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Dean's Corner

Address by Professor Gabriel Leung at the Speech Day of True Light Middle School

06 Jul 2019

Lingua franca

Supervisor Professor Lung [Ping-yee, David], Principal [Frances] Hui, council members, honoured guests, teachers, parents, friends, and most of all graduates, I want to thank you sincerely for inviting me to speak to you on this day.   

I want to speak to you about language.  About the importance of language, and the power it has to shape our world view.  There’s a quote I’d like to share with you, from the famous 20th century Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.  Wittgenstein said, “the limits of my language are the limits of my world”.  What I think he meant by that, at least in part, is that anything we cannot access with our language, we cannot access at all.  Perhaps as a consequence of this he also suggests that if we want to expand the limits of our world, we must expand our use of language.

If we believe this to be true we might conclude that someone speaking two languages has a more expansive world view, that they can fundamentally experience and understand more of the world.  To some extent I think this is true, and for that reason many of us in this room are extremely fortunate to be bilingual, trilingual, or beyond.  I think it behooves us to be grateful for that.  

As I was preparing for this speech, thinking about languages, world view, and Wittgenstein, I found myself asking a slightly odd question.  I’m going to ask this question, not because it necessarily has a clear answer, but because I am hoping it will lead you to interesting thoughts.  Maybe it will lead you not to an answer, but to more questions.  The question is this: why am I speaking English to you right now?

This question reminded me of a story I heard about a European Union meeting that took place about more than a decade ago – whether it’s true I don’t really know.  Delegates from several countries had arrived at the meeting, but their interpreters had not arrived yet.  So none of the delegates had anyone to help them translate what was said into their native language.  All the delegates were perfectly capable of speaking English or French, but if they picked one of those languages it would show favouritism to that delegation.  As a matter of diplomatic protocol, instead of starting the meeting in English or French, they waited.  They sat around until one of the delegates realised that since they had all received classical educations, they all spoke Latin as well, and none of the countries had Latin as an official language, so there was no favouritism.  The meeting started in Latin and everyone was happy.

To me this story says something interesting about the importance of not only how we use language, but why.  Language is more than merely communication.  Every language contains unique elements of the culture, history, mythology, and modes of thinking that gave rise to it. Hence my question: why am I speaking English to you today?

English in the modern world is what we call a lingua franca – a language that is used in common to connect people with different mother tongue languages.  It is also sometimes referred to as a prestige language, a language that is held in high regard.

The term lingua franca is borrowed from Italian.  But, as you might have guessed from the ‘franca’ portion, it refers to French, which was the dominant prestige language from the 17th century all the way to the early 20th century.  As French slowly receded, English instead became the common language of business, diplomacy, science, transportation, and entertainment.

In fact, when True Light Middle School was founded in 1872, when it was known as the True Light Seminary, French was far more globally esteemed that English.  Perhaps I should be speaking French to you all instead.  Don’t worry, I won’t or frankly can’t easily switch to French.

There are several other languages I could be speaking.  Cantonese and Mandarin probably spring to mind.  It seems however that most schools in Hong Kong want, like True Light, to be English language schools, and parents want their children to grow up speaking English.  Hong Kong is not unique in that regard.  One thing that is different however, is that across the globe, even where English is valued, it isn’t generally made the language of instruction.  While most children learn English in school as a subject, your average Swedish or Brazilian student learns things like history or science in Swedish or Portuguese respectively, not English. 

In Hong Kong we seem to take English language instruction as a proxy indicator for quality.  We place a great value on it.  I wonder however, if it leads to better English-speaking students in the end.  Does using English as the medium of instruction, rather than as another subject, lead to better results?  Hard to say, and certainly not my area of expertise.  For me, again, I think the more interesting questions again is why.

Have we placed English on this pedestal as a sort of after-effect of colonial days?  Perhaps, though it doesn’t seem to be receding alongside colonialism.  Students born significantly after 1997 are still graduating in English, and having visiting speakers speak in English, clearly.  Perhaps the institution endures out of the educational prestige that comes from other English language institutions.  In Hong Kong we hold institutions like Oxford and Cambridge in very high regard.  Ironically Oxford graduates its students in Latin, not English.  But there is something more going on than merely emulating esteemed institutions.  I doubt if Eton switched overnight to teaching only in Mandarin that we’d follow suit.

It is these factors taken together that have made English so enduring in our society.  A complex set of social, cultural, and political reasons entrenched it as the language of instruction many of our best schools, including this one.  By this I don’t particularly mean to pass judgement either way, just to suggest that it is worth thinking about the why of it.

From that jumping point I’d also like you to think about the value that other languages, like Chinese, have in your lives.  Second, third, and for some of you even fourth languages, are so much more than just tools of communication.  They are unique ways of understanding the world.  They are portals to accessing different cultures, and thereby understanding more deeply a larger part of the world.  I believe that the value of speaking two languages is greater than simply double the value of speaking one language.  Though our medium of instruction might be English, and English is a prestige language in today’s world, don’t let yourselves forget the value of other languages you speak or that you’ll have the opportunity to learn.  Place those languages on a pedestal in your own minds as well.

As a way of explaining what I’m driving at, I want to throw another quote at you.  This time not a philosopher, but a comedian, George Carlin, who had the following joke: “‘Meow’, means ‘woof’ in cat.”  

I wonder if the cat and the dog, if we could understand them would agree.  Or, do they have access to two completely different worlds, where it wouldn’t make sense to line up the words and say this cat word means the same as this dog word.  Perhaps the cat can never hope to understand the dog’s world without learning the dog’s language.

I would suggest to you that every language you speak is prestigious, valuable, and important. Every language you speak is a part of a complicated and rich cultural history.  And every language you speak expands your world.  Furthermore, taking time to think about languages, to think about how and why we use them, is always worth it.

So, why have I been speaking English to you?  I don’t have an easy answer for that, except that it’s worth asking, and worth thinking about.  I’ll stop speaking English to you now, as my time is drawing to a close, but I want to sincerely thank you all very much for having me.