Tomorrow's tongues

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 May, 2012, 12:00am


In a globalised world where countries are interdependent, those looking to land themselves in a leadership role would be well advised to master their understanding of the dialects of the future, be they human languages or the increasingly ubiquitous forms of digital communication. While the options are endless, here are some areas where your children will likely need to focus their efforts to get ahead.

Mandarin learning turns into adventure

Mandarin has long been seen as a must for those aspiring to conquer the business world, but learning the language - as even many Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong locals concede - is no easy feat. Among those who have succeeded in mastering it, many say that they benefited most not from spoon-fed learning inside the classroom but from practical experiences.

Mandarin Adventures is the language-immersion branch of Dragonfly, one of Asia's premier providers of outdoor adventure learning programmes. It advocates an authentic experiential Mandarin-learning approach by immersing students in real-life interactions with native speakers in the most natural setting - mainland China.

Their programmes are a far cry from classroom rote learning or 'follow the flag' budget tours. Each day is a chance to discover something new about China's culture, customs and history, while participants practise Mandarin in hands-on situations.

At pre-course meetings, 'we assure [parents] that we've worked with many international schools in the past and that we practise the best management procedures,' says Rob Garrett, Mandarin Adventures' programme director for China. 'Many times, the problems are not real concerns. Like, they've heard the news that there is a drought and we tell them that the site is actually hundreds of miles away from the affected area.'

Participants are supervised by Mandarin teachers and activity instructors, many of whom not only have background in experiential education but also have experienced studying in and exploring China over many years.

Before every daily excursion, students spend a few hours in the classroom. They receive background information on grammar and pronunciation, which they are able to apply later in the day while shopping in a local market, cooking dumplings, ordering in a restaurant, biking or fan painting.

What do students normally identify as the highlight of the course?

'We get different answers from different students. Often, the most interesting answers are unexpected. Fan painting is a frequent answer - even from the boys,' says Garrett.

Unlocking the code

Some of the world's most successful and influential business leaders today share a common tongue they most likely didn't learn from their parents: programming language.

In a recent column, South China Morning Post deputy news editor Alex Lo argued for parents to encourage their children to learn computer coding and for schools to include programming into their core curriculum.

'Back in the late 1990s, with the [information technology] and dotcom craze, the government under [Chief Executive] Tung Chee-hwa might have been willing to introduce computer programming as a subject in secondary school if someone had made a formal and well-thought-out programme proposal. But I don't think anyone did that,' he says.

None of Lo's kids is taking a programming course at present. 'But I certainly want to get the international school they go to to start teaching some programming, either in class or as an extracurricular subject,' he says.

What is the chance that the next Mark Zuckerberg is a six-year-old girl learning to write Scratch code in North Point?

Futurekids Computer Learning Center offers year-round and summer holiday programming-language courses for kids in the 6-8, 9-11 and 12-and-above age brackets. Programming-language choices include Mindstorms, MicroWorlds Logo and Scratch, the now popular coding architecture developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lifelong Kindergarten Group. Advanced students can take up ASP.NET, Java, JavaScript, C and Visual Basic. Gadget-crazy participants can also discover how to write mobile applications for Android devices.

Dr Eric Chin, school supervisor at Futurekids, recommends Scratch to primary students and MicroWorlds Pro to secondary students.

'Sometimes, a student may not do well in one particular language. But they can easily switch to another language that they find more interesting,' he says. 'The key to teaching programming languages to primary school students is to let them experience how programming can create games, which all students like.'

Talking business

GlobalEnglish, in its Business English Index (BEI) 2012 Report, drew attention to how the lack of Business English proficiency is imperiling global productivity. Its study showed that average BEI score across all companies and industries fell by 7 per cent from 4.46 in 2011 to 4.15 in 2012.

English-language education may be one of the best investments parents can make for their children. It remains the preferred lingua franca of global commerce and will likely continue to remain as such for some time to come. Accordingly, it is safe to assume that most careers in the borderless, interconnected future will require the ability to communicate effectively in English.

While Hong Kong teems with English education services, those provided by the British Council probably remain among the best.

'We aim to build students' confidence, to ensure our courses are relevant to them and to activate students' language. Therefore, our syllabi are task-based, meaning the course has a set of real-life learning outcomes,' says Graham Horn, one of the council's senior teachers.

Classes at the council are fit for all student levels, from beginners to upper intermediate. There are 15 students in each class on average, a lot smaller than the Hong Kong norm. Instead of sitting in rows - the layout in a typical classroom - British Council students sit around tables and face each other.

'The lessons are centred round tasks and topics - not pre-determined grammar inputs. We aim to have tasks and topics that are meaningful, pragmatic and based on the learner's needs and interests. We emphasise real-life language content and prioritise intelligibility and task achievement over correctness. We place an emphasis on spoken fluency over accuracy, as we recognise most of our students want to develop their speaking and listening skills,' says Horn.

When monitoring a student's progress, teachers emphasise formative assessment techniques, which is typically delivered to students on a task-by-task basis, he adds.