Bilingual schools have enviable record

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 June, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 June, 1999, 12:00am

I read with interest the report headlined, 'Bilingualism 'hinders children's reading' ' (South China Morning Post, May 26).

Your reporter quotes widely the views of Professor Chen Hsuan-chih of Chinese University that Hong Kong children lag behind their mainland counterparts in the reading levels in the primary school years.

Experience from this school, one of the leading dual-language schools in Hong Kong, and research conducted widely by Professor Colin Baker of the University of Wales and others shows quite the opposite. Indeed there is much evidence from Canada and Wales, where bilingual education is widespread, that children in bilingual schools out-perform their monolingual peers. The recently published Encyclopedia of Bilingualism and Bilingual Education, contains a wealth of information drawn from countries all over the world. It includes evidence from children learning to read two scripts (for example, Arabic and Roman) as well as children learning similar scripts.

The reference to the Netherlands made by Professor Chen is not really relevant, because there is virtually no genuine dual-language education in that country. Rather, children there learn through the medium of their own language, and pick up other languages purely as an academic subject. In Chinese International School primary divisions, all children, no matter what their language background, learn to read and write English and Chinese simultaneously.

We use Putonghua as the spoken Chinese language and full-form characters for the written language. At the conclusion of primary education (age 11) our native-speaking Chinese children on average can read a minimum of 1,500 characters in Chinese - well on the road to full literacy during the secondary years. In English all students take the American ERB-CTPIII tests, which are widely used in US private schools. Our students' average reading and vocabulary scores are virtually identical to those of their fifth grade peers in US private schools, and significantly higher than those in US government schools.

There is no doubt that in a genuinely dual-language educational system it is possible to develop complete functional bilingualism. It takes determination and effort, and, above all, support from the home, the school and the community.

Where bilingualism is seen as a genuine asset, if not a necessity, then schools can work with parents and the community to make it a reality.

ALEX HORSLEY Headmaster Chinese International School