2014 No.2
Event: 2014 ICS Luncheon III – Cantonese and Chinese: What are the Controversies and Why?
At the ICS Luncheon on 31 March 2014, Tang Sze-Wing, Associate Professor in the Department of Chinese Language and Literature and Director of the T T Ng Chinese Language Research Centre at the Institute of Chinese Studies, presented his research in a talk entitled 'Cantonese and Chinese: What are the Controversies and Why?'.

Tang Sze-Wing is Associate Professor in the Department of Chinese Language and Literature and Director of the T T Ng Chinese Language Research Centre of the Institute of Chinese Studies.
Professor Tang Sze-Wing received his BA and MPhil degrees in Chinese language and literature from The Chinese University of Hong Kong and completed his doctoral dissertation at the University of California, Irvine. His research interests lie primarily in Chinese syntax, theoretical approaches to the study of Chinese dialects and comparative grammar. Professor Tang is currently Vice-Chairman (Curriculum and Administration) of the Department of Chinese Language and Literature at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Director of the T T Ng Chinese Language Research Centre of the Institute of Chinese Studies and Chief Editor of Studies in Chinese Linguistics and Newsletter of Chinese Language.

In his talk, Professor Tang first reviewed several recent controversies concerning the status of Cantonese in Hong Kong, including "Cantonese as an official language or a dialect?", "Cantonese being 'demonised'?" and "the problems with 'Putonghua as Medium of Instruction (PMI)'". In late January of this year, an article entitled "Language Learning Support" was posted on the website of the Education Bureau, in which Cantonese was referred to in parentheses as "a Chinese dialect that is not used as an official language". This statement has become the current focus of public debate. The Education Bureau later removed the article from the website and posted another article entitled "Clearing the Air for the Policy of Bi-literacy and Trilingualism" on 2 February. The new article cited the relevant regulation in the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Adminstrative Region (Article 9) that "In addition to the Chinese language, English may also be used as an official language", and the rule in the Official Languages Ordinance (Chapter 5 Section 3) that the "English and Chinese languages are declared to be the official languages of Hong Kong'. The two articles aroused heated discussions in various newspaper columns and websites.

Professor Tang addressed each of these controversies concerning the use of Cantonese. First, the original wording used in the article on the website of the Education Bureau is "法定語言", not "法定語文", a term that has an "official" status in the Official Languages Ordinance (Section 3 of Chapter 5). In Chinese "語言" and "語文" are not the same.  The former generally refers to the spoken form of a language while the latter covers both the spoken and written forms though both of them could also be translated as "official language" in English. What we know is the statutory status of "Chinese" in Hong Kong and "Chinese" is not defined clearly in the Official Languages Ordinance or in the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Whether Cantonese should be considered  an "official language" in the above official documents is rather vague and would be a legal issue, not a linguistic issue.

The second controversy focuses on whether Cantonese is a dialect. A number of articles and criticisms about the status of Cantonese were published in local newspapers and have attracted the attention of many readers. A definition of "dialect" that has been widely accepted by dialectologists is that a dialect is a regional variety of a language. Contrary to "dialects", a "common language" is the language that is shared by all the people in the country and is regarded as the standardised variety of the language.  In the People's Republic of China, "Putonghua" is the standardised common language and is regarded as the standard Chinese. Its sound system is from the Beijing dialect, its vocabulary is mainly from the northern dialects, and its grammar is based on the modern literary works written in vernacular Chinese. The rationale behind choosing the Beijing dialect/northern dialects as the base of the common language of China is associated with a range of non-linguistic factors, such as political, economic and cultural factors. A dialect should not be regarded as a degraded form of a language. Actually, every dialect is also a language. In Language and Problems of Knowledge: The Managua Lectures, Noam Chomsky states that the term language refers to "an individual phenomenon, a system represented in the mind/brain of a particular individual". Cantonese is in fact a system that can be stored in the mind/brain of an individual, for example, a native speaker of Cantonese and thus should be an independent language in this sense. It is absolutely not contradictory to say that Cantonese is both a Chinese dialect and an independent human language.

A television programme produced by the Education Bureau to promote Putonghua in primary schools in 2004 was criticised in February this year for "demonising" Cantonese. Professor Tang clearly stated that all languages are equal. Neither local dialects nor the standard common language should be "demonised".

The last issue concerns the long-standing debate on PMI (Putonghua as a Medium of Instruction). Back in 1991, there was a proposal by the Curriculum Development Council, in which it is clearly suggested that Putonghua learning elements should be incorporated into the Chinese language education curriculum as one entity and in the long term Putonghua should be adopted as the medium of instruction in the Chinese language education. The debate about PMI has returned to public attention, especially since the removal of a statement from the website of the Education Bureau in the beginning of this year, which says that "students from PMI secondary schools are not better or even worse than other students". This aroused a great deal of controversy. According to the investigation of a PMI concern group, over 70% of local primary schools are PMI schools. It is expected that the number of PMI secondary schools would also be increasing.

Five major criticisms of PMI were summarized in Professor Tang's talk: (1) Putonghua is neither vernacular Chinese, a written language, nor an elegant language; (2) learning Putonghua skills is different from Chinese language learning; (3) using a non-native language in class may reduce students' initiatives to learn; (4) it is difficult to hire qualified teachers; and (5) PMI is a threat to the survival of Cantonese. The first criticism is a linguistic problem. The next three criticisms are only technical problems. The last criticism is a political problem, not a linguistic issue. Vernacular Chinese was originally used in popular literary works and gradually developed from colloquial languages of the Tang and Song Dynasties. It was not until the May Fourth era that vernacular Chinese became widely used in the society and was adopted as the written form of modern Chinese, on which Putonghua is based. To some extent, modern vernacular Chinese is Putonghua.  Although Cantonese is used in those non-PMI schools to teach Chinese as the medium of instruction, it is modern vernacular Chinese that is taught, definitely not written Cantonese. Along these lines, shall we say that PMI has already been partially implemented in non-PMI schools, given that modern vernacular Chinese belongs to Putonghua? If there is no controversy over the written form taught in school, the spoken form becomes an issue. Professor Tang concluded that it would be feasible to separate the spoken form/medium of instruction (either in Cantonese or in the Beijing dialect) from the written form (i.e. modern vernacular Chinese) although consistency of the two forms would be more reasonable.

Considering the recent controversies concerning Cantonese, Professor Tang pointed out that they were closely due to social and political problems as well as some confusion over the linguistics terms, reflecting public ignorance about linguistics, which is a cause for concern. For the future development of Cantonese, we should cherish Cantonese and appreciate its real characteristics from an objective linguistic perspective on the one hand and should avoid being arrogant or having a sense of inferiority on the other hand.

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Looking Back after Half a Century
Göran Malmqvist and CUHK:2014
News: Young Scholars' Forum in Chinese Studies
Event: 2014 ICS Luncheon III – Cantonese and Chinese: What are the Controversies and Why?
Event: Boulevard Echoes‧Chinese Music Lunchtime Performance
Event: The Research Centre for Contemporary Chinese Culture – Conference on 'Biographies and Databases for Modern China: Hong Kong and Shanghai'
Event: Forum on University Chinese in the Four Year Curriculum
New Publications
The Bei Shan Tang Legacy: Chinese Calligraphy Education Gallery – Art Museum
Editorial Board Committee
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