Tongues Clack Over Speaking Chinese in Hong Kong Schools

In the months following China's takeover of Hong Kong, the former British colony has become embroiled in a war over words.

In an echo of China and Britain's original battle 150 years ago, supporters of Chinese and English language training are jousting over the enclave's future. Caught in the crossfire are schools like St. Stephens College, which for nearly a century has taught its classes in English.

Like a number of other private schools here, St. Stephens is being forced to switch to instruction in Cantonese, the Chinese dialect spoken by 95 percent of Hong Kong's population.

Few issues have roiled Hong Kong more since the handover last July than the move to impose what education officials call "mother tongue" instruction on the territory's schools.

Students have protested, school councils have threatened law suits, and parents have been burning up telephone lines to complain about the edict on local radio talk shows.

"They all say that they support mother-tongue education - just not for my kids," says Albert Cheung, the host of a popular radio call-in show.

China's hand-picked chief of Hong Kong, Tung Chee Hwa, ordered all high schools to begin teaching in Cantonese next semester. Exceptions were granted only to those schools that demonstrated "a high level of proficiency in English," but that standard was never clearly defined.

More than 100 schools applied for the exemption, but 24, including St. Stephens, were rejected. The rejections in effect publicly branded the schools as being "deficient" in English training, and some principals are enraged by the decision.

"If mother-tongue instruction is so important, the education department should have the courage to impose it on all schools, not set out 100 schools as being different," complains St. Stephens's headmaster, Luke Yip.

Some of the schools that lost their right to teach in English have seen a dramatic fall-off in applications for enrollment. St. Antonius Girls' College, for example, reported 14 applications for the 1998 term, compared with the 200 to 400 it typically receives.

Why the need for change? "Education standards have been declining, and the government doesn't seem to have any solutions," says Mr. Cheung. "The easiest thing for them to say is that students should be taught in their mother tongue."

But he also thinks something else may be at work: Chinese nationalism. "Hong Kong is a part of China now, so some people think that the instruction should be in a Chinese language," he says. English is seen as a legacy of British colonialism.

Certainly, English was traditionally linked with British rule. But there are practical reasons why some parents want to continue their children's instruction in English: to insure fluency in the lingua franca of the global trade community.

During Britain's reign, Hong Kong evolved from a barren clump of rocks into an international trade and finance center, and English-speaking business leaders helped fuel that rise. The local Chinese dialect is about as useful for international discourse as Lithuanian.

English supporters here often point to the economic success of Singapore, another former British colony that held on to English. While Singapore has prospered, Malaysia, which abandoned English, has fallen behind.

But mother-tongue instruction has its defenders. "Critics have never experienced the agony of having to learn all school subjects in a foreign language," says pro-China legislator Tsang Yok-sing.

"Speaking as a parent," Cheung says, "communication is the most important skill.

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