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Mother-tongue language policy: how Hong Kong failed where Singapore succeeded

Regina Ip says the effectiveness of Singapore’s bilingual education should be credited to Lee Kuan Yew’s foresight and sound policies, which Hong Kong – now caught in a row over the status of Cantonese language – sorely needs

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 May, 2018, 9:15am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 May, 2018, 7:39pm

An article written by a Chinese University consultant, Song Xinqiao, on the implementation of Mandarin education in Hong Kong and uploaded onto the website of the Education Bureau reignited a firestorm on the status of Cantonese as the mother tongue of Cantonese people in Hong Kong. In his article, Professor Song argued that “mother tongue” should be defined as the language of the Han (Chinese) race. By that token, the mother tongue of the Chinese people, including Cantonese in Hong Kong, should be Hanyu, taught in modern China as Mandarin, but also known as Putonghua in Hong Kong. 

Song’s thesis is premised on his vision of a hierarchy of languages in China, with Mandarin, the lingua franca, at the pinnacle, and superior to all dialects. 

Song’s view runs counter to to linguists’ definition of “language”. Under their definition, Cantonese would be regarded as a separate language because it is not mutually intelligible with Mandarin or other dialects of China. However, while technically justifiable, such a view would no doubt be deemed unacceptable by those cagey about the advocacy of Hong Kong as a separate political entity

Mandarin may be king, but it can’t sideline Cantonese in Hong Kong

As had happened with the aborted effort in Guangzhou some years ago by then Guangdong party secretary Wang Yang to launch a Mandarin promotion campaign, Professor Song’s nationalist model reopened old wounds about the rising dominance of Mandarin in Hong Kong. At the root of the resentment lies deep-seated fears about the displacement of Cantonese – both the language and the people – by the mighty mainland. 

Both Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung Yun-hung tried to shrug off questions on their mother tongue. But issues relating to the status of Cantonese are likely to rear their ugly head any time debates on languages surface. 

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The sensitivity surrounding language debates is not hard to understand, as language is closely related to race, culture and identity, and impinges on politics as well as education. In handling these issues, Hong Kong should have taken a leaf from the policy decisions of Singapore

Being a multicultural and multilingual society, Singapore has long had to grapple with similar issues, ranging from the technical issue of language acquisition, to the ultra-sensitive political issue of deciding which of the many languages and dialects in Singapore should be “first among equals”, without upsetting the social and ethnic groups closely identified with their different mother tongues. 

Benefits of knowing three languages speak for themselves

The memoirs of the late Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father, show that he had thought hard about these issues, and provided solutions which were politically viable and practically sensible. For Lee, whose mother tongue was English by virtue of the English-language education he received growing up, he found English to be his “stepmother tongue” rather than “mother tongue – “not completely accepting the values of a culture not our own”. 

Deciding that English is the international language of business and commerce, which would connect Singapore to the US, Europe and the English-speaking world after Singapore became independent, Lee decided to adopt a policy of “one language, many tongues”. He designated English as the official or working language, and Malay, Tamil and Chinese as the “mother-tongue languages” of the Malay, Indian and Chinese people of Singapore, leaving the Chinese people to adopt the dialect of their own province or locality as their mother tongue. 

Politics and the English language: why Singapore is ahead of Hong Kong

From 1978 onwards, sensing that the US and China would be the dominant powers in the next 50 to 100 years, Lee launched a campaign to promote Mandarin. The campaign was not without controversy, but it was pushed with such efficiency that the percentage of the population fluent in Mandarin rose from 26 per cent in 1980 to over 60 per cent in 1990, and continued to increase.

Hong Kong faced situations similar to Singapore’s in many respects – the need for children to acquire proficiency in both English and Chinese, but with mixed results. In the public school system, it is hard to find teachers, let alone students, who are truly proficient in both official languages and in speaking Mandarin.

Large numbers of Hong Kong students trail their Singaporean counterparts in their mastery of English and Mandarin

Affluent parents vote with their feet and send their children to international schools to equip their children with better English. Parents pay a premium for international schools that offer rigorous courses in Chinese language and culture, taught in Mandarin. 

Even more troubling was the launch of Hong Kong’s misguided “mother tongue” policy in 1998, which restricted the adoption of English as the medium of instruction to 100-odd schools whose teachers and students were deemed capable of teaching and learning in English. This led to a significant decline in the English standard in schools that taught in Chinese. 

A mounting outcry from parents led the government to “fine-tune” (in effect abandon) this policy in 2008. The irony is that it was the policy’s failure to help children acquire proficiency in languages deemed vital to their future – English and Mandarin – that resulted in a backlash and the ultimate demise of the mother-tongue policy. 

Lifelong benefits of speaking many languages – and the myths

If the success of Singapore’s language policy is to be adopted as a measure of our own efforts, Hong Kong should be regarded as having failed on both the technical and political fronts. In terms of educational attainment, large numbers of Hong Kong students trail their Singaporean counterparts in their mastery of English and Mandarin, the languages on which we increasingly rely for a living. Politically, our government does not seem able so far to wrap its head round all the contentious language and identity issues that continue to simmer in Hong Kong. 

The existence of many tongues should not be an impediment to a unified vision of our future and destiny but, in Hong Kong, a lack of foresight and policy mistakes mean that language debates will continue to engender discord.

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a lawmaker and chairwoman of the New People’s Party