Learning in English can lead to chaos
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There are many places in the world where a foreign language is an important subject in the school curriculum, and is taught and learned efficiently. But hardly anywhere else can there be such strong resistance to mother-tongue teaching as has been angrily expressed in Hong Kong last week.
The local debate about language in education has continued for nearly two decades. That students can learn their school subjects best in their mother tongue is a sound education principle which few would dispute.
Nor would anyone deny the importance of English language skills in work and in higher education in Hong Kong. The controversy is whether students should learn every subject in English to ensure maximum exposure to the language.
For a long time the education authorities refused to adopt a compulsory medium of instruction policy. Left to decide on their own, four schools out of every five claimed to teach in English, believing that most parents were more concerned about their children's English proficiency than their knowledge of science or history.
In recent years it has become increasingly apparent that the 'English-medium' label advertised by many schools is a sham. Education experts find it a disgrace that a 'mixed code', a mixture of poor Chinese and poor English, has become the most common classroom language.
Meanwhile, studies have indicated only a small fraction of local students can benefit from English-medium teaching, and those learning in the mother tongue generally perform better.
In due course the Education Department realised, perhaps later than all others, that the decision to switch to mother-tongue teaching could not be left to individual schools.
It issued a guidance on medium of instruction last September, requiring any secondary school that wished to continue teaching in English next year to apply for approval.
For a school to be eligible to teach in English, its teachers, and at least 85 per cent of its students, must have the required language capability. In effect this makes mother-tongue teaching compulsory for most schools.
Thus the most important consequence of the new policy is that English-medium schools will be exceptions rather than the rule. All undesirable side-effects considered, this is still a definite step in the right direction.
Astorm of angry protests has come from some of the two dozen schools that have applied and been turned down. This is hardly surprising, for teachers, students and parents regard it a grave insult for their school to be excluded from the prestigious English-medium list.
Many seem to sympathise with the rejected schools, and few have questioned their professional judgment. Apart from the fear of losing their prestige, for what reasons do these schools want to cling to English-medium teaching, in the face of indisputable evidence that mother-tongue teaching is more beneficial to students? Perhaps it is the 100 schools whose applications have been approved that one should take a harder look at. The vetting of all the applications was done by a committee of three in a month's time. How did the committee convince itself that the history, science and mathematics teachers in these 100 schools were all competent to teach their subjects in English? A parent of a famous school included in the list was once shocked to hear her daughter taught by her teacher to say 'chaos' as 'chows', and 'slaughter' to rhyme with 'laughter'.
If there is any chaos that may cause laughter in the way teachers speak English in these highly distinguished schools, the vetting committee have not been there to find out.