The Mother Tongue of Hong Kong

(ChineseNewsNet)  Is the Chinese University of Hong Kong a Cantonese-language University?  By Tan Tianmei.

The students of the Chinese University of Hong Kong are protesting the proposal by the university to teach classes in English.  But people are ignoring that the 'Chinese' language of instruction at the Chinese University of Hong Kong is actually Cantonese, and this is divergent from mainland China, Taiwan and other Chinese around the world.  If they ignore English as well, they will lose even more academic advantages.

On Valentine's Day (February 14), CCTV 4 showed the program titled 'CCTV English Speaking Competition Cup.'  After many elimination rounds, the university students in the final spoke about their goals in English and competed against each other on knowledge in order to become the national champion and win the grand prize.  University students from Hong Kong and Macau also participated in this competition.  Although the level of English is better overall in Hong Kong than China, the competitors of Hong Kong did not have an advantage in this competition, as the mainland Chinese students got the highest score.

On the same day, in the most cosmopolitan city of all in China -- Hong Kong, at one of the top universities -- the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the students and the administration began a tug of war over whether English ought to be used for instruction.  On that day, the chancellor sent an email to the entire school to explain that the earlier proposal to use English to teach was not a revision of the dual-language system in the school.  The academic departments will be able to make their own decisions, and they will evaluate each year on whether they ought to recruit more overseas students and/or change to English as the language of instruction.  But the student association did not accept the explanation offered on this Valentine's Day, and they asked the students to sign petitions to keep the mother tongue instruction on a wishing tree on campus.  The student association has collected more than 800 signatures from students and teachers to oppose using English to teach.  The newly arrived chancellor has promised to meet with students to explain why the administration proposed using English to teach.

The origin of the CUHK student protests was at the end of January, when the school issued a notice that they intended to take in more students from the outside, and therefore they intend to offer enough classes in English to enable those students to complete their course requirements.  This led to strong reactions from the students and teachers.  The major reasons include: dual-language instruction is a tradition of the university; the university insisted on using Chinese to teach during the colonial era; and this is the principal university for Chinese-language secondary school graduates.

The most ironic part is that in the current debate over the language of instruction at CUHK, there is a blind spot.  People have not confronted the fact that the 'Chinese' in the Chinese University of Hong Kong actually refers to 'Cantonese'.  Most of the 'Chinese' that the students and teachers refer to is not the putonghua spoken on mainland China, Taiwan and the Chinese Diaspora.  It refers to the Cantonese dialect.

When the CUHK students wrote the 'Cry for CUHK' banner to protest against using English, they recall how the school founder Qian Mu's insistence on using Chinese.  The even greater irony is this: if Qian Mu were still alive today, many of the students and teachers will not be able to communicate with him, because they don't know how to speak putonghua.

Of course, this was the consequence of the special history of Hong Kong.  China is a vast country with many dialects.  But on mainland China, the universities have only one official language of instruction -- putonghua.  People from Shanghai speak the Shanghai dialect, people from Guangdong speak Cantonese, people from Sichuan speak the Sichuan dialect ... but when they arrive at school, the teachers and students communicate with each other in putonghua, which enables every educated person in China to exchange ideas with each other.  Hong Kong is different.  During the more than one hundred years of colonial rule, Chinese was marginalized.  After the return to China, the movement was towards promoting Chinese (=Cantonese).  In recent years, the emphasis was on two languages and three dialects (Chinese and English as languages; Cantonese, putonghua and English for speaking).  But the 'mother tongue' in schools is just Cantonese.

This creates two problems.  The first is the ability of the students to speak putonghua.  The second is about teacher resources.  First, let us look at the students' ability to speak putonghua.  Wu Hotong is a social committee member of the CUHK student association and he admits that he had not thought about whether the mother tongue of Hong Kong ought to be Cantonese or putonghua.  He also had not thought about the so-called teaching by mother tongue should be using the nationally used putonghua.  He agreed that now is the time to contemplate this problem.

The Chinese University of Hong Kong itself is a good sample of using Chinese to teach in Hong Kong.  Prior to the 1980's, the official language in Hong Kong was English.  The University of Hong Kong was considered the elite university because it taught only in English, and it existed to educate the upper-class Chinese as well as cultivate government public servants.  The Chinese University of Hong Kong was founded in the 1960's, and it was actively involved in the promotion of Chinese as an official language in the 1970's.  CUHK had the tradition of accepting the graduates from the Chinese-language secondary school and teaching them in Chinese, and therefore gave hope to using Chinese as a teaching language.  In the early years, the Chinese University of Hong Kong had a large number of cultural celebrities and scholars from mainland China and Taiwan who taught in putonghua, and the students appreciated those classes.

