Learning Cantonese in Hong Kong University

The Real Hong Kong News

8th May, 2014

Learning Cantonese in Hong Kong University

By Ryan Kilpatrick

The Columnist - 1

Critics have long accused Hong Kong University (HKU) of having a blinkered devotion to the English language, but to an extent this position deserves our support: English is the lingua franca of academic research worldwide, as using it as the sole medium of instruction is a large part of what makes us Asia’s top-ranked university; maintaining a strict line on this also makes it easier for students who came to HKU from around the world to feel welcomed and integrated into campus life.

However, another critical factor for students to feel welcomed here and to get the most out of their time in Hong Kong is to learn the local language, enabling them to have more meaningful connections with a wider spectrum of people, and obtain a deeper understanding of the richness – and uniqueness – of Hong Kong culture. Until this year, the only courses open to people interesting in learning Cantonese was Cantonese as a Foreign Language I and Survival Cantonese, neither of which offered routs for further study and do not even teach literacy in Chinese, making the written language the sole purview of Putonghua. Whilst the courses’ immediate utility to incoming exchange students is beyond question, those interested in seriously studying the language must do so without any help or encouragement from our foremost institution of higher learning. Despite the efforts of School of Chinese staff, students at HKU are still unable to major in the languages of the country in which they are studying – despite every top university around the world offering these majors.

The School of Chinese currently teaches one third of all Faculty of Arts students, and is therefore stretched extremely thin. Dr CM Si, Head of the School of Chinese, says that the university is currently in the process of planning to offer a Chinese as a foreign language major, and he hopes the programme will be actualized within two to three years. Since the establishment of the Modern China Studies programme just a few years ago, the Putonghua as a foreign language courses offered by HKU have expanded from two to four, from four to six, and now from six to eight, thus offering a four-year curriculum for international students interested to seriously studying the language. Cantonese lags far behind but is progressing gradually: this year a second course was added and, with a Hong Kong studies major newly established, Cantonese will hopefully experience similar growth spurt to that of Putonghua.

Dr Si says that exchange students complain about courses they’d like to take only being offered in Chinese, mainland students complain about classes offered in Cantonese, and local students are liable to complain if too many courses are offered in Putonghua or use simplified characters. Pleasing all three groups at the same time, he admits, is a difficult task. At City University, disgruntled mainland students who registered for a Chinese course not realizing it was conducted in the local language of the place where they’d chosen to study actually pressured the university administration into changing the course’s language of instruction from Cantonese to Putonghua.

HKU takes on over one thousand new exchange students every semester. Of these, only a small handful are interested in studying Chinese and those that do are complete beginners who only take level I Putonghua. Dr Si laments that international students at HKU interested in seriously studying Putonghua or Cantonese to advanced levels are in fact a tiny minority, and despite their passion they do not comprise a large enough constituency to justify the allocation of resources to create new courses. Another option in the meantime is to expand the current offering of English-taught cultural courses for exchange students, perhaps offering an introduction to Chinese literature or Cantonese phonology. However, even mainland students who stay here for the full duration of their studies show little to no interest in learning the local language (often regarded dismissively – and erroneously – in the mainland, as elsewhere, as a trifling and unimportant dialect) and thus Putonghua-taught courses in Cantonese are even sparser at HKU than English ones.

HKU is not the only Hong Kong university that does not offer Chinese majors for foreign students; in fact, none do except for the Chinese University of Hong Kong. CUHK has attempted to offer Chinese as a major but have been confronted with a dearth of applicants. Without enough prospective students, government funding for the programme was dropped and as a result it had to become fully self-financed, sending the fees rocketing up. HKU also follows the established norm all around the Chinese-speaking world – in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan – where every university Chinese department operates exclusively in Chinese.

Teaching Cantonese as a foreign language is a highly under-developed area, and is often regarded both by locals and foreigners alike as a language that outsiders are simply unable to learn, and should not necessarily be expected nor taught to do so. The teaching of Cantonese to ethnic minority Non-Chinese Speaking Students (NCSS) in Hong Kong has long been a source of tension in local education, with non-Chinese students often graduating knowing no Chinese and facing grim career prospects as a consequence.

Unlike in China or Taiwan where children first learn the Hanyu Pinyin or Zhuyin Fuhao phonetic systems respectively before progressing to characters, children in Hong Kong are expected to begin their education in Chinese at home, where they learn the pronunciation of characters directly from family members without the aid of an officially sanctioned phonetic system to ascertain the correct way of speaking. For Hongkongers who do not come from a Cantonese-speaking household, this absence puts them at a great disadvantage. The two main rivals in Cantonese phonetics are Yale and Jyutping, but altogether half a dozen different systems vie for supremacy throughout Hong Kong, with different schools and universities using different systems. Cantonese also lacks a standardized exam like PSC or IELTS and for many Cantonese words there is no agreed-upon character that should be used to render it in written Chinese.

In addition to this there is no official academic or vocational qualifications for Cantonese instructors. Cherrie, a Cantonese instructor at HKU, believes that setting an official standard for romanisation and language training would be helpful in making Cantonese more accessible and popular, and indeed her wish may be coming true soon. BC Chow, coordinator of the Cantonese programme at the CLC and author of the widely used textbook Cantonese for Everyone, says that the Faculty of Education will begin offering a Masters in teaching Cantonese next September. Ms Chow also supports the idea of using Jyutping in schools and says there’s growing support for this, and also starting in the next academic year Cantonese will be offered as a Senior Secondary Applied Learning Course (ApL) for NCSS, with teachers asked to use Jyutping. Although she believes that owing to the sensitive nature of language politics vis-à-vis Beijing, the official status of Cantonese is unlikely to receive any government support, she does see progress being made in Hong Kong’s education establishment.

The School of Chinese has often faced criticism for not operating in English, but the truth is that subjects such as Tang poetry are best taught using Chinese – and ideally Cantonese at that, since the cadences and rhymes are often retained in Cantonese but lost in modern Putonghua, as the former is far closer to classical Chinese. The problem lies not with the School’s offering courses in a language other than English, but in the lack of support they receive to enable more students to learn this very language.

Aside from the fear that local students would join such courses for easy grades, there is also a widespread but mistaken assumption that language learning is only rote memorisation and not an intellectual pursuit worthy of a university degree, ignoring the conceptual and cultural shifts that language learning promotes. Whereas Korean, Spanish, Japanese and other languages have gotten through the Academic Board levee, though, a Cantonese or Putonghua major remains off the cards.

Hongkongers often feel their culture under threat, and this feeling is both understandable and completely justified. However, as a community under threat, they should not succumb to the knee-jerk reaction of closing ranks in order to defend the purity and integrity of their identity. This is the time when it is more important than ever to reach out to the world, to make greater efforts to articulate and promote Hong Kong’s values and culture and to include others in the fold. HKU’s School of Chinese has a long history of teaching Cantonese to Hong Kong’s newcomers, instructing a long stream of Governors, diplomats, missionaries and merchants who have made Hong Kong their home for short or long over the last century and a half. Dr Si points out that HKU will have to face this issue in due course as a matter of internationalisation, and he hopes the university ‘will look into this matter and allocate more resources’. To accomplish this, however, support is needed both administrators and students.

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