Latest word on language skills

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 January, 2007, 12:00am

Professional success in this east-west hub may well hinge on a person's proficiency in both English and Chinese

HONG KONG IS AN international trading centre, with English and Chinese as official languages, and therefore has a high demand for bilingual professionals with quality language skills.

The government aims to educate all residents to become biliterate and trilingual but is still far from achieving this goal despite some improvements in educational standards.

People in business, the professions and the legal system require high-level skills in English and Chinese, including spoken Cantonese and Putonghua, that are beyond the scope of many school-leavers and even graduates.

Universities have set up an abundance of master of arts programmes in linguistics, language studies, translation and interpreting that aim to plug the gap and meet the practical needs of professionals in different fields.

Two years ago the City University of Hong Kong launched a master's in language studies with specialisms in Chinese, serving mainly teachers of Chinese language, and in linguistics, targeting teachers of English language.

The original plan was to take in about 40 students in each specialism, but eventually a total of 450 were admitted, many of them teachers seeking to complete the government's qualification requirements for teaching languages.

Last year, two new specialisms were added: language and law, which focuses on legal translation and bilingual legal drafting, and translation and interpreting, aimed at practising translators who want to upgrade their skills. A total of 450 places were filled, attracting two applicants per place.

'Hong Kong is a bilingual city and this is our competitive edge,' said programme leader Matthew Leung Wing-kwong.

'About 30 years ago we had an elite minority who could perform very well in both English and Chinese. But now society needs many more people with these techniques.'

Professionals who required highly developed bilingual skills included publishers, managers, administrators, company secretaries, lawyers and judges as well as language teachers and translators.

'We are trying to see how linguistics and the study of language can meet the needs of these fields,' Mr Leung said. 'Most of our students already have jobs, and they are here because their job requires them to expand or upgrade their knowledge.'

Theory-orientated programmes are also popular.

The Chinese University of Hong Kong's master's in linguistics is attracting language instructors and fresh graduates from the mainland and language teachers seeking to upgrade their qualifications.

Programme director Gu Yang said the programme was well-suited to teachers who wished to deepen their understanding of Chinese and English, which belonged to two very different language families, in order to enhance their teaching qualifications.

'A linguistics degree is like the mathematics of language,' Professor Gu said. 'If you don't know the linguistics, you can't teach language well. We want to give them more content knowledge about the language they are teaching.'

In September, Polytechnic University set up a new master's programme in teaching Chinese as a foreign language, which aims to meet the global demand for Chinese language learning.

Tim Shi Dingxu, associate head of PolyU's department of Chinese and bilingual studies, said the programme was a response to calls from principals of international schools in Hong Kong for a special programme targeting their Chinese teachers.

'We then realised there was a huge potential demand for teachers in Chinese as a foreign language,' he said. 'There are about 30 million learners of Chinese in the world at the moment and the job market covers a lot of areas.'

The mainland government is spearheading the expansion of Chinese-language teaching around the world by setting up 100 Confucius Institutes in different countries and regions. One such institute is on the PolyU campus.

Professor Shi said the United States alone had at least 2,000 institutions offering Chinese-language courses and they required teachers to deliver them.

'There may be teaching opportunities in foreign universities, schools and continuing education colleges,' he said. 'We have the Confucius Institutes around the world, the local international schools, and also a growing market of foreigners coming to Hong Kong to learn Chinese.'

The master's in Chinese as a foreign language attracted 30 students in September, 50 per cent more than the planned admission number. About half of the first intake are teachers from international schools or the English Schools Foundation.

The Civil Service Bureau, according to a spokeswoman, was reviewing the possibility of lifting a five-year freeze on recruitment of simultaneous interpreters and official language officers.

At present, there are 12 simultaneous interpreters serving the Legislative Council and other public meetings, and 420 official language officers doing government translation work.