Better teachers the key to better English
One of Hong Kong's biggest employers, Sun Hung Kai Properties, has taken the lead in demanding higher English standards by requiring its 19,000-strong staff to meet certain benchmarks in the International English Language Testing System (IELTS). The move demonstrates the importance of the language to employers and, if more companies follow this example, could act as a stick to further motivate people to take the learning of English seriously. But why is it necessary for employers to require such proof of competency, given that most people entering the workforce will have studied English since the age of three?
Some argue that it is not standards which have fallen in recent decades, but that demand for skill in the language has increased. This may be so, but it is also true that too many students achieve too little during their formal education. Even those gaining university places, which require a minimum pass in English at AS-level, often lack the language skills needed in the workplace.
As the Standing Committee on Language Education and Research (Scolar) has recommended in its Action Plan to Raise Language Standards in Hong Kong, both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are needed to make language learning successful. Key to the carrot is the quality of teaching. Scolar rightly insists that language teaching should be treated as a professional career, with qualifications to match. But only 13 per cent of English teachers are currently trained to the level it regards as optimal, which is to have a bachelor of education in the language, or another relevant degree, and a post-graduate teaching qualification.
Despite the hefty investment in English by government, not enough has been done to raise the quality of language teachers. Teachers of other subjects diverted into teaching English for want of adequate supply cannot be blamed for the poor standards. Rather, greater efforts are needed to build a larger pool of trained English teaching talent.
The people most suited may be those with years of experience using the language. By taking a one-year postgraduate teacher training course, they could switch careers. But currently there are too few such places available. Reports from mature graduates that they find it hard to secure jobs in schools suggest that too few principals are flexible enough to recognise how much they could offer.