Language lessons

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 May, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 May, 1999, 12:00am

Psychology professor Chen Hsuan-chih's study into the language abilities of students has been concluded using the latest technology, and demonstrates that it takes longer for a Hong Kong undergraduate to read a Chinese character than his mainland or Taiwanese counterpart. But a lot of people will take issue with the professor's conclusion that bilingualism is an obstacle to learning.

Those exposed to a second language from very early childhood are usually successful in becoming proficient in both.

If local pupils have to think an extra 20 milliseconds before they decipher calligraphy the reason may be lack of practice, rather than a diminished ability to learn. More importantly, Professor Chen's study shows their comprehension is unaffected.

Liberal Party chairman James Tien Pei-chun raises a valid point when he voices concern in Legco about the decline in English standards. Language is a sensitive subject with parents, as the row over mother-tongue teaching showed.

Since the transition, English is less conspicuous than it used to be. In Legco debates, on MTR advertisements, on television, even on household bills, bilingualism is being cut back.

One result will be that children are less likely to absorb words through being constantly exposed to the language. It should, however, help to increase the ease with which they read Chinese.

To some degree, less use of English is understandable as the city reinforces its Chinese characteristics, and throws off vestiges of a colonial past. But citizens of a great international city still need to be at ease with the lingua franca of global business.

More research on similar lines to Professor Chen's should be done to establish the best teaching methods, and the optimum time to begin learning, otherwise Hong Kong will lag behind many parts of Asia in its English language ability.

It takes skill to cope with two utterly contrasting systems of speech and writing; but even so, something must be sadly wrong with the present approach when children who should have a good command of two languages are less adept than their regional peers in both.