong and the mainland. For most of them, learning some Mandarin was a priority, though knowing a bit of Cantonese was nice too.

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Like it or not, for the whole world, from Donald Trump’s granddaughter and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to students at Hong Kong’s international schools, learning Chinese means learning Mandarin. More than 160,000 registered students are learning Mandarin in Britain. More than 600 British primary and secondary schools offer Mandarin classes, making it the second most popular foreign language taught at school.

Imagine the awkwardness: a Brit speaks to you in Mandarin and you reply in Chinglish.

Still, you may argue that even if an extra language requirement is reasonable, it doesn’t have to be Mandarin. Isn’t English good enough? It is, after all, one of Hong Kong’s official languages. That was what Baptist University student union president Lau Tsz-kei argued in an RTHK debate. “English is the international language, you can get by with it in many countries,” he said. “Mandarin is only good in China.”

But we are not in other countries; we are in China. Don’t get me wrong; I think students should master both Mandarin and English.

Maybe you aspire to work for Google, Apple, Facebook or Amazon. But why sell yourself short when you can aim for Alibaba, Baidu or Tencent, too?