An article, contained within a set of Mandarin teaching supporting materials sent out by the Education Bureau, has stated that Cantonese is a dialect, and not a mother tongue.

The article by Song Xinqiao was included in a set of 25 articles published in 2013 on Mandarin teaching experiences. The set was part of 11 sets of supporting information for primary schools that the Bureau has been sending to schools since 1997.

Song is a professional consultant at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Research and Development of Putonghua Education. He wrote that the controversy surrounding Mandarin teaching was caused by an inaccurate understanding of concepts such as the mother tongue, Chinese, Mandarin and Cantonese.

Song Xinqiao. Photo: CUHK.

Song wrote that, in 1951, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) described the mother tongue as the “ethnic group language” of a person, citing a 2003 article by Li Yuming, former party secretary of the Beijing Language and Culture University.

Song said: “The mother tongue does not only belong to a person, but also to an ethnic group.”

“Cantonese belongs to Chinese, but we usually would not use Cantonese – a Chinese dialect – to represent the language of the Han ethnic group. To make it accurate, a dialect in a language cannot be seen as a ‘mother tongue’,” he wrote.

“Calling ‘Cantonese’ a ‘mother tongue’ does not fit with the strict definition of ‘mother tongue’,” he wrote, adding that mother tongue refers to a language but not a dialect, which is “the local variety of a language.”

Photo: Screenshot.

Song said that there has been a common spoken form of Chinese for around 600 years – currently Mandarin. He said that Mandarin education was akin to the formal education of a common language of the modern Han people.

Song studied Chinese language at the Peking University, and worked in the Chinese Ministry of Education and the State Language Commission between 1976 and 2003.

UNESCO definition

However, in a 1951 UNESCO paper on the use of vernacular languages in education, a mother or native tongue was described as “[t]he language which a person acquires in early years and which normally becomes his natural instrument of thought and communication.”

In another UNESCO paper in 2008 on the mother tongue, it was referred to as “a child’s first language, the language learned in the home from older family members.”

Last year, an international study found that students who learned Chinese in Cantonese performed almost the same as those who learned the language in Mandarin.

In response, Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung said the papers were given to teachers or people in education to consider different views on the mother tongue from different scholars. Yeung said most of the primary schools chose to teach in Cantonese: “The government’s stance on teaching language is clear.”

Photo: Screenshot.

In 2014, a page on the Education Bureau’s website on language learning support was found to have said that Cantonese is “a Chinese dialect not considered an official language.”

The Bureau removed the article and apologised for any misunderstanding caused by an “ambiguous” note on Cantonese.

Kris Cheng

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.