Mon, Feb 23, 2009
The Straits Times
Hong Kong's English, Cantonese conundrum

By Caryn Yeo

HONG KONG, CHINA: The long-running and often bitter row over Hong Kong's mother-tongue policy has taken a new turn, with the government set to ease restrictions on the use of English in the classroom.

Currently, only 114 of more than 400 secondary schools in Hong Kong are allowed to conduct classes in English.


In a proposal submitted to lawmakers last month, about 80 more secondary schools could be given the choice to switch to English.

That is a significant U-turn on the controversial policy implemented 11 years ago, which ordered these schools to use only Cantonese - the city's mother tongue - as their medium, erasing English from their classrooms except for teaching it as a second language.

In 1998, the mother-tongue policy made sense to many educators, particularly because the former British colony had returned to the fold of China the year before.

As the main mode of communication of most students and teachers, Cantonese was the easiest way to impart information and children could learn more effectively with it, according to research findings cited by the government at that time.

But parents whose children ended up in the Cantonese-medium schools, and not any of the 114 allowed to teach in English, feel short-changed. The policy has also been blamed for the city's declining English-language standards.

Employers, especially those in the service industry, complain of difficulties in hiring English-speaking staff. Tourists voice their frustration at not being understood, while expatriates find it increasingly hard to communicate with the locals.

Singaporean Alison Jenner, who married a Hong Kong resident and moved to the city four years ago, took up Cantonese lessons after finding it difficult to get around with English.

'Even at fast-food restaurants, the staff couldn't understand me when I asked for salt or pepper in English,' she said.

Recent surveys and studies have reignited debate on the issue.

One such survey of 2,000 ethnic Chinese professionals, published last November by the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, found that English was still rated as the most important language in business, ahead of Cantonese.

Another reported that students taught in Cantonese did far worse than their peers in getting into universities.

But Professor Hau Kit Tai, an education psychologist with the Chinese University of Hong Kong, rejected the notion that students from English schools perform better academically.

'There is no way to know whether studying in English or Cantonese results in better students. The best students opt for English schools because they are seen as prestigious. So it is only logical that these schools produce better results and have a higher rate of students entering university,' he said.

Nevertheless, the surveys have clearly alarmed Hong Kong's achievement-obsessed parents.

Those who can afford it send their children to expensive private schools or an overseas education, neglecting their learning of Chinese. The less well-off students find themselves under immense pressure to qualify for English-medium government schools, which typically have long waiting lists.

Professor Andy Kirkpatrick, head of the Hong Kong Institute of Education's English department, told The Straits Times that the government's proposed changes were unlikely to raise English standards.

'There is already a shortage of qualified English teachers, and now those teaching other subjects using Cantonese have to undergo extensive training - first to improve their own English levels and then to learn to teach the subject in English,' he said.

Prof Hau disagreed with those who compared Hong Kong's English standards with Singapore's, seeing the latter's higher proficiency as the product of circumstances.

'In Singapore, you have no choice but to use English as the medium of instruction, as there are a lot of people who do not understand Mandarin. But for the vast majority of Hong Kong students, Cantonese is their first language.'

Prof Kirkpatrick said: 'It is more important for students to be literate in Chinese first. This is preferable to the situation in Singapore, where many ethnic Chinese have excellent English skills but leave school with low levels of literacy in Chinese.'

But former legislator Christine Loh, who heads the non-profit think-tank Civic Exchange, said Hong Kong placed too much emphasis on 'being Chinese'.

'There is no doubt that we are a Chinese city, we don't need to keep saying it,' she told The Standard newspaper. She said Hong Kong could learn much from Singapore, which is held in esteem internationally for its widespread use of good English.

Mr Michael Tien, chairman of the standing committee on language education and research, criticised the latest change as a political move of the government to salvage its falling popularity.

There is nothing wrong with the current system, he said. 'The number of students qualifying for university is at an all-time high. The government is simply trying to please parents who want more schools to teach in English, but these adjustments are hardly rational.'

Education Secretary Michael Suen has defended the proposal, saying the government's intention is to increase students' exposure to English.

'Hong Kong is a cosmopolitan place, so we have to ensure that every child in Hong Kong is equally proficient in Cantonese and English,' he said.

Parent Benji Leung, who has a daughter in Primary 6, felt that an English-medium school offered a better chance of success when it came to entering university and in career endeavours.

'An English school looks better on your resume, and most of those holding high-ranking positions in both the private and public sectors in Hong Kong come from these schools,' he said.

'Eleven years ago, the government forced the mother tongue policy on us, and now that the policy is a total failure, they want to change it again. Just let us decide for ourselves.'

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