Chinese skills of children on the slide

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 June, 2012, 12:00am


The Chinese language skills of the city's children are in decline, say teachers and tutors, who blame the ease with which Chinese characters can be typed on mobile phones and computers.

Educators say pupils accustomed to easy input methods are unwilling to make the effort to write out complex characters or compose proper sentences.

Karen Li Oi-wan, who has taught Chinese at secondary schools for 25 years, says students loathe writing out the full strokes.

Instead, they create lookalike characters - a sign of declining language skills that she sees as an ongoing deterioration in Chinese language standards in recent decades.

'Unlike in the 1980s, it is common to find wrong characters in students' writing today,' Li said.

'They get even the common characters wrong ... for homework, they also ask to type it on the computer rather than write it out.'

The results of the now-defunct Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination - replaced this year by the Diploma of Secondary Education - show that performances in the subject are getting worse.

Last year, just 30.2 per cent of candidates obtained at least level 3 - the rough equivalent of a C grade - in the exam, down from 42 per cent in 2009 and 38.1 per cent in 2010.

Students were required to reach level 2 standards to qualify for the final two years of high school and to sit for the A-level exam, held for the last time this year.

Fewer candidates are achieving the highest scores. At level 5* - the highest level - the percentage fell from 1.8 per cent of candidates in 2010 to just 0.4 per cent last year. Level 5 passes fell from 5.2 per cent to 1.3 per cent, while for level 4 the figure fell from 17.9 per cent to 8.5 per cent.

There was no such decline in English language, with 40.1 per cent passing at level 3 or higher last year - the same as in 2009 and up from 38.9 per cent in 2010.

Phoebe Choi, a Form Three pupil, admits that her Chinese is poor, a fact she attributes to a lack of motivation among her peers to write it properly.

She says they prefer to communicate on social networking websites like Facebook, using their own self-invented language or code.

'Sometimes it is difficult to decipher the codes but everyone is using them, and you feel like an outcast if you don't follow,' Choi said.

'Technology has had a very big impact on me. There are so many characters I don't know and I am put off by Chinese books.'

While mainland students are equally besotted with gadgets, Putonghua standards remain high, a fact attributed to the compulsory learning of classic literary texts. These essays, dating back to the Han and Ming dynasties and the early 20th century, remain part of the curriculum for mainland secondary schools.

The National College Entrance Examination also tests candidates on their knowledge of the subject. Mainland schools also prohibit students typing assignments on a computer.

Ho Miu-ling, a former Chinese teacher in Hong Kong, agrees that learning samples of writing - from ancient works such as the Classic of Poetry to prose written by early 20th century schools - can help lay a strong foundation for language skills.

'In learning classical music, people must listen to the famous pieces by Mozart,' Ho said by way of comparison. 'The famous works are of much value artistically and can enhance one's communication skills and knowledge of idioms.'

Ho attributes Hong Kong's Chinese language problems to the fact that it is taught in the same way as English - as a second language, rather than having an emphasis on content.

From reading messages on the popular microblog Weibo, Ho believes that mainlanders write better Putonghua or Chinese than their Hong Kong counterparts.

Yet there is still no escaping the problems that technology brings.

Sunny Xu admits that her ability to memorise Putonghua characters is fading. 'Other students around me have the same problem,' Xu said. 'There is so much software available today that allows you to type out a character easily. Often I don't remember how a character is written until it appears on the screen.'

To strengthen local Chinese standards, Hong Kong schools are trying to encourage students to write journals and to read more, but finding time in a tight curriculum is not easy.

However, all educators that the South China Morning Post spoke to agree on the importance of reading and writing to enhance language standards.


Number of students who achieved Level 3 - or C grade, in last year's HK Certificate of Education Exam, from 42% in 2009 and 38.1% in 2010