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Chenglish: The Panacea for Medium of Instruction Row

I seldom comment on Hong Kong affairs, given my limited knowledge of the city where I have been residing for three years. Otherwise I would be "playing with an axe at the front door of carpenter Lu Ban's house", a Chinese idiom meaning showing off one's meagre skills before an expert, without realising one's limitations. Discerning readers might have well guessed my mainland background through the following hints, including the pinyin romanisation of my Chinese name and the title of my column, Chenglish. Mind you that it has an intended pun as it plays with my given name and Chinglish, defined by Wikipedia as "ungrammatical or nonsensical English in Chinese contexts". I was originally commenting on weird news in the mainland until I heard the recent spat over language of instruction in local tertiary institutions. Alright, as a graduate-to-be, I would like to share my views on this lingering issue, although I have neither the ambition nor capability to hamper Hong Kong's autonomy and muddy the waters of "one country, two systems".

The latest war of words broke out in a postgraduate class on Chinese culture at one of the eight government-funded universities. Since most of the postgraduates are either local students or mainlanders, the university has designated some courses on this subject be taught in Putonghua and some in Cantonese. According to a report in Apple Daily in mid-October, disputes arose when mainland students in a class taught in Cantonese requested the teacher to lecture in Putonghua. To strike a balance, the instructor conducted the lectures mainly in Cantonese while repeating the lesson's key points in Putonghua, reportedly to the dismay of local students. The story unleashed a full-blown outcry from Hongkongers against not only mainland students' attempted breach of the language rule, but also the increasing presence of students from across the Lo Wu border.

Mainland critics vehemently fought back after the dispute went viral. Thousands of people on Weibo - the Chinese equivalent of Twitter - have reposted a lengthy statement, believed to be written by a mainland student enrolled in the class, accusing the Apple Daily reporter of "intentionally and selectively fabricating the news with bias". Local pro-Beijing dailies Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao also published opinion pieces criticising Apple Daily for distorting the facts while calling for pluralism and cultural integration. Even the Beijing-based tabloid The Global Times, well-known for its nationalistic stance and huge circulation, weighed into the row by slamming Hong Kong media's sensational coverage of the incident.

Okay, let me make it clear. I am not discussing the specific facts of this case, which I have made no attempts to verify.  Neither should my views be generalised to cover the whole picture at all local universities. My take on this case is derived from my experience at Hong Kong Baptist University, which has seen prolonged debates on the issue of teaching language(s) even before I was admitted.

The website of my university's Academic Registry says: "The medium of instruction for formal classroom teaching at HKBU is English, except for those courses that are granted exemption." The major rationales behind, as once explained by the university's administration, are to cater to the needs of non-Chinese speaking students and to boost the institution's ranking in terms of "internationalisation", a concept often simply operationalised as the proportion of classes taught in English. Oh dear, this is at most anglicisation. People used to cherish "melting pot", the metaphor for a society's integration process popular in the last century. But now, we treasure the alternative concept of "salad bowl" more, respecting cultural diversity instead of achieving homogenisation.

My view is the goals of HKBU are driven by legitimate motives. However, its language rules have undermined the popularity and prominence of Chinese, the language used by over 90 per cent of the population in the community the university serves.

Consider the broader societal context. Article 9 of the Basic Law states that "in addition to the Chinese language, English may also be used as an official language", which, from a purely linguistic point of view, suggests Chinese has a higher status than English. An increasing number of court cases are now heard in Chinese, and our lawmakers, whether or not they are filibustering, speak most of the time in Cantonese. Although bilingual researchers who want to build up their academic reputation find it much more helpful to publish their papers in English-language journals rather than Chinese ones, I cannot understand why our teachers have to seek extra permission if they want to teach in Chinese, their native tongue.

Moreover, my university's mission statement has stressed its commitment to "academic excellence". This suggests that we should put knowledge first, therefore academics ought to teach in the language they consider most effective in imparting their knowledge.  Fortunately enough, all the Chinese lecturers I have met are proficient in English. Otherwise I might even consider asking for a refund of my tuition fees if my teachers struggled to speak English and ended up uttering nothing more sensible than "eh…" "uh…" "em…" or "you know".

In reality, no two instructors who taught me had ever adopted the same approach to tackle the language woes. A common practice is that a teacher would teach in the language - usually English - required by the syllabus first and then, if necessary, briefly recap what he or she said in the language of which most students in the class have better command. But this might still give rise to complaints from students who are illiterate in either one of the languages used in the class. Of course, we do not have the interpreting resources as our courts do, where all parties concerned can express their ideas in the language they are most comfortable with. It is a wishful thinking to hire simultaneous interpreters for every class, nor is it feasible to have three sections for every course, taught respectively in Cantonese, Putonghua and English. The best way to solve the medium of instruction row would be to set the teaching language in consultation with relevant "stakeholders", including students, teachers and the university administration. Once a decision is made, everyone should stand by it.

Finally, let me share with you my panacea, actually a quotation from chairman Mao Zedong: Work with our own hands to get ample food and clothing. For young people in Hong Kong, it is meaningless to require everyone to become a linguist though, possessing the ability to speak flawless Cantonese, fair Putonghua and fluent English is definitely a killer competitive edge, no matter on campus or in the job market. That being the case, university students should be required to attend courses to polish their skills in the three languages until they have lived up to the desired standards. Even now, I still regret that I started learning English at a late age of 12 and Cantonese only after I came to Hong Kong. I acknowledge that I am far from being "biliterate" and "trilingual". But if you have achieved that, you would probably find that the seemingly never-ending row about medium of instruction is "too simple, sometimes naive".

[author] [author_image timthumb='on'][/author_image] [author_info]Born in Yunnan province in southwest mainland China, Song Cheng spent his first 17 years striving to survive countless waves of school exams until setting foot in Hong Kong in 2010. He used to be in science class, but has now developed extensive interests in liberal arts and social sciences, with particular affection to reading non-fictions of China. Having reported mainly on society and politics beat in the past year, Cheng is writing his analyses on China affairs. Read his other works at [/author_info] [/author]


Written by Song Cheng 

《The Young Reporter》

The Young Reporter (TYR) started as a newspaper in 1969. Today, it is published across multiple media platforms and updated constantly to bring the latest news and analyses to its readers.


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