Education

ESF hopes to spread Chinese to world

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 May, 2012, 12:00am

The English Schools Foundation is developing a new international exam for Putonghua learners that could appeal to students worldwide.

With 70 per cent of its secondary pupils now learning Putonghua and English, and in some cases other languages, the ESF has taken the initiative to develop the IGCSE Chinese as a Second Language test for Cambridge International Examinations (CIE), aimed at Year 11 pupils. It has both oral and written components.

Samples of the oral tests conducted earlier have been sent to Cambridge for moderation, while the written test, focusing on daily use of the language, will be held next month.

ESF Chinese adviser Wang Xiaoping believes the new test, and a course specially developed for it, would fit the rising number of international school pupils with Chinese backgrounds, who he thinks lose out on the two current IGCSE Chinese exams - for those learning Putonghua as a first or foreign language.

'All our secondary school teachers, school management and parents believe there is something missing in the middle. We have a large number of students with Hong Kong or some Chinese background. For them Chinese is not really a foreign language but not a native language either, as everything in school is taught in English. They don't use Chinese that much, but the foreign language option is too easy for them.'

Wang believes the course ESF has developed leading to the new exam will be useful for pupils not just in Hong Kong, but also Taiwan, Singapore and Indonesia. 'CIE decided to trial the test in our schools and probably next year they will offer it to the world. International schools in Taiwan, Singapore, not just Hong Kong are interested in the course.'

Since 2007, ESF has offered a daily Putonghua programme for its primary pupils. In some schools, like South Island School, it is compulsory for Year 7 and 8 pupils to study Putonghua. Its secondary schools offer three pathways to learning the language - as a foreign language, a second language and a native language.

Also next month, ESF will launch a trial Putonghua test for Year 9 pupils to assess their capability for pursuing the language in upper years.

Its latest emphasis on the study of Putonghua is in marked contrast to 1997 when it launched a curriculum under which Year 6 pupils were expected to know only 80 characters. Nowadays pupils finishing Year 6 are expected to be able to recognise at least 500 words.

'We believe Chinese is terribly important for the local community. With the growth of the mainland market, if our graduates have some sort of Chinese language skills that will add lots of credit to their employment prospects,' Wang said.

Meanwhile he dismissed concerns from parents about the quality of the foundation's Putonghua learning materials. Complaints from parents of pupils at King George V School about errors in materials for upper-year pupils led to an investigation by the school. Principal Ed Wickins admitted afterwards the materials found to have errors were not as good as they should have been.

He said the team that had prepared the materials was responsible for the mistakes. But parents blamed the newly appointed head of the school's Chinese team, an expatriate woman who studied Chinese in London and had only a few years' experience teaching the language.

'She can't even speak Putonghua properly. It's like asking a mainlander who has been in London for a year to teach English to school students there,' said one parent.

Wickins declined to comment on the teacher's qualifications and experience, except to say that the appointment was made on the basis of her leadership skills and overall application. 'The interview panel made a unanimous decision that she was the best person to be appointed,' he said.

Wang said he played only an advisory role in the interview process and was looking at the applicant's leadership skills. The head of a school Chinese team was a managerial rather than academic role, he added.

But he maintained that whoever was involved in the future development of the new IGCSE course materials would be most suitable for second language teaching.

He noted the difficulty in finding Putonghua teachers for international schools. Besides being fluent in English, they need to have the right teaching methodology and experience in an international setting.

'Finding the right Chinese teachers is an issue not only for ESF but for all international schools.'