Bilingual role for non-local schools

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 September, 2005, 12:00am

Despite complaints that local schools are unable to produce students with good English skills, one fact should not be overlooked: most of their graduates have acquired more than a smattering of English that enables them to interact with people who do not speak Cantonese and can only depend on English.

The top students from these schools are able to switch between the two languages with ease.

The same cannot be said of most non-Chinese graduates from the international schools. That is because these schools use English as the medium of instruction and made no attempt to teach Chinese as a subject until recent years.

With rare exceptions, most non-Chinese raised in Hong Kong cannot speak or write Chinese. The late Denis Bray was one of a rare breed of expatriates who could speak the local tongue.

Born here in 1926 and retired as secretary for home affairs in the 1980s, Bray's father was a missionary in Guangdong when he was young, and he went to a local school with other Chinese children.

Had he been raised in colonial Hong Kong, he would have been deprived of the chance to learn Chinese, as schools were segregated along racial lines then.

Times have changed, and racial segregation ended decades ago. Yet, the regrettable truth is that traces of segregation remain in our school system.

The international schools now have students of different ethnic backgrounds, including many local Chinese whose parents want them immersed in English as early as possible.

But the 'price' these Chinese students have had to pay is that while they grow up using English like a native, their Chinese skills are under-developed.

At local schools, the student population remains mostly Chinese. Because of the high market value of English, great pressure is exerted on students to learn it well.

But most fail to master the language, as it is not well taught and they do not have to use it socially.

Admitting some English-speaking students would be a good way of creating an authentic English environment, but most local schools, including English-medium ones, do not do so.

What if local schools internationalised their student intake and the international schools did more to encourage their students to study Chinese to higher standards? Surely, the supply of bilingual talents should grow.

The responsibility for producing bilingual talents should not rest with local schools only. International schools should also make an effort to help their students, both Chinese and non-Chinese, to perfect their Chinese skills if that is what they want.