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Clayton MacKenzie (second right), a representative of Baptist University, receives a petition letter from a student demonstrator, in Hong Kong on January 26. Hundreds of students protested on the day amid tensions over compulsory testing of Mandarin, the dominant language in mainland China, for graduation. Photo: AFP

Mandarin ‘as a foreign language’ is hurting Hong Kong students

I think it is erroneous to frame the speaking and learning of Mandarin under the popular but narrow debate about “the mainland vs Hong Kong” ( “Contrite but undeterred, suspended students look back on Baptist University Mandarin saga”, February 3).

Mandarin is not just spoken on the mainland, but also in Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, and elsewhere throughout the world. It is now the lingua franca for the Chinese language globally. But most Hongkongers cannot speak Mandarin fluently.

Our children are obviously not learning Mandarin well in schools; I see my own children struggling to learn Mandarin just like another foreign language, with work sheets, drills and tests. Therefore, I urge our schools to consider teaching the Chinese language only in Mandarin in the first three years of primary school.

Mandarin is now the lingua franca for the Chinese language globally

As the spoken and the written forms are the same, Mandarin, with phonetics, can help students easily transition into reading and writing characters. This is pedagogically and empirically how Chinese is taught in the rest of the world. And it will also be helpful for local students from minority groups or English-speaking households wanting to learn Chinese. Rest assured that Hongkongers will continue to speak Cantonese among themselves. But the younger generation will be also able to speak Mandarin fluently and confidently.

Mandarin as a medium of instruction coincided with the post-war compulsory mass education to eradicate illiteracy in the mainland, Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore, as it is pedagogically easier and more systematic to learn how to read and write Chinese through Mandarin. Previously, the educated learned to read and write in classical Chinese, and the dialects were mostly verbal. Similarly, elsewhere in the world, Hochdeutsch, High German, is the medium of instruction in German schools, though Swabian and Bavarian dialects are spoken locally in the south or Austria.

How a compulsory Mandarin course caused chaos at Hong Kong Baptist University

Hong Kong is unique in that it is virtually the only place in the world where the Chinese language is not taught in Mandarin.

It is instead oddly taught like a foreign language, or as a remedial class. Perhaps our schools and educators should catch up with rest of the world and consider modernising how Mandarin, and indeed, Chinese is taught here.

W.S.H. Peng, Central

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Learning Mandarin should not fall victim to debate over ‘mainland versus Hong Kong’