Back to basics
At a recent symposium on the policy on the medium of instruction for secondary schools, Secretary for Education Michael Suen Ming-yeung announced that there would be a 'fine-tuning' of the government's mother-tongue policy. This would spell the end of the controversial, mandatory division of our secondary schools into English-medium and Chinese-medium schools, and the unpopular move that restricts to 114 the number of English-medium ones. Mr Suen acknowledged that English-language proficiency in Hong Kong had declined substantially, and something needed to be done to reverse the trend.
Another upshot from the symposium was the statement by former director of education Lee Yuet-ting. He disclosed that, since the 1970s, consideration had been given to helping students take advantage of expanding educational opportunities by promoting mother-tongue education, but implementation was deferred for fear of undermining English proficiency. In the 1980s, a directive was issued to prepare for the expansion of educational opportunities by improving language instruction in both English and Chinese. In 1990, an Education Commission report concluded that not all students were capable of learning in English, and that instruction in English should be implemented with regard to the capability and preference of students. At no time was it recommended that schools be rigidly divided.
So, it was a misunderstanding to blame Hong Kong's reunification or former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa for the espousal of the mother-tongue policy. However, for some strange reasons which cannot now be established, when the mother-tongue policy was implemented in 1998, iron-clad segregation of schools into English- and Chinese-medium became the only option. In the past decade, thousands of children with inferior English skills at primary level have been deprived of a more congenial environment for learning English when they entered high school.
Evidence of the damage done is too widespread to be ignored. Students' performance in public exams, feedback from employers and university faculty alike point to a worrying degradation of English-language capability, so that it is not uncommon to find graduates who are unable to write simple essays or even grammatically correct thank-you letters. A Cambridge graduate who taught at the English language centre of one of our universities told me before she left in exasperation that correcting the grammatical mistakes in her students' essays was like putting a tiny plaster on someone whose arm had been amputated. University faculty and administrators complain that local students shy away from interacting with international students because they lack an interest or confidence to communicate in English.
Apologists for the mother-tongue policy have tried to justify it by arguing that, 30 years ago, English teachers needed only to tend to the English-language needs of a limited number of students attending elite schools. But, the expansion of educational opportunities have made their tasks much harder.
I would argue that if, despite the billions we have poured into education, our system is incapable of producing sufficiently large numbers of students with the language skills necessary for a sophisticated, world-class city, we have failed in our duty to our young people to educate them to the standards required by today's increasingly competitive, global economy.
I cannot agree more with the common-sense approach advocated by Mr Suen that language training requires a student to 'listen, read, write and speak more'. My own experience of learning foreign languages tells me that nothing short of that will do. Honing your language skills does require more listening, reading, speaking and writing. Take away an environment that enables that, and a student is placed at an unforgivable disadvantage. Some people still insist that Chinese medium of instruction helps comprehension. The litmus test is to check where such people send their children to school.
Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is chairperson of the Savantas Policy Institute