Tongues Clack over Speaking Chinese in Hong Kong Schools

Article excerpt

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. …