The CUHK Language Debate

I have been staying from this issue that I personally find incomprehensible.  In brief, it all began with an email from the Chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong to the department heads concerning the teaching of certain courses in English so that the increasing number of international students can participate.  This was then blown up to a popular call for the defense of the cultural identity of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Once upon a time, the Chinese University of Hong Kong was my home for more than a decade.  I ought to feel strongly about this issue.  Still, I don't feel anything one way or the other about the current debate based upon the way it is framed.  This is a choice that the community will have to make about the soul of CUHK.

In the following, I have translated a section of an essay about the portion of the debate that bothers me.

(Apple Daily via InmediaHK)  By Zhang Wuchang (張五常).  February 15, 2005.


I am going to make three points:

(1)  The English language is very hard to learn.  Academically speaking, it is hard, hard, hard.  Although English is more expressive than Chinese, I was stubborn back then to work so hard just for the sake for more expressiveness.  But English is the dominant based upon first-comer advantages.  If you want to compete academically in the world, you must be able to write in academic papers in English and to deliver reports in English. Most people who want to be experts via the English language are basically still beginners.  They need to spend about a decade or so from the moment that they begin their education.

This is not to demean the Chinese language.  I have written more than 2 million words in Chinese, so it must be said that I treasure it.  But Chinese is easier to learn.  A lot easier to learn.  I have not formally learned Chinese as such, but I can still get by.  If the Chinese and English languages have the same difficulty level for learning, I would not be yelling out loud here to oppose using the mother language to teach.  The current situation is this: if a decent student who graduates from an English-language secondary school writes an academic paper in Chinese, I can let it get by with some minor revisions.  What if it were written in English?  Not a single sentence would have passed.

(2)  For us to participate in global competition, the problem is not about teacher resources.  The problem is the quality of the students, especially the graduate students.  More than thirty years ago, Professor Schutz at the University of Chicago told me that, and it is even more relevant today ... The difficulty is that top-flight graduate students are difficult to find.  

In the case of Hong Kong, it is necessary to cultivate them from within our own school.  If we don't teach them in English and we don't force them to practice in English, then we cannot produce graduate students who can read and write well in English, so that they can go outside to present to the world.  And we are not even talking about global competition yet.  This is not to say that instruction in the English language will produce miracles.  But the reality is that in certain academic disciplines, there cannot be any miracles unless you use English.  At the same time, unless you have good enough graduate students, you will find it hard to hire good faculty members.

(3)  Undeniably, except for those disciplines related to Chinese culture, the most important academic discourses take place in English most of the time.  There may be Chinese translations, but they are subject to errors.  The students need to read the English-language originals.  But if the teachers use Chinese in class, will the students understand the texts?  Today, this is a serious problem in China: students often misinterpret when they have to read English by themselves!

I sincerely hope that the world-class academic conferences can accept the Chinese language, but that will take a lot of people to work on it over a long period of time.  Today, we must use the English language to produce large numbers of world-class scholars who also know Chinese, and then let them inject Chinese into the discourse.  Personally, I have spent more than 20 years publishing articles in Chinese, including more than 300,000 words on the book Explaining Economics.  There is only that much that one person can do, especially since most of my academic knowledge was learned through English.

First up, I am going to state that all the international conferences that I have ever attended were conducted in English.  Forget about French, German, Spanish or Chinese.  English is the lingua franca of research discourse, and you cannot communicate to the entire audience unless you use it.  You will only marginalize yourself by using a non-English language.  In this sense, I agree with Zhang Wuchang that you have to use English to have a global impact.  Professionally, you are 'dead meat' if you cannot speak or write competently in the English language in the global academia.

My stronger reaction is about the false choice that is presented in this debate.  It seems that one is asked to choose between Chinese and English.  This is a false choice, because it is incomprehensible in my personal experience.  I refuse to accept that I have to make any mutually exclusive choice at all.

Let me explain to you about my life experience.  I was born in Shanghai, and I moved with my family to Hong Kong four weeks afterwards.  My first spoken language was the Shanghainese dialect, which my family used.  At that age, I obviously have no idea how I learned it, but somehow I did.  

When I was five years old, I had the traumatic experience of being enrolled in a Hong Kong kindergarten in which all the other kids spoke Cantonese, from which I had been totally insulated hitherto.  On the first day in school, I could not understand a word.  But the circumstances were such that I had to learn it in a hurry and I did.  I have no idea how I learned it.  I can't explain it, but I can speak Cantonese fluently today even if I cannot explain any grammatical rules or the etymological derivations.  So the first lesson is this: if you must learn a language, you will.  An American might think it is impossible to learn Chinese, but if I throw her in the middle of nowhere in Guangxi or Ningxia for a year, she will learn it because she has to.

