Action call in motivating language studies
Low enthusiasm for studying languages runs counter to demand for linguistically skilled workers, writes Chris Chapel
Concrete action should be taken to raise language standards in Hong Kong, according to a key education committee, with more focus on motivating students to learn.
The government's Standing Committee on Language Education and Research (Scolar), surveyed students, parents and teachers last year on their attitudes to language learning.
In its consultation document based on the survey findings, titled 'Action Plan to Raise Language Standards in Hong Kong', Scolar did not try to gauge whether the standard of English and other languages spoken in Hong Kong had fallen or not. Attempting to find out would serve no useful purpose, it said.
Instead, the committee said it was better to foster language training as a key plank in the SAR's education portfolio.
'The best course of action now is to take concrete, concerted and well-targeted measures to raise the language standards of the population to match the ever-increasing demand for students and workers with good language skills,' the report said.
Some findings in the Scolar survey indicated that the study and mastery of languages, including English, needed further development in Hong Kong.
Only 47 per cent of students indicated they had a 'strong' motivation to learn Chinese and English, and 44 per cent indicated a 'very strong' motivation. Only 25 per cent were strongly motivated to learn Putonghua. Asked about student motivation, parents and teachers generally felt the level of motivation was lower than the students themselves indicated.
'It is vital that we raise the language standards of the community if we are to successfully meet the challenges of the future and consolidate Hong Kong's position as Asia's world city,' the Scolar report concluded. Scolar's recommendations include benchmarking primary and secondary students at the end of the five key schooling stages: Primary Three and Six, and Secondary Three, Five and Seven. Teachers of English and Chinese would be required to be degree holders, in recognition of Scolar's research, which shows that teachers are a major influence on student motivation in language learning.
Richard Booker, senior programme director in charge of English language programmes at The University of Hong Kong's School of Professional and Continuing Education (HKU SPACE), sees room for improvement in attitudes towards learning.
'It is important for students to think that it is their task to learn. Language learning is a long-term and ongoing process. The government should be encouraging people to do ongoing language courses that give students a sufficiently strong basis in English to enable them to write letters, memos and reports.'
A controversial issue related to English language teaching in Hong Kong is the possibility of a cut in government subsidies to the English Schools Foundation (ESF), which operates 16 schools for more than 11,000 students.
While acknowledging the good work carried out by the ESF, Education Minister Professor Arthur Li Kwok-cheung says it is appropriate to review the fairness of continuing to subsidise the ESF when other international schools operate without them. Nothing is sacrosanct when it comes to achieving savings from the public purse, Professor Li says.
Should the ESF lose its subsidies, tuition fees at its schools could rise by up to 40 per cent, according to some estimates.
Peter Forsythe, chairman of a private sector educational company, the Wall Street Institute, wrote to this newspaper late last year suggesting some practical changes to the Workplace English Campaign (WEC). The government set up the WEC in 2000 with HK$50 million in funding. Under the WEC scheme, candidates can have half their course costs reimbursed if they pass benchmark tests for their job category.
Mr Forsythe wrote that narrow job definitions and the prospect of taking examinations deterred many potential WEC candidates. He suggested throwing the scheme open to any adult who wants to improve his or her English, and creating widely recognised qualifications in co-operation with the business community and English language educators.
Scolar is seeking feedback on its report by February 28. The report is available on the Internet at www.info.gov.hk/emb.