Fri, Mar 22, 2002 - Page 12 News List

Multilingual Hong Kong a model

By Edwin Yang 楊聰榮

Matters of language policy invariably prompt intense debate between Taiwan's ruling and opposition parties. They also inspire a wide range of politically correct and dogmatic opinions. I have observed Hong Kong's handling of the language problem and feel it is worth reflecting upon.

Since its handover to Chinese rule in 1997, Hong Kong has been undergoing a transitional period as a post-colonial society. Its residents have been pulled in recent years by the opposing forces of democratization and identification with China.

Language could easily have become a sensitive issue, but in fact, ever since the handover, it has remained a mere technicality rather than a hotly-disputed problem. The technical issues include what languages should be used in schools and whether the parties to judicial proceedings may request that judges who speak only English be replaced. The two languages at the center of the debate are Chinese and English. There isn't much debate about the relative merits and applications of Cantonese versus Mandarin.

The Hong Kong government long ago established a firm "three spoken languages, two written languages" policy, which I believe has been very helpful to the territory's handling of language policy questions. The three spoken languages are Cantonese, Mandarin and English, and the two written languages are Chinese and English.

There is great wisdom in this policy and its implementation has become an important goal in Hong Kong schools and in public arenas of all kinds. The wisdom can be seen in a number of factors: the policy's emphasis on multilingualism, its considerable inclusiveness, its stress on practicality and its forward-looking vision.

The key to the policy's success is its emphasis on a multilingual society. Many of the disputes that arise over language policy around the world stem from one language being favored over others. Language policy often has to take care of more than just utilitarian goals. There are also identity-related objectives. From the purely utilitarian point of view, mono-lingualism is the most efficient approach. But efficiency doesn't satisfy people's desire to use languages with which they identify and the social cost of such policies is high.

Good language policy usually seeks to show tolerance by adopt-ing a multilingual approach. Indeed, there is a trend toward such policies in many societies.

In the past, Taiwan's language policy experienced problems primarily because one language was favored over others, which cost society dearly. An honest look should be taken at the blind spots in monolingual policies and a thorough review conducted.

Although Hong Kong's objective of three spoken languages and two written languages -- and the request that students and citizens strengthen their ability to use more than one of these primary languages -- can't be achieved in the short term, it has been popular with the public. That is why the remaining problems are mere technicalities, such as the amount of resources that will go to each language. Language no longer causes social divisions.

The second strong point is its inclusiveness. This is reflected in the policy's equal embrace of Cantonese and Mandarin. It should be noted that among the three designated spoken languages and two written languages, "Chinese" may be either Cantonese or Mandarin. There is no absolute definition. In many contexts, "Chinese" refers simply to the Chinese language environment in the broadest sense. "Chinese" may be read out loud in either Cantonese or Mandarin. Frequently, the chosen tongue happens to be Cantonese, but if someone uses Mandarin, that is not considered at all inappropriate. This is accepted throughout Hong Kong society.

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