Language lessons

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 November, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 November, 1999, 12:00am

Whichever side of the argument parents and educationalists favour in the mother-tongue teaching controversy, most would agree that this aspect of education is in serious disarray.

In spite of well-intentioned efforts to revise the system, experts do not seem able to agree among themselves about the best way forward, or how to interpret the result of changes so far. Contradictory findings follow one another with bewildering speed. At the beginning of the month a survey revealed that children learning in Cantonese are more responsive to lessons and have better communication with teachers. Two weeks later, an Education Commission panel claimed that assessment tests for Chinese, English and mathematics were not administered properly and that, in fact, language proficiency was declining.

Even as one government-sponsored working group recommends that secondary schools teaching in Cantonese should be allowed to choose which language to use as a medium of instruction at senior level, fears are being voiced that the Government could be planning to make all SAR schools switch to mother-tongue teaching.

If it is true that standards are deteriorating, that may have something to do with the mixed messages reaching the classroom. Pupils can hardly be expected to give their full attention to studies while they are uncertain which tongue they will be taught in by 2001.

Rather than scrapping inspections for English-language secondary schools, the programme should be continued for at least another year or so, until all schools have had a chance to adapt to the changes. It is far too soon to draw any conclusions from present day results. Some pupils in these schools are switching to English for the first time, and they must be given time to adjust.

While the education system is on the verge of sweeping and long-overdue changes to bring it into line with modern teaching methods, a certain amount of confusion is understandable, but it is about time that a coherent policy was formulated. It would lighten the atmosphere for parents and pupils, as well as teaching staff, if the respective groups of experts could get together and hammer out some kind of mutual position. At the present time, a lot of wasted effort seems to be going into tests and surveys that apparently cancel each other out.

It will cause great dismay among the public if the remaining 114 schools teaching in English are made to change. An international city with cyber-world aspirations needs schools that teach in the language of business and modern science. But first it needs an education programme that sets standards of excellence in all subjects. Until a new system does away with rote learning, it may be risky to put much faith in any surveys, particularly as there will be no benchmark for language teaching standards until next April.