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Carrie Lam

A hard lesson Carrie Lam needs to remember

The use of English in the world of business must not be played down in Hong Kong, and the chief executive should choose her words to the media more carefully

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 July, 2018, 5:29am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 July, 2018, 5:29am

The importance of the English language to Hong Kong cannot be overstated. It is the lingua franca in the world of business, diplomacy, education and tourism and an official language along with Chinese. Any move to play down the use of English is doing a disservice to the city.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor rightly apologised after her reply to a reporter’s question in English had sparked an uproar among the English-speaking community.

Having answered a few questions in Cantonese ahead of the Executive Council meeting on Tuesday, Lam was apparently upset when asked about land reclamation again by a reporter from the English channel of the government broadcaster RTHK.

She turned to the information chief at the scene and suggested providing simultaneous interpretation in future to avoid wasting time. She later clarified that she meant there would now be less time for reporters to ask other questions.

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We do not know whether Lam would have felt the same if a Cantonese-speaking reporter had asked a question already answered in English, but it does not reflect well on someone who has fielded media questions for decades.

She should have been more cautious about the use of negative expressions that can be easily interpreted in different ways. More importantly, she needs to familiarise herself with the operation of media organisations.

It is surprising to hear that she is not aware of the need for the media to get “sound bites” in their own language. If the same question or topic is repeatedly asked in different languages, it only shows the importance of the issue raised.

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Naturally, members of the public, English or Chinese speaking, would like to hear first hand from the chief executive and other officials in their language rather than through the voice of an interpreter.

That is why different media are eager to get a “sound bite” from the official, even though the question may be similar.

Lam earlier said she would travel abroad more often to promote “one country, two systems”. She did not want Hong Kong to be seen by some as “just another Chinese city”.

Given the importance of English and its uniqueness to our city, her assurance that the government would not attach less importance to the use of English is essential and to be welcomed. We trust Lam has learned her lesson.