Putonghua row latest Yeung bad call

Editorial | Mary Ma 9 Oct 2018

Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung Yun-hung has just sparked a ruckus again -another episode of much ado about nothing.

Which is the preferred medium for teaching Chinese at our schools: Cantonese or Putonghua?

If Yeung thinks he's going to get a definitive answer after consulting experts, he's set to be terribly disappointed because the issue is never conclusive.

In a RTHK interview, Yeung questioned whether it would be sustainable to use Cantonese as the teaching medium in the long term, in view of the global trend (excluding Macau) to use Putonghua.

The education chief fears Hong Kong may lose out if Cantonese continues to be used, and expressed a desire for the topic to be taken up by experts. In the meanwhile, the public should use Putonghua more often in their daily lives, he urged.

Yeung is attracting a public backlash, including harsh words from scholar-turned-celebrity "Ben Sir" Benjamin Au Yeung Wai-hoo, whose angry Facebook post has since been viewed and shared thousands of times.

Indeed, the celebrity tutor needed not be so upset since Yeung may be making his personal views known out of goodwill.

Wasn't the education chief stating the facts in observing that more people - including many in the English-speaking world - are learning Putonghua out of a practical career need to communicate with the mainland Chinese?

But it's extremely foolish for Yeung to start a fresh controversy over Chinese dialects. Wasn't it only a few months ago when he raised a stupid query over what he claimed to be the improper phrasing of Hong Kong's geographical location in history textbooks?

He had argued the phrase "Hong Kong is located in southern China" wasn't clear enough to emphasize the SAR being inside the country.

The Putonghua for Cantonese issue is a divisive matter, and it would be unrealistic to expect linguistic experts to be unified in their views.

For example, is Tse Shek-kam, head of the University of Hong Kong's Centre for Advancement of Chinese Language Education and Research Faculty, an expert? If he's to be consulted, he would cite 101 reasons to say why Cantonese is the preferred medium of instruction in Hong Kong. Tse is known for his stance that asking Cantonese speakers to learn Putonghua would compromise their understanding of Chinese and critical thinking development.

Likewise, if mainland experts are consulted - as the Education Bureau has done involving other issues - he'll be told why Putonghua should prevail.

If Yeung is seriously considering a review of which Chinese dialect to use at schools, I bet some would ask him to expand the exercise to include parents who, again, will most likely come up with their own preferences.

It's obvious he learned nothing from his previous fiasco, from which he emerged scathed after needlessly driving a wedge into the city.

If Yeung wants to be remembered for achievements more than the language fuss, he'd better devote greater energy to improving the education system. Posting clarifications on Facebook won't help either.

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