Cantonese teaching to replace English

Hong Kong handover
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The Independent Online
Not only the British are leaving Hong Kong this year but the government plans to phase out teaching in the English language.

Remarkably, more than 80 per cent of the colony's secondary schools claim to use English as the medium of instruction. The problem is that many teachers are not proficient in English and lack the ability to conduct a lesson in the language.

"We understand that a lot of schools which claim to use the English medium are actually teaching in Chinese, except that they use English text books," says Chong Kwok-kit, assistant director of education. "Even exam papers are in Chinese, or are bilingual".

Although most children emerge from these schools barely able to speak English, their parents appear to be convinced that they will only be able to secure good career pro- spects by attending English-language schools. Tik Chi-yuen, chairman of the Home-School Coopera- tion group, believes parents of half the children in English-language schools would be inclined to withdraw their offspring if they move over to the Chinese language medium.

However, Mr Chong says one of the aims of the switch is to improve English standards and provide more resources for English teaching. He says: "A lot of research shows that most students learn more effectively with mother- tongue teaching".

As matters stand, schoolchildren "are falling between two stools", says Rod Pryde, the director of the British Council's English Language Centre. They are neither proficient in English nor Chinese. He is a strong supporter of reversion to mother- tongue teaching, which he predicts will raise the standard of English in Hong Kong, as long as resources are provided to support the teaching effort.

Mr Pryde says that in the past an elite possessed a high standard of English-language proficiency but it proved impossible to replicate this standard as the education system went through massive expansion. Moreover, the needs of the economy changed as Hong Kong's economy gravitated towards the service sector where English skills were in high demand.

Mr Chong says the government keeps hearing complaints from employers about their inability to find staff with sufficient English language proficiency. This has sparked a long debate about whether English standards are falling. Examination results show this is not the case. Mr Pryde believes that the real issue is great expansion of the population, bringing an inevitable dilution of English-speaking ability.

There have been suggestions that the dropping of English-medium education is part of the process of pleasing the incoming Chinese administration. Mr Chong says this is not so. He says that plans for the switch have been underway for a decade and that schools have been keen to make the change but were fearful of parental backlash if they proceeded alone.

Ironically, the first group to complain about the new policy was China's Preparatory Committee, which, not for the first time, was angered by a government decision taken without China's blessing.

The new system will place a firm emphasis on Cantonese, the local language, which China regards as a dialect. In China, all schools are sup- posed to teach in Putonghua, the northern language, which is the national language. Very few Hong Kong schools use Putonghua as the medium of instruction, nor are there plans for them to do so. Language is a sensitive issue in Hong Kong because China seems to see the prevalence of Cantonese as part of a pro- cess of establishing a separate Hong Kong identity. Chinese fears are not without foundation, because the use of Cantonese and the development of a modern Cantonese culture have indeed helped to foster a separate identity in the colony.

Nevertheless, Hong Kong is anxious to maintain its position as an international business centre, and those hoping to benefit from this situation realise they need to be equipped with English proficiency.

Mr Pryde says Hong Kong people have shown their commitment to education and a determination to reach targets established to improve English standards. Ironically, the scrapping of English-medium education might end up improving English standards, as school students concentrate on learning English as a foreign language rather than frowning their way through lessons in English which they hardly understand.