Debate over benefits of bilingualism

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 June, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 June, 1999, 12:00am

Early exposure to English is slowing down Hong Kong students, a university professor has charged.

'I believe bilingual teaching is one of the factors hindering students from learning,' Professor Chen Hsuan-chih of the department of psychology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong said. He made the claim after an eye-tracking device from Canada revealed that university students educated locally read Chinese characters more slowly than their mainland counterparts.

'Hong Kong students spent longer on each character and they had to re-read characters before they could fully understand the text.' While claiming that Hong Kong students read more slowly, Prof Chen conceded that their comprehension was up to scratch.

But according to a visiting British scholar, early exposure to other languages stimulates a child's intellectual development.

'Judging by anecdotal evidence [in Europe], people have benefited from bilingual education, because they are more flexible in terms of grasping concepts,' Henry Pavlovich, director of the London-based Institute of Linguists, said.

'They can conceptualise more difficult subjects at an earlier age,' he explained.

Alex Horsley, headmaster of the Chinese International School, agreed.

'Experience from this dual- language school, and research conducted by Professor Colin Baker of the University of Wales and others shows [that students learning two languages simulta neously can do quite well],' he wrote in a letter to the South China Morning Post.

'Indeed, there is much evi dence that children in bilingual schools outperform their monolingual peers,' he said.

Primary school students at the Chinese International school - regardless of their mother tongue - learn to read and write English and Chinese simultaneously. By age 11, they can recognise 1,500 Chinese characters. They also score significantly higher on English reading and vocabulary tests than their peers at government-run schools in the United States.

'There is no doubt that in a genuinely dual-language educational system it is possible to develop complete functional bilingualism,' Mr Horsley said.

The key, he said, was commitment. ' 'Where bilingualism is seen as a genuine asset, schools can work with parents and the community to make it a reality.'