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A Missionary of Language

A Missionary Of Languages
A polyglot proselytizer takes on the task of training Hong Kong's teachers.

RUTH HAYHOE SPEAKS four languages -- a useful qualification for someone training Hong Kong's teachers as the city attempts to educate students in three tongues.

"I'm a missionary of languages," says the French-, English- , Mandarin- and Cantonese-speaking Canadian, who in October became the director of the Hong Kong Institute of Education.

For those who beg off, saying they are too old to learn new tongues, Dr. Hayhoe, 51 years old, points out that she has been working the past three years to add Japanese to her repertoire.

Dr. Hayhoe, who began her teaching career at a Hong Kong high school in 1967, returned to the city to head the teacher-training institute after a stint as an associate dean of graduate students at the University of Toronto. She is returning at a time when the debate over language education is at its most intense in a place coping with its legacy as a British colony and its future as a Chinese city. The government's education department is pushing secondary schools to drop English as their medium of instruction in favor of Cantonese, the language in about 98% of homes. And there is a growing movement in the new Beijing-aligned government to demand that students also show proficiency in China's national dialect, known as Putonghua or Mandarin.

Nevertheless, Dr. Hayhoe says, many non-English-speaking parents in Hong Kong and elsewhere still consider English the language most likely to enhance their children's employment prospects. To persuade parents it's preferable to educate children in their mother tongues, she says, she tells them that the children will gain a better grip on science and math. And that slower and average students will do better in all their classes. "In the end, mother-tongue education is important for long-term learning. If they learn in their mother tongue, they will learn English better," Dr. Hayhoe says. "That's been the experience on the mainland."

Between 1980 and 1991, she spent two years teaching at Fudan University in Shanghai and another two working in Beijing at the Canadian embassy. Over the years she has amassed master's and doctoral degrees in comparative education from the University of London's Institute of Education. She advises seven universities in China and has been a consultant to the World Bank on Chinese higher education.

Dr. Hayhoe acknowledges that while administrators would like to ensure Mandarin proficiency in Hong Kong, it has taken more than 45 years and concerted pressure from the central government to make it the lingua franca throughout China. And even now, regional dialects survive; some, like Cantonese in the southern province of Guangdong, thrive.

It isn't unusual, she says, to hear teachers speak a regional dialect while standing in front of the mandatory "please speak Mandarin" signs that decorate classrooms in China.

From India and Malaysia to Singapore and now Hong Kong, the role of English has bedeviled former British colonies. Dr. Hayhoe believes it was right for Singapore, a multilingual and multiracial society, to pick English as a way to bind people together. India also had to find a language to transcend the nation's myriad local tongues. Malaysia went the other way, however, and rejected the language of colonialism to make Bahasa Malaysia its official tongue and the primary language of instruction in schools. It makes little sense to put English on top in Hong Kong, she adds, because society is overwhelmingly homogenous.

Even in places where English has never been an official tongue, such as Japan and China, educators continue to wrestle with the foreign language's influential role, she points out. Japan, she explains, is making a move toward using English as the language of instruction for the 50,000-plus visiting Asian students in the nation's universities, because few are fluent in Japanese.

"English is a dilemma for Asia," Dr. Hayhoe adds. "English is so dominant now. But what about 100 years from now? What language will dominate? Will it be Chinese?"

Considering Hong Kong's new status as part of China, isn't it strange that a government organization chose a Western woman over 40 other candidates for the high-profile position at the helm of the Hong Kong Institute of Education?

Simon Ip, chairman of the institute's council, says Dr. Hayhoe met the "demanding requirements" of the search committee and "is the best person for the job."

For her part, Dr. Hayhoe is confident enough to believe she got the job thanks to her credentials. In fact, she doesn't feel much like an outsider mostly because she is so fluent in Cantonese. "If you learn the language," she explains, "you can become more accepted."

--Ms. Sullivan is a writer based in Hong Kong.