Tongue tied

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 July, 2007, 12:00am

In the past few months there has been an inquiry into alleged interference into 'academic freedom' at the Hong Kong Institute of Education from which nobody - including the accusers - emerged unscathed.

While some faculty members press on with their demand to rename the institute the 'University of Education', evidence is mounting that there are serious, multiple problems with our education system - of which the most visible is the decline in English standards.

In February, Australia's Monash University published an eyebrow-raising survey which found that the English standards of Hong Kong students ranked 10th among 15 Asian countries and cities, below India, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

There are other troubling local findings. Recent figures for A-Level exams show the pass rate of Hong Kong students taking the English exam to have slipped to its lowest level - 73.9 per cent - since 1998, when mother tongue education was introduced.

And if one remains unconvinced about the degradation of English language proficiency in Hong Kong, dial the customer service hotline of American Express, the credit card giant, and you will hear a voice announcing that the conversation may be 'record' for training purposes, and that you will be 'assist' as soon as a customer services representative is available.

Officials involved in implementing the mother tongue policy argue that although the pass rate has fallen, the numbers of those who passed has increased. Either they do not understand the meaning of a percentage, or they are simply trying to fudge the fact that quality has been sacrificed at the expense of quantity.

Likewise, Michael Tien Puk-sun, chairman of the government's Standing Committee on Language Education and Research, tried to put on a brave face by predicting that the fall had stabilised, and that mother tongue education has helped more students get into college.

Teaching in Cantonese may well have made things easier, but with the drastic reduction in exposure to English, except in English as medium of instruction schools and international schools, students are showing decreasing confidence and accuracy in the use of English.

Indeed, in responding to one of my articles, a group of Form Six students e-mailed me to say that local students were reluctant to interact with international students at college because they had little opportunity to use English, whether at school or at home, and were therefore not comfortable with venturing into unfamiliar areas.

Another reason for the poor test results is, in my view, the adoption of the 'communicative' approach in teaching English. Although English grammar is far less complex than Japanese grammar - where even adjectives have past tenses and verbs have 12 forms - students whose mother tongue is not English, need to be drilled in basic grammatical patterns. Where students have limited exposure to the English language, many miss important grammatical points if they learn by listening. That is why you find so many graduates writing sentences which read 'I have confident in you' or ' I am concern that', and so forth.

The mass exodus of English-language mother-tongue teachers from local schools, especially those founded by missionaries or priests, and the enforced retirement of principals and teachers at 60, has deprived our schools of a vital source of accurate and fluent English teachers. The recruitment of native English-speaking teachers helps, but much larger numbers of such teachers are needed to fill the gaps.

The most exasperating part is the mother tongue used is not even the language of the nation. Cantonese is radically different from the more literary written form of the Chinese language. Teaching in Cantonese may well help understanding, but it helps neither the teaching of English nor the Chinese language.

If mother tongue education is such an unqualified blessing, why do education officials, advisers, and Legco members alike, send their children to international schools or overseas?

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is chairperson of the Savantas Policy Institute