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Hong Kong is defined by Cantonese, but must see the big picture on Mandarin and a rising China

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 October, 2018, 8:02am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 October, 2018, 8:02am

Recently, a new controversy surrounding the Hong Kong education secretary has raised a very interesting question on how we should teach Chinese in the city (“Hong Kong education chief forced to clarify controversial comments about teaching Chinese language in Cantonese”, October 7).

Some members of the public – motivated by political reasons or not – misunderstood the main point Secretary Kevin Yeung Yun-hung was trying to make, which is the fact that Mandarin is the principal language of China, and Cantonese may not be as useful on the world stage. Although people might insinuate that this is just another way to “mainlandise” our schools, I take no such view and believe Mr Yeung was only speaking the truth in good faith.

The reason Hongkongers reacted with such annoyance, or even anger, is that Cantonese is a basic element of the city’s culture and history. We cherish Cantonese because we speak, sing and rap in a language that already has thousands of years of history predating the metropolis. But the crux of the issue is, we are very frightened of losing that identity: the unique mix of culture from the East and West and the special status that Hong Kong residents have enjoyed so far around the world.

When we tell our foreign friends that we are from Hong Kong and we speak Cantonese as our mother tongue, we feel unique. It helps us punch above our weight in the world and places us apart from mainland China, and I speak as someone who lived in Britain for 12 years.

As a result, anyone who promotes anything that might chip away at Hongkongers’ basic identity will unsurprisingly be met with wrath, from language professors to the man on the street.

Cantonese to stay on the tip of our tongues

However, I take a different view – and it is an economic one. What Mr Yeung highlighted was that we need to equip ourselves in terms of our language skills if we are to stay competitive in the era of a fully developed China.

Education policies – however controversial – must be adapted to today’s world

We need to be able to speak Mandarin as fluently as our mother tongue, and we can achieve this if we teach our children Mandarin from an earlier age and for a longer period of time. Many international schools are already teaching Mandarin as part of their curriculum, and many younger parents in Hong Kong are opting to speak Mandarin and English to their children at home.

Education policies – however controversial – must be adapted to and make sense in today’s world. We need to learn from places such as Singapore, and be open-minded on what’s best for our next generation, so that we can maintain Hong Kong’s position as Asia’s dragon.

Henry Yau, Tai Po