Less than 40 percent of local primary schools conduct Chinese language lessons in Cantonese. Most use Mandarin partially, or fully, as the medium of instruction, a new survey by the Neo Democrats party has revealed.

Teaching Chinese in Mandarin was a policy put forward by the Standing Committee on Language Education and Research between 2008 and 2014. The body was formed in 1996 to advise the government on language education issues. The Education Bureau also provided supply teacher grants to incentivise schools to follow the policy.

Cantonese Mandarin Neo Democrats
Neo Democrats showing differences in choices of word in Cantonese and Mandarin. Photo: Neo Democrats.

The party urged the Education Bureau to suspend measures supporting the policy, and to make its review of the policy public as soon as possible. It also asked schools to consider reducing the number of classes which followed the policy and return to teaching Chinese completely in Cantonese over the coming year.

Tai Po tops 

Of the 511 schools the party surveyed, 200 taught Chinese in Cantonese, while 187 taught Chinese in Mandarin partially and 124 did so completely.

The party said over 50 percent of schools in Tai Po taught Chinese in Mandarin completely – the highest ratio – followed by Kwun Tong and Tsuen Wan.

It added that parents needed to spend more time to help children with revision and homework, as the Chinese curriculum was made more difficult under the controversial Territory-wide School Assessment. Students encountered even more difficulty when studying in Mandarin, the party claimed.

“The legacy of language use is very important to pass on a society’s culture,” said Roy Tam Hoi-pong, a district councillor and the party’s spokesperson on education policy. “It is unfortunate that primary school students have to use Mandarin – a Northern Chinese language – to learn Chinese, it hinders the passing on of Cantonese.”

The Education Bureau once admitted that teaching Chinese in Mandarin may not be more effective.
The Education Bureau once admitted that teaching Chinese in Mandarin may not be more effective.

Tam said that students may learn to use terms uncommon in daily life, as they were from Mandarin. He said that people may not understand and find their choice of words awkward.

The party said it was “natural and right” to teach Chinese in Cantonese for Hong Kong people, and that a separate Mandarin subject was enough for students to master the language.

The Education Bureau stated on its website in 2014 that, “There is no solid proof that students learning Chinese in Mandarin would improve their Chinese level. Two research studies show that students who learn Chinese in Mandarin and in Cantonese do not appear to differ in their Chinese language skills. The former group may even have poorer performance.”

The statement was later removed.

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.