Learning in English a struggle for most

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 December, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 December, 1997, 12:00am

The problem with the public debate on medium of instruction is that very few people in our community really understand the disadvantages of non-mother-tongue teaching in schools.

Some critics of the Government's medium of instruction policy are native English speakers who have never experienced the agony of having to learn all school subjects through a foreign language.

Most others with strong views on the issue have not experienced mother-tongue teaching since their secondary school days.

They assume that a lesson conducted in Chinese is essentially a translation of the same exercise done in English. Why not learn science in English, they ask, so that you can pick up some English while studying the secrets of nature? A famous Chinese scholar once wrote that you cannot talk about snow to insects that only live in summer. People who have been 'successfully' educated in English and are now in responsible posts can hardly be expected to realise the value of mother-tongue teaching.

Only those who have been taught in both the mother tongue and a foreign language can fully appreciate the different effects of each.

Few are aware of the cost to students forced to learn through a foreign language. Many people take it for granted that students should continue to learn in English as long as they can scrape through their examinations.

The Education Department uses an assessment system which divides all children who have finished primary education into three groups. Group I students are 'able to learn effectively in either Chinese or English', Group II 'able to learn more effectively in Chinese', and Group III 'able to learn better in Chinese but may also learn effectively in English'.

This grouping is misleading. The Education Department admits in its Medium of Instruction Guidance for Secondary Schools that 'educational research worldwide and in Hong Kong has shown that students learn better through their mother tongue'. For most Hong Kong students Chinese is their mother tongue. They should therefore all belong to Group II.

There cannot be many true bilinguals among Chinese children growing up in typical Hong Kong families. Even if a child goes to an English-medium primary school, there is little chance for him to communicate in any tongue other than Cantonese outside the school environment. English is seldom used at home or in the street, apart from a few words and phrases.

It must therefore be very exceptional for a Hong Kong child at the age of 11 or 12 to have developed English language skills comparable to native English-speaking children of the same age. One must be sceptical when a child is determined to be 'able to learn effectively in either Chinese or English'.

Students who make it to the local universities will no doubt be regarded as competent to learn in English, for they have succeeded in examinations set in that language. Yet test results have shown that when required to read English, many of our university students have only reached a reading age equivalent to that of primary school children whose first language is English.

It is hard to assess how much talent in our younger generation is wasted because students are hampered in developing their potential by limitations in their language skills.

Hong Kong students are often criticised for their reliance on rote learning and lack of analytical power and independent thinking. But the culprit has seldom been identified. Our youngsters spend so much effort expressing spoon-fed information in a foreign language that they have little chance to develop ideas of their own.