Photo: iStock/Getty
Photo: iStock/Getty

In recent years, there have been strong complaints about the Hong Kong (HK) government’s proposal to introduce Mandarin as the language of Chinese literary education, in place of Cantonese. These come mainly from parents, who (as seen in this NowTV documentary) claim that Mandarin does little to improve, and may actually be detrimental, to their children’s level of literary Chinese.

There are also protests from young citizens, who call for the preservation of Cantonese as the local language of HK for all purposes including education. These are all legitimate sentiments but the arguments are weak.

In this article, I will marshal evidence to argue that HK is not yet to adopt Mandarin for the purposes of literary education. It will argue that in order to raise the level of Mandarin in HK – for that is widely perceived as being the ultimate goal of these reforms and is truly a worthwhile aim, as it will help facilitate communication between HK and the mainland – it would far more effective to improve methods of teaching Mandarin as a foreign language.

Mandarin in mainland China vs Mandarin in Hong Kong

In multilingual societies, it is widely observed that there is a systematic arrangement of the different linguistic varieties in use. The classic formulation of this is the sociolinguist Charles A. Ferguson’s ‘diglossia,’ which states that there is always a prestige variety used in formal, ‘high’ (H) contexts (including education) and a local vernacular reserved for common and mundane, or ‘low’ (L) functions.

As mentioned in my last article, China has one of the densest dialectal concentrations in the world and this has similarly led to many diglossic communities throughout the country where Mandarin, the official lingua franca, is layered over the local vernacular. HK is diglossic between Mandarin (H) and Cantonese (L), and given its historical status as a British colony, it also has English as another H variety – hence it is a ‘double-high’ society.

The argument that HK should adopt Mandarin as the language for education stems mainly from the fact that much of the mainland uses Mandarin for education, counter-balanced by the local vernacular, without any sign of the latter suffering language attrition or language death. It is assumed that a similar arrangement can be realized in HK with no harm to the local Cantonese vernacular.

The reforms are also intended to raise the level of Mandarin in HK, which is notoriously poor compared to the mainland, and since both HK and mainland Chinese communities are basically diglossic, it would seem to make sense to introduce Mandarin as the official language of education as part of a wider movement to assimilate HK to mainland China.

There are some key differences between HK and mainland China, however. Predictably enough, Mandarin is used much more widely in the mainland than in HK. In the mainland, Mandarin can easily be heard in many daily (L) activities, since the increasing level of mobility in China entails that not every person is actually a local in any particular region.

This is especially marked in big urban communities where Mandarin is regularly used in normal (L) public settings in order to ensure successful and efficient communication. Furthermore, everyone in the mainland has relatively easy access to state media (e.g. television, radio, internet), all of which is conducted in standard Mandarin, and so Mandarin is very much an essential part of the daily lives of all mainland Chinese.

Local dialects, on the other hand, while not (yet) threatened to the extent of being extinct, are really reserved for intimate domestic settings among family and friends, especially with elders, which is by no means a small and insignificant domain but is somewhat restricted.

Given these realities, it is straightforward to integrate Mandarin within the education system, since it is already part of everyday linguistic discourse (both H and L) and is clearly part of the linguistic proficiency of mainland Chinese.

HK has a very different distribution of linguistic varieties. Although exposure to Mandarin has risen significantly since the handover of sovereignty to China in 1997, Mandarin is still rarely used and is mainly reserved for communication with visitors from the mainland.

In everyday discourse, Cantonese is firmly and exclusively the common language of communication and it extends to many H functions, as HK is still a special administrative region and has its own media functions, all of which are conducted in Cantonese. If anything, English is the other competing H variety as it is commonly used in schools not only for the teaching of English but also for the teaching of nearly all subjects apart from Chinese, which leaves Mandarin really the ‘external’ guest at the linguistic table.

Cantonese and Mandarin are sufficiently different that they are not interchangeable: Mandarin cannot be used as the language of education as if it were Cantonese. The following video explains some of the differences between Cantonese and Mandarin:

The critical difference between HK and mainland China, therefore, is that while both are diglossic, Mandarin is much more integrated and accessible in the mainland, whereas in HK it is really a foreign, albeit cognate, language. To employ a foreign language as the language of education makes little sense as it is highly improbable that students will understand the content of their curricula effectively. Mandarin, therefore, should still be taught as a foreign language in HK, and it is in this area that I believe reforms should be made in order to improve the level of Mandarin in HK.

How to raise the level of Mandarin in Hong Kong?

As outlined above, Mandarin in HK is essentially an external variety and as such it should be taught as a foreign language in schools, on a par with English and all other foreign languages.

Post-1997, Mandarin has been an obligatory subject in most (if not all) schools in HK and there has been a perceived improvement in the level of Mandarin in HK, which is encouraging. It seems that Mandarin being taught in schools is having a positive effect and it is advisable to stick with this policy and seek to raise the level of Mandarin as it is taught in schools.

As there are many linguistic similarities between Cantonese and Mandarin (and all Chinese dialects in general), Mandarin can be effectively taught differently from other foreign languages and here it is recommended that HK schools, in addition to using pinyin – which is the standard method for learning/teaching Mandarin throughout the world – consider using dialect manuals (方言對照) to further students’ awareness of the linguistic relationships between Chinese dialects, which should improve students’ level not only of Mandarin (and other Chinese dialects) but also of their native Cantonese, by fostering awareness of the linguistic affinities between different varieties of Chinese.

By this road, Mandarin will no longer be externalized as a totally different variety from the students’ native Cantonese (which it clearly is not) and can be acquired much more effectively and efficiently. One should be encouraged by the positive progress in the use of Mandarin in HK, but in order to take this further it is the author’s opinion that reforms ought to be made not in the choice of language but in the method of teaching it.

Keith Tse

Keith Tse is a professional linguist who studied classics and modern languages at Balliol College, Oxford, after which he trained as a public service interpreter and language teacher in Manchester, where he also received his postgraduate degree in languages and linguistics from the University of Manchester. Currently, he is carrying out research in formal Chinese linguistics at the University of York and already has several publications to his name. He is also a member of the Ronin Institute and...

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