Put language in context

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 February, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 February, 1998, 12:00am

It is a pity we are still being subjected to an unnecessary row about the 25 schools which wish to teach in English but have been refused permission to do so.

If the struggle is going to continue, then people need to be a bit more careful with their words than they have been lately. It has become customary to write as if it was an established fact that mother-tongue education was more effective, and this was being resisted only by Luddites who would not accept the scientific evidence.

This is not actually true.

What is true is that, as the Education Department used to say in a rather carefully-chosen phrase, most of the studies internationally have concluded that - other things being equal - education in the mother tongue of the student will be more successful.

If you look at the evidence more closely, though, there is still plenty of room for scepticism.

There is a danger in all science, and particularly in the so-called social sciences, that the researcher will come to a conclusion which fits his existing expectations and preferences. So when a topic attracts a large number of studies, it is a good idea to look at why it is 'hot' and what the researchers may be looking for.

Most of the studies, as usual, are from the United States, this being a country with a massive corps of academics in dire need of research topics.

The matter of language in education is topical because of a lively argument about the education of immigrants. The conservative view is that they should be educated in the language of their hosts. The more liberal position is that they should be educated in their own languages, at least initially.

Most academics with an interest in educational topics tend to be liberal, so it comes as no surprise that they tend to discover that children do better if taught in their mother tongue. I do not suggest that this view is wrong. But I would not rank it as anything close to an established scientific fact.

Actually, most of the language studies are looking at a situation quite different from the one in Hong Kong. In most of the studies the 'mother tongue' is that of a minority and the question is whether students should be taught in that language at the start of their education. Having agreed that mother tongue was best at the beginning, most authorities would go on to say that of course minority students should be able to rejoin the English-speaking mainstream by the time they get to secondary school, if not earlier.

So it could be considered a bit cheeky to cite this school of thought in support of the proposition that students should not be educated in English at the secondary level, after having studied it as a foreign language through their primary years.

Observant parents will also note that mother-tongue education for minorities in America is in a sense a cost-less option, because the kids will pick up English from their surroundings anyway.

And what about the implications of that important qualification, 'other things being equal?' What, they may ask, if other things are not equal.

No doubt if school A and school B are indistinguishable in all other respects, then B, teaching in the mother tongue, will enjoy more success than A, struggling in English. But in the real world other factors will intervene. School A may have established habits and traditions. It will enjoy a wider choice of textbooks, teaching materials, and indeed of teachers.

Parents who do not mind shocking their neighbours can deploy in defence of their preference for English some fragmentary studies of the distinguishing features of Chinese. Chinese writing operates on an unusual basis, one result of which is that school students spend many hours memorising the appearance of characters and the correct sequence of brush strokes.

It is not clear quite what the consequences of this are. At the least, it presumably consumes time which could be spent on something else. Some observers see this huge task of brute memorisation colouring the whole approach to education in Chinese societies, leading to an over-emphasis on repeated practice, copying and rote learning. A more extreme interpretation maintains that learning written language in this way leads to mental habits incompatible with innovation or scientific discovery.

These are speculative, even unlikely views, but no more speculative than the suggestion that, in the specific circumstances of Hong Kong, we can state with any scientific certainty the comparative merits of mother-tongue education in secondary schools.

I personally believe that the advantages probably outweigh the disadvantages. But parents or teachers who believe the contrary should be respected.

I do not believe that the motivation for this change is educational anyway. The change is a natural consequence of the hand-over and people should be frank enough to say so.