The goal of language education in Hong Kong is for every student to become biliterate in Chinese and English, and trilingual in Cantonese, Putonghua and English. For a largely monolingual society, that is very ambitious.
Fluency in Cantonese is not an issue because the dialect is spoken in most homes and in the street. Achieving fluency in Putonghua requires the learner to make an effort, but that is achievable for most because all Chinese dialects are based on the same written script.
Mastering English, a foreign tongue, is much more difficult. During more than 150 years of British rule that ended in 1997, English failed to become popular among the Chinese population, who outnumbered the English-speaking community. It did not help that Hong Kong had an elitist education system well into the early 1980s.
Although all agree that English is vital to Hong Kong's continued prosperity, it is not widely spoken. For most students, the classroom is where they are exposed to English, and usually not from native speakers.
The ideas being considered by the Standing Committee on Language Education and Research to boost the teaching of English, such as paying English teachers more, reducing their workload, and making lessons more interesting, have all been mooted before.
Since additional resources are already being used to hire native English teachers from overseas, a case could be made to pay local English teachers more to entice more qualified recruits to join their ranks. But overcoming industrial opposition to the idea of paying some teachers more than their colleagues will be difficult.
An idea the commission should explore is to enlarge the teaching pool by encouraging teaching as a second career. Most people with good English opted for non-teaching jobs when they were young, but many are willing to teach provided the conditions are right on reaching their 30s or 40s.
Given Hong Kong's language environment, the commission would be right to accept that it would be unrealistic to expect all students to achieve biliteracy and trilingualism.
But the current policy of allowing only 114 secondary schools to teach in English based on a dubious streaming mechanism has upset too many parents, students and schools. It has also created the wrong impression that the Government is suppressing the teaching of English.
A policy based on a more credible method of streaming students would command more confidence. Allowing all schools to teach some subjects in English and some in Chinese according to the language skills of their students would likely be more acceptable to all.