Language Lessons

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Chinese isn’t exactly a language under threat, but a proposal that one of Hong Kong’s top universities should allow more teaching in English must be resisted on principle. Today’s South China Morning Post reports that Chinese University—and let’s put the stress on the first word of that name—is considering the use of English-language teaching for subjects that are “highly universal in nature with little emphasis on cultural specificity.” Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese, which according to the university’s own constitution are supposed to be the principal languages of instruction, would be relegated to “courses related to local society, politics and culture”—that is, a liberal arts netherworld that nobody bar a few chin-stroking, stammering beardos will care about.
That conceivably leaves the non-local arts, as well as sciences, business and the professions (as subjects of little “cultural specificity”) to be taught in a language that puts native speakers of Chinese at a clear disadvantage. It must be asked why Hong Kong students who wish to study these subjects could be obliged to do so in a foreign tongue. The university’s bilingualism committee, which has framed these proposals, says it is because the use of English will make possible the “direct and accurate articulation of concepts.”
I wonder what Chinese readers will make of that remark. Are you aware that your language is incapable of the “direct and accurate articulation of concepts” in any but the most parochial spheres? What a fog of imprecision you and the nation must have been inhabiting these past millennia.
It is obvious that some concepts in English cannot be precisely expressed in Chinese, but the reverse is also true, and besides, isn’t it part of the proper work of intellectuals to articulate meanings and concepts, however foreign or difficult they may appear? Why must subjects that are, after all, “highly universal in nature” be communicable in one language only? And wouldn’t it be more fulfilling for academics to broaden and strengthen the Chinese language instead of reflexively resorting to one that has already given Hong Kong students enough grief?

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