Medium, message must strike balance

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 February, 2007, 12:00am

Last week I discussed how language and content are interdependent. This week I suggest Hong Kong's schools and universities can take proper account of this relationship, ensuring that the medium becomes as important as the message in shaping their curricula, that vertical compartmentalisation between 'subjects' gives way to multi-disciplinary horizontal integration, and that teachers see themselves as educators first and disciplinary specialists second.

Not only does Hong Kong need a fresh perspective on language and its curricular role, but that the universities need to place greater trust in the substantial body of experienced language educators they employ on their English for academic purposes (EAP) programmes.

Although there is now a whole sub-field and literature on EAP and Hong Kong has since the early 1980s been one of the world centres in this field, the sad reality is that over the past 10 years, EAP teaching units have been marginalised.

The last people to advise on tertiary language policy are actually those who spend their professional lives working on related issues. This is partly due to widespread ignorance of the difference between EAP and general English teaching.

Even the UGC has taken to criticising disciplinary diversity in EAP curricula as 'fragmentation'. The reality is that university students may have only one 30-hour course to help them come to terms with the language of, say, the law, so the most effective EAP programmes must be selectively focused.

But many disciplinary teachers cannot accept EAP specialists teaching their students communication skills using their own disciplinary texts and concepts but few curricula make a deliberate attempt to focus on academic or professional communication skills. The result is that English teaching units are blamed for failing to deliver measurable improvements in students' English in the 3 per cent of the curriculum they have charge of while the other 97 per cent escape examination.

It is interesting that the Education and Manpower Bureau is further ahead of most universities in acknowledging the need to integrate language into the overall curriculum. The new upper secondary curriculum guidelines emphasise the importance of horizontal integration across the curriculum. This policy is intended to take account of the complexity and multidisciplinarity involved in addressing real-world issues. But it is one thing for the EMB to promote this and quite another for secondary schools and teachers to break down the walls between their subjects.

The logical locale to change this mindset is our teacher-training institutions. But as we have seen lately, they have their own status and credibility issues. In the end the health of English in Hong Kong depends on a fresh perspective, not only on language, but on the teaching profession itself.

Nigel Bruce is principal language instructor at the University of Hong Kong's English Centre.