Care needed to make Putonghua plan work

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 31 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 31 October, 2007, 12:00am

Hong Kong's unique position as a global financial centre and a commercial conduit to the mainland places tremendous language demands on its citizens. As a predominantly Cantonese-speaking community, our students are also expected to master Putonghua and English. Yet, the reality in the classroom is that not many local schools are staffed and equipped to achieve the demanding goal of trilingualism for their pupils.

For many years, most local schools have provided only one or two Putonghua lessons a week. This is clearly inadequate. Yet, the value of Putonghua is well-recognised among parents and employers. There is an urgent need to improve its teaching. This has led to calls by many education groups to use Putonghua to teach Chinese language as a means of boosting standards.

A HK$200 million fund was announced yesterday by the Standing Committee on Language Education and Research to encourage more primary and secondary schools to use Putonghua to teach Chinese-language subjects, following earlier schemes to boost English-language standards. As a voluntary scheme, it will offer an extra option in language instruction and a new source of funding for schools. Hence it ought to be welcomed by schools and parents.

But, whenever there is new funding, there is always a temptation for more schools to apply even if they are not ready and lack resources and teaching staff to make the switch. For a school to succeed, however, its Putonghua teachers must be of native standard and have an intrinsic feel for the language. It is not enough for them to just pass benchmark tests. In this, valuable lessons can be drawn from the English-language teaching reforms. There are many dedicated and competent non-native English teachers. Yet, there are also many others who have passed the required tests but still lack an innate feel of the language, and are not always able to inspire students' interest in learning it.

The new Putonghua scheme must avoid this trap. The authorities must therefore make sure there is an adequate supply of qualified teachers who can use Putonghua to teach Chinese language properly. There are currently about 5,500 teachers who are certified to teach Putonghua and most of them are Chinese language teachers. However, as many teachers themselves would readily admit, not all of them are able to use it with imagination to guide students to appreciate, for example, a good piece of literary writing.

One solution would be to import such teachers from the mainland, Taiwan and elsewhere through the quality migrant scheme. But this would certainly invite opposition from local teachers. Fortunately, with deepening integration between Hong Kong and the mainland and the growing popularity of Putonghua here, more local teachers should gain confidence in using it to teach over time.

The committee has said that schools must demonstrate their teachers' competence in Putonghua before being allowed to switch. That is the right approach. Trilingualism is a key component of our success as a financial hub. But the path that will lead our students to achieve that goal must be carefully plotted and implemented.