Mind our language
As the government plans to fine-tune the current policy on medium of instruction in secondary schools, the chairman of the Standing Committee on Language Education and Research, Michael Tien Puk-sun, asked: 'Where have those people who previously supported mother-tongue teaching gone?' This says a lot about the sea change in public attitudes towards the language policy since the 1990s.
During my short spell as a legislator, from 1995 to 1997, I moved a motion to support mother-tongue education in schools, which received cross-party support. The reason was simple: pedagogically, it was widely accepted that students could learn more effectively using the language they were best at.
Until the 1990s, schools were free to choose their language of instruction. Unfortunately many 'Anglo-Chinese' schools only taught in mixed code, using English textbooks. Worst still, some teachers were not fluent in English, and students who were having difficulty learning non-language subjects in a foreign language became even weaker.
As an International Panel commissioned by the government to review Hong Kong's education system reported in 1981, the medium of instruction issue was so controversial that it generated more heat than light. While supporting mother tongue as the most effective medium for teaching and learning, it also recognised that most parents would prefer English-medium education for their children, mainly for economic rather than educational reasons.
Language has often become a political issue for post-colonial societies seeking to restore indigenous identity by pushing aside the former language of domination. Fortunately, Hong Kong does not need to go through that, as the Basic Law clearly prescribes a bilingual policy. Still, the enforcement of mother-tongue education after 1997 has caused political ripples, with some suspecting the government of trying to please Beijing.
There is no need to play up politics, viewing the mother-tongue policy as either destroying Hong Kong's competitiveness or, reversely, a bastion of national identity. Hong Kong students should be brought up in a bilingual environment, so all schools should strive to teach in both English and Chinese, though in varied combinations depending on the subjects and levels, and the language competencies of students and teachers.
The strong resentment among schools to the new policy has resulted from its labelling effect by designating English-medium and Chinese-medium schools. Ideally, both could compete for good students and excel in different ways, but only if parents are indifferent to which type of school is best for their children and accept that it is the quality, rather than the language, of teaching that matters.
In reality, many parents do not have the patience to wait for the mandatory policy to work. Chinese-medium schools tend to be labelled inferior and find it hard to attract students, so they prefer to switch to the English stream. The language divide is further entrenched, making the mother-tongue policy a farce and a culprit for the failure of education. The government now practically faces a revolt from the schools sector.
It's too early to conclude that mother-tongue teaching has failed just because Chinese-medium students fared worse in gaining entrance to local universities; the reason could simply be that English-medium schools are mainly elite schools which have always been used to producing better-grade students. Other aspects of educational outcomes need to be considered.
In any case, schools and educators are in a better position to look after pedagogy than the government.
Instead of mandating schools as either English-medium or Chinese-medium, through a screening test subjecting them to divisiveness and anxieties, it would be better to remove the labels and allow schools to adopt their preferred teaching mode, within a properly monitored and evaluated framework. The government should focus on strengthening language support and improving inspectorate services, so that English can be more effectively taught as a second language in all schools, to help lift the city's overall English competency.
Public examinations and other evaluations can reveal how different schools perform, and those that do not get their teaching strategy right - so that their students suffer - will fail to attract students. Such 'market forces' from discerning parents, duly informed by evaluative data, may take care of pedagogy and economics better than a mandatory policy.
Anthony Cheung Bing-leung is an executive councillor and founder of SynergyNet, a policy think-tank. He is also president of the Hong Kong Institute of Education