Today, the Chinese University of Hong Kong still attracts a number of excellent scholars from mainland China and Taiwan.  But because they don't know how to speak Cantonese, which is the mother tongue of the people of Hong Kong, it was this group of people from mainland China and Taiwan who are more likely to be using English to teach nowadays.  Students from mainland China do not know Cantonese and often use English to communicate with teachers and other students.  The teachers who use Cantonese to teach are local Hong Kong teachers.

For the local students, the Chinese that was used to teach in school was Cantonese.  When they get to university, if the language becomes putonghua instead, this is like using a second language to them.  Economics student Wu Hotong  understands the importance of putonghua:  "If China and Hong Kong are going to get closer, and the importance of China keeps growing, the people of Hong Kong must be able to use putonghua."  But as a core member of the opposition to English, Wu has reservations about whether mother tongue instruction in Hong Kong means using putonghua: "In Hong Kong, if the mother tongue instruction is going to be in putonghua as well, then does this become another hegemony?  The Cantonese dialect created the unique culture exemplified by Stephen Chow, and this is our pride.  If we don't look at this from a political or economic angle, I don't think that there is a problem with using Cantonese to teach classes."

Wu Hotong does not deny the advantages of using putonghua.  From the political and economic viewpoints, he acknowledges that one ought to consider using putonghua as the language of teaching in Hong Kong.  But he is concerned that if putonghua enters Hong Kong as a hegemonic language, it may displace Cantonese and affect the local culture of Hong Kong.  But the university students of Guangzhou and Shanghai would counter by saying that Guangzhou and Shanghai students use Cantonese at school, but they go home and speak their own dialects.  Neither the two jewels of Chinese opera -- Cantonese opera and Shanghai opera -- have lost any sheen as a result.

Actually, Hong Kong does not have enough teachers who can teach in putonghua.  Several years ago, Hong Kong attempted to set up a number of trial sites to use putonghua in secondary schools, but found out that they did not have the teachers and therefore abandoned the effort.  An educational official with the government said that the putonghua tests for teachers are only given for those who teach putonghua and/or Chinese language in school.  It would be impossible to demand the teachers of other subjects to teach in putonghua as well.  "If we require teaching in putonghua today, many teachers will have no choice but become unemployed.  This is not what the government wants to see happen.  Of course, it can be improved in the long run, but it won't happen overnight."  Since the secondary schools cannot produce a crop of students who are instructed in putonghua, how can we expect the students to be taught in putonghua when they enter university?  A secondary school principal who is a member of the Educational Planning Committee said that the growth of China has made putonghua assume greater importance day by day, and many students and their parents understand the importance of learning putonghua, except Hong Kong just does not have the teacher resources.

A Beijing officials points out that the SAR government needs to have policies in place.  He said: "If the government is willing to hire English instructors from overseas, they can surely hire high-quality putonghua teachers from China, especially those teacher training institutions which can cultivate putonghua teachers.  People should not politicize the teaching of putonghua, nor think that this is a matter of mainland culture overrunning Hong Kong.  The special characteristics of Hong Kong is its adaptability and opportunism.  Educationally, Hong Kong has always emphasized English, but they should seriously look at promoting putonghua now, for no other reason than because Hong Kong can produce many more talented people who can benefit from the rapid economic development in China."

Si Meilun who was personally named by former premier Zhu Rongji to become the vice-chairman of the Chinese Audit Department has emphasized many times that Hong Kong people must learn putonghua for the sake of its future development.  Hong Kong is a cosmopolitan center, and no one doubts the importance of English.  But as an important city of China, the mother tongue of instruction is Hong Kong's Cantonese dialect, or should it be the official putonghua?  This problem has not been explored adequately over the years.

A senior officer in a large Hong Kong real estate group went to mainland China and visited many universities.  It struck him that although there are numerous dialects in China, all instructions inside the schools are given in putonghua.  When he remembered that the mother tongue in Hong Kong elementary, secondary and tertiary schools is the Cantonese dialect, he felt that the students of Hong Kong are seriously 'disadvantaged.'  So he asked the Beijing officials in charge of Hong Kong-Macau affairs about when the Basic Law states that the official languages of Hong Kong are Chinese and English, does the Chinese language differentiate between Cantonese and putonghua?  The officials replied that Chinese in Hong Kong does not refer solely to Cantonese.  So he was much relieved and said that when he returns to Hong Kong, he is going to push society and government to value the teaching of putonghua.  If nothing else, the next generation of Hong Kong'ers ought to have the same level of command of putonghua as the students on mainland China.