Cantonese to stay on the tip of our tongues

Fighting against extending the teaching of Mandarin in Hong Kong schools makes as much sense as stopping the yuan from being used in the local economy

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 May, 2018, 4:10am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 June, 2018, 5:46pm

If Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor had been asked in the legislature what she thought was the official currency of Hong Kong, would she have dismissed the question as silly?

It all depends on the context. Suppose lawmakers are addressing a rumour that the yuan may be replacing the Hong Kong dollar. In that case the question would certainly not be out of place. 

Hong Kong says no to replacing Cantonese with Mandarin 

In light of an ongoing review of primary and secondary school curriculum by a government task force, a rumour – unfounded as it turns out – has been circulating that a plan is afoot to replace Cantonese with Mandarin as the main medium of instruction.

It was in this context that Lam was being asked by social welfare sector lawmaker Shiu Ka-chun what her mother tongue was.

The issue, of course, is that the post-1997 government has a policy of teaching in mother tongue in public and aided schools, and so far no one doubts that that means Cantonese. Shiu’s question, therefore, was not “silly”, though it was dismissed as such by Lam. For once, Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung Yun-hung did the smart thing and acknowledged mother tongue was Cantonese under current policy. 

The rumour – along with the leaking of an article written by a former official of the central government’s State Language Commission – has caused unease.

The article argues the city’s official language should be what is commonly used by the Han people, which is Mandarin, instead of its “mother dialect” Cantonese. But Cantonese is a language, as it is fully supported with a written script, even if some characters may be considered non-standard or “bastardised”. 

Opinion: Mandarin is in, but here’s why Cantonese reigns supreme

The fact that the yuan is widely accepted in Hong Kong doesn’t mean it is replacing the Hong Kong dollar. More local people may now speak Mandarin than English, but the vast majority still considers Cantonese as their native tongue. 

On the other hand, Lam may be pre-empting attempts by localists and other activists to stop the teaching of more Mandarin in public schools.

Teaching more Mandarin doesn’t mean replacing Cantonese, but clearly, it is being resisted. Witness the controversy over mandatory Mandarin exam for undergraduates at Baptist University. The localist backlash against Mandarin could easily spread to secondary or even primary schools. 

But it makes no more sense stopping the yuan from being used in the economy than fighting against extending the teaching of Mandarin in our schools.