When I entered primary school, my parents procured a Chinese-language tutor for the children.  It was disastrous, as the man just made us memorize the classics.  I had no idea what anything meant, except for the fact that he would whack us with a steel ruler when we cannot recite some classical text from memory.  I learned nothing from my tutor, nor from the schools.  Anything that I know today about Chinese culture did not come from formal schooling, but from my own curiosity and interests.  So the second lesson is this: it is up to you to learn whatever you feel that you need, instead of waiting for the reading assignment list from your teachers.  If you are a graduate student who ought to initiate your own research, the same principle applies.  You should not sit back and wait for the department to determine your schedule; you have to decide what your want to learn and at what pace.

In primary and secondary schools in Hong Kong, I was enrolled most of the time in English-language schools which teach some Chinese (language and history).  I was an indifferent student.  To this day, you cannot ask me anything about Chinese grammatical rules because I don't know anything.  All I know is that if you give me a piece of text in Chinese, I can tell you what it is saying in a fair and accurate manner.  And like Zhang Wuchang's characterization, if I have to write something in Chinese for my academic field (namely, sociology), it will probably be passable with some minor editing help.

In parallel, I did not know much about English either.  I didn't know anything about English grammatical rules, because I certainly have no recollection of studying any such.  How did I learn to English enough to get by then?  I was shipped out to a boarding school in Sydney, Australia.  Well, either I can make the best of that situation, or else I can lay back and bemoan my disadvantaged situation.  I did the first thing.  I listened carefully to what people say, and tried to emulate them.  If the English teacher assigned a poem by Gerald Manley Hopkins, I would go to the library and read up on everything possible about the man.  During the evening study hours, I read the dictionary from A to Z.  I read the best recommended texts and I memorized them.  While I have no formal idea about English grammar, I can now read, write and speak well enough to hoodwink people about my command of the language.  If anything, I am respected professionally for being direct and concise in my profession publications because I came into the language relatively late in life and think carefully about how I write.

Somewhere along the way, my parents sent me to a tutor in French.  This person gave me a French text book, told me to memorize a lesson every week and gave me an audio cassette tape to listen.  Then, for one hour a week, he would make me recite the lesson from start of finish and test me on the grammar.  If I came up short, I would be whacked on the head with a steel ruler.  I had about three months of French torture with this man (whom I appreciate dearly for the rest of my life).  But this was the first time that anyone taught me proper grammar in a systematic way.  To this day, if you ask me about me about verb conjugation or tenses, I can only tell you what it is in French.  In English or Chinese, I only know how to use it because I have internalized it, even though I don't know how to describe it systematically.

My French lessons were invaluable when I had to learn Spanish and Portuguese for professional reasons.  When I found out that I had to learn Spanish and Portuguese because we had to initiate a research study in Latin America about which I knew nothing, I picked up some Spanish and Portuguese language textbooks and I breezed through them because of the similarity to French.  So I can get by easily today in Spanish and Portuguese to the extent that I need to these days.  This is the second lesson once again.

If I can summarize my personal experience -- people should be able to get by with whatever they need to as long as they have the will to do so.  I would not have cared whether the instructor wants to teach in Chinese or English.  I would have assessed everything based upon my own professional needs, and I would do whatever is necessary to round out those needs.  I would not have waited for the instructors to tell me what I needed to do, or for the official curricular requirements from the university.

As a hypothetical example, if I want to learn about management science and most of the knowledge base exists in Japanese, then I will learn Japanese.  I want to be the best, don't I?  Why would I let a bit of nationalist chauvinism get in the way?  But if everything is already available in Chinese and academic exchange is not an issue, why would I bother about reading the same in some other language?  

It is in this sense that I refuse to accept the false choice between Chinese and English.  Why can't I have both?  I did it based upon my professional field.  Why shouldn't you?  And I did it by not sitting back and waiting for the school or company to provide me with the requisite classes.  I did it by going out and doing everything possible to make sure that I got what I personally needed.  Why can't you?  Why are you whining about this false choice?  Learn both Chinese and English!  And if you are complaining about how hard it is, then you are just not serious and trying hard enough!  I came from the exact same educational system as all of you, and it was quite inadequate.  But I learned English well enough regardless because I had to and because I did whatever it took, and so can you.  Stop blaming everyone else!  This was the Hong Kong spirit, and don't tell me that you have all lost it now!