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Language in a Crisis

Wasn't Hong Kong a British colony? Aren't children taught English from the kindergarten level? Isn't all official work in Hong Kong done in English (and in Chinese)? If the answer to all these questions is in the affirmative, why are expatriates disappointed with the standard of spotken (and at times, written) English in the SAR? Why is it that some mainland cities, with no real history of English language teaching to boast of, producing better English speakers?

The problems it seems are a lot easier to pinpoint than the solutions. It may be true, as former chief secretary for administration Anson Chan says, that some businessmen have found Shanghai people's communicative skills in English to be better than Hong Kong's. But it's also true, that many of Hong Kong's primary and secondary school teachers don't have the skill to teach English pronunciation to non-English speaking students. In fact, some can't pronounce certain words properly themselves. The problem then seems to lie at the root of the education system. Or, is it?

As a language expert and president of the Chinese University of Hong Kong's Tung Wah Group of Hospitals Community College, Richard Ho comes across many Hong Kong and mainland students every year. And he too doesn't particularly like what he sees. "Generally, the majority of Secondary Five students speak terrible English. The terms they use or sentences they speak are grammatically incorrect... Many times, it's difficult to understand what a native speaker is saying and it creates communication gaps," says the language expert.

But why is such the case? Ho says the "communicative approach", practised for the past twenty years to teach English is to blame. The communicative approach sees language as a vehicle of expression, hence, emphasizes the teaching of English through communication -- reading, writing and speaking -- instead of laying stress on grammar, phonetics and pronunciation. In Hong Kong's schools, about three-quarters of English-teaching hours are devoted to reading, writing and speaking.

So is the failure to incorporate phonetics into school curriculum the real problem? Is this why Hong Kong residents confuse "n" with "l"? Is this why "r" is skipped so often? Exactly, says Ho. That's why you hear many people pronouncing "nice" as "lice" and "breach" as "beach".

"Mainland students learn phonetics and pronunciation, and learn it quite well, in the primary classes. And when they are in Hong Kong, they use the chance to practice spoken English, and they start speaking the language accurately, and fluently, in a short time."

The inability to understand phonetics and pronounce properly hinder the expansion of one's vocabulary. "Local students don't learn to look up the phonetic symbols in the dictionary, or transcriptions to pronounce a word correctly."

As former registrar of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Ho is required to make newcomers (both from Hong Kong and the mainland) to enroll and take exams in Cantonese, English and Putonghua phonetics courses. "Shanghai and Beijing students are good in oral English and all of them can pass the exams," he says. But one-third of the local students fail.

Teaching in mother-tongue

The standard of English in Hong Kong declined after the medium of instruction in schools was changed from English to Chinese. Teaching in the mother tongue has its advantages, but not when it comes to teaching a language such as English. Thus goes the refrain of those opposed to Chinese as the medium of instruction.

Before Hong Kong was reunified with the motherland, secondary schools could choose between Chinese and English as the medium of instruction. Most regarded themselves as Anglo-Chinese schools, and chose English. But teaching in an acquired language often proved to be a struggle both for teachers and children.

To address the problem, the SAR government introduced the mother tongue teaching policy in 1998 that forced about 300 government and government-aided secondary schools to adopt Chinese as the medium of instruction (CMI). Only 110 schools were considered good enough to continue with English-medium instruction (EMI). The division, unfortunately, started a "labelling effect" -- with EMI schools considered elite. The result: every year, parents scramble to get a seat for their children in the EMI schools.

Seven years after the introduction of teaching in the mother tongue, the policy seems to have started bearing positive results. A recent study conducted by the University of Hong Kong found students taught in the mother tongue appeared more active in class and were able to learn more. The 2004 HKCEE results show a continuous increase in the pass rates (in all major subjects) of CMI school students. Some CMI students have even made significant improvements in English.

But despite the evidence to the contrary, teaching in Chinese has been criticized and blamed for the poor English among students. Ho rubbishes the allegations of such critics. He says a student must attain a certain level of competence in English before he can benefit from using it as a medium of instruction. "For primary schooling, there is no alternative to teaching in the mother tongue because that's how students learn best," Ho says. "This way students will find it easier to acquire knowledge and understand better the academic subjects."

"Learning through a second language can create language barriers. It can undermine effectiveness of learning for students not competent enough. Teaching in English should be introduced gradually and after students have attained (a certain level of) proficiency in the foreign language," he says.

Recalling his experience of having switch to primary teaching in English, Ho says he made great efforts to overcome the language barrier. When his parents sent him to the reputable Anglo-Chinese secondary school, St Joseph's College, Ho did not understand what the teachers said in the beginning. A private tutor had to be hired for him to help him learn the subjects. Still, catching up with classmates was a struggle.

The lesson: a language should to taught step by step.

(China Daily HK edition April 19, 2005)

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