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It’s best to mind your language, minister

Comments by Hong Kong’s education chief were interpreted as undermining the use of Cantonese at a time when Mandarin is playing a significant global role

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 October, 2018, 8:11pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 October, 2018, 9:07pm

With political tensions between Hong Kong and the mainland still running high, Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung Yun-hung must have known that any remarks interpreted as demeaning the city’s status and identity would not go down well on this side of the border. Although he quickly clarified that he did not mean to say those learning Chinese through Cantonese would lose out to those doing so via Mandarin, the public may be excused for getting the wrong message.

Noting that the global trend is to learn Chinese through Mandarin, Yeung asked whether Hongkongers would be disadvantaged in the long run if they continued to do so via Cantonese. It was an issue worth looking into by experts, he said during a radio programme.

The minister seems to have a point. But a government-commissioned study on learning Chinese in Mandarin and Cantonese in 2016 has already shed some light on the matter, having found there is no evidence to prove Mandarin is more effective in helping students learn the Chinese language. It is therefore intriguing that Yeung has flagged the issue worthy of further study. The fact that Cantonese is still actively used by many Chinese overseas also appears to have been overlooked.

Education chief forced to clarify comments about teaching Chinese language in Cantonese

This is not the first time Cantonese has been seen to be belittled by the authorities. The Education Bureau came under fire some years ago with an article arguing that Cantonese is just a dialect rather than an official language. In May, another article on the bureau’s website argued the mother tongue of Hongkongers should be Mandarin, not Cantonese. Yeung must have known the language issue has become highly sensitive, and he should have been more careful in what he said if he did not want to be misunderstood.

The row owes much to the unease arising from the shifting emphasis from “two systems” to “one country” in recent years. Any perceived threat to our system, including our vernacular language and identity, will be guarded against. It is regrettable that Cantonese and Mandarin are unnecessarily placed against each other in an increasingly politicised context.