Hong Kong inspectors are pressing schools to teach Mandarin in preparation for the 1997 handover of the colony to the Chinese, but the government has so far refused to make the language compulsory.
Cantonese is the main dialect of Hong Kong and Southern China, but Mandarin is spreading, and after 1997 many think that school-leavers will find it hard to get a job unless they are fluent in Mandarin.
This year 15,000 civil servants are to be enrolled in government-run schemes to train them in Mandarin. While the objective is to create a civil service trilingual in English, Cantonese and Mandarin, most believe Mandarin will overtake English as the primary language of administration.
However, the government has not moved so fast in schools despite demand from the public for more Mandarin teaching. About 619 of Hong Kong's 1,400 primary and secondary schools offered Mandarin as an optional subject, compared with 592 and 578 in the previous two years. Another 19 secondaries ran special language courses outside school hours last year and a further 37 say they are planning to introduce such courses. Despite this, critics say the pace of change is too slow with the handover less than two years away.
Behind the government's reluctance to make Mandarin compulsory is the difficulty of finding teachers in a colony with no tradition of teaching the language. Mandarin teachers from China and Taiwan were only accepted late last year, and many have to upgrade their qualifications before being allowed to teach in secondary schools.
Schools said inspectors were recommending the phased introduction of Mandarin in the higher grades in the hope that a decision to introduce Mandarin to all primary and secondary schools is imminent.
Significantly Hong Kong's English-medium International Schools prefer to teach Mandarin rather than the local Cantonese. Mandarin is spoken in Taiwan and Singapore and is seen as a more widely used, and easier, language than Cantonese.
The English Schools Foundation, which operates 11 schools in Hong Kong, has introduced Mandarin in all its secondaries and two of its primaries from this September as an optional subject. The decision comes after years of pressure from parents who worry that their children risk becoming part of a colonial-style English-speaking elite unable to mix with locals.