Language a prison, words a sentence

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 July, 2006, 12:00am

THEY SAY THEY ARE Hong Kong's silent minority, swept to the periphery of an education system already notorious for excluding outsiders.

Non-Chinese-speaking students - the children of Hong Kong's growing ethnic minorities communities - are standing up and demanding an education that places them on an equal footing when they enter the jobs market. And the skill they are asking for is language: the Chinese language.

'We struggle with three languages, our own and then English and Chinese,' said Joanne So, 20, one of a delegation of young people from ethnic minorities who met with education officials last week to present their case. 'Chinese is essential if you want to do anything in Hong Kong.'

According to equal rights group Hong Kong Unison, more than 95 per cent of ethnic minority Form Five leavers were not given the secondary school opportunity to study Chinese language, which is a pre-requisite for most post-secondary and vocational courses.

A pass in the Chinese language paper of the civil service Common Recruitment Exam is also required for a long list of government positions, including forestry officer, pest control officer and librarian.

But up to now, the vast majority of non-Chinese-speaking students have been taught French instead of Chinese. Advice on the Education and Manpower Bureau's website still directs parents of non-Chinese-speaking students to a list of schools that offer French as an alternative to Chinese.

'Why is French given to us? We have no opportunity to use French in Hong Kong,' said Azir Khan, 22, another member of the delegation. 'We need to be taught Chinese.'

At a meeting of the Legislative Council's panel on education in January, education officials reluctantly accepted requests from legislators and community representatives to investigate a separate curriculum in Chinese as a second language to offer non-Chinese-speaking students an officially recognised qualification.

But concern groups say the bureau is dragging its feet and suspect the EMB has no intention of ever developing the curriculum.

A second curriculum is unnecessary, officials argue, as students living in Hong Kong and studying alongside local Chinese classmates should be able to follow the standard curriculum.

'Today's [Chinese language] curriculum is very broad, catering for students with a range of abilities,' said Cheng Man-leung, the EMB's senior curriculum development officer for Chinese language education. 'We are currently writing the new senior secondary curriculum, which will have even more scope for catering for diversity.'

At a seminar on the subject jointly held by Hong Kong Unison, Oxfam and the Professional Teachers' Union last Saturday, Mr Cheng said the bureau was concerned an alternative curriculum for second-language learners could foster prejudice.

'We have to be very careful with terms like 'another curriculum' for 'other people',' he said. 'We could start out trying to help these students but end up harming them.'

The bureau also did not subscribe to the view that a single syllabus would meet the needs of all non-Chinese-speaking students.

'We don't believe one curriculum could be produced to suit all non-Chinese speakers,' he said. 'What might be right for Pakistani students might not be right for Southeast Asians.'

He said these different needs were best met through a school-based approach.

But educators, academics and legislators disagree.

Yeung Sum, chairman of Legco's education panel, said developing a second-language learners' curriculum would be 'the most logical' solution.

'This is what everybody expects,' Dr Yeung said. 'We hope they can set up a Chinese curriculum for non-Chinese speakers as quickly as possible. It is impossible to expect that they would be able to take the same curriculum as Chinese students.'

The Frontier legislator and a member of the panel, Emily Lau Wai-hing said the current system put these students at a distinct disadvantage. 'Hong Kong society is actually very prejudiced. We are prejudiced against other Chinese people, against Guangdong people, against Shanghai people and even more so against non-locals,' she said.

'I don't care if it is one curriculum or two curricula. But it needs to work. If you could really get the results from a single curriculum, we wouldn't need to be here discussing this right now.'

For the past two years, however, a number of schools with greater numbers of non-Chinese-speaking students have been developing their own curricula for teaching Chinese as a second language, with funding from the EMB.

At Delia Memorial School (Broadway) in Mei Foo, one in five students is of Pakistani descent, Nepalese children make up 18 per cent of the student body, Indians 13 per cent and Filipinos 12 per cent.

Principal Chan Kui-pui said the students scored far below the Hong Kong average in Chinese ability in pre-secondary aptitude tests when they entered the school. 'On the bell curve, they are at the very far left. They are virtually invisible,' he said. This level of Chinese ability put non-Chinese-speaking students under the standard expected even of Band Three students. 'If there were 10 bands, our students would be Band 10. If there were 100 bands, they would still be Band 100.

'You need to match the teaching to the students' abilities. You can give a 1,000-word lecture and no matter how eloquent you are, if the students don't understand a word it is a waste of time.

'We take a whole-language approach, rather than separating it into grammar and so forth. The emphasis is on communication.'

The school recently conducted a study of students' attitudes to learning the language. 'More than half said they now enjoyed learning Chinese. That is the most important thing because if they don't enjoy it they won't learn, no matter how hard you try to teach it.'

But while students were more confident using the language generally, very few showed interest in taking public exams in Chinese, highlighting the need for an alternative qualification.

He called on the EMB to give more direct support in developing Chinese language teaching for non-Chinese speakers.

'Designing a curriculum doesn't just take money,' he said. 'It requires support from a whole range of academics. This is a very difficult job for teachers to do.'

Leung Yuet-sheung, secretary of the Professional Teachers' Union's executive committee, said it was unfair to expect teachers to develop a language curriculum 'off their own back'.

'This has to be researched properly, otherwise we won't know where to start,' she said. 'This is not the job of teachers.'

She said it was imperative for the EMB to set out a core curriculum for Chinese as a second language that would introduce standardisation across the system.

'If every primary school does it differently, there will be a problem when the students get to secondary school - they will all be at different levels,' she said.

Yusuf Yu Chi-wan, principal of Islamic Kasim Tuet Memorial College in Chai Wan, said the school had experienced success with tailoring language teaching to the needs of non-native speakers but had yet to find an appropriate Chinese qualification for non-Chinese speakers to take that was both widely recognised and which fitted their needs.

The mainland's HSK (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi) certification was the closest, but tested students in spoken Putonghua not the Cantonese spoken by students at the school. The same went for the British GCSE in Mandarin Chinese as a second language.

EMB officials opposed a standard qualification for Cantonese because there was not a 'critical mass' who would sit the exam, Mr Yu claimed.

A qualification would also be useful for older members of the ethnic minorities community who had already left school, he added.

Between 400 and 500 non-Chinese-speaking students take HKCEE exams each year, of which very few sit the Chinese language paper. But there were more than 20 subjects in this year's HKCEEs that were taken by fewer than 500 people, Mr Yu said. Ceramics, for example, was taken by just 48.

'Why does nobody question a course that has just 48 students but then they object to an exam that would be taken by 500 people for economic reasons?' Mr Yu said. 'I really don't get it.'

Celeste Yuen Yuet-mui, lecturer at the Hong Kong Institute of Education's Department of Educational Policy and Administration, agreed: 'There is currently a huge difference between the starting points of different schools. Nothing is transferable. If it continues to be done like this, it seems a lot of resources are being wasted.

'We need standardisation. That is the first step. The next step is to establish a proper qualification which gives them a recognised level of language ability.

'Mainland China and Taiwan have both set up curricula and examinations for Chinese as a second language and these have been accepted and recognised by the broader society. If they can do it, why can't we?'

The school system for non-Chinese-speaking students will be discussed at a meeting of the Legislative Council's panel on education on July 10.