Language's magic can't be taught by rote

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 31 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 May, 2008, 12:00am

Hong Kong has used up eight of its nine lives in education reform. Now, all eyes and hopes are on the new '3+3+4' programme, which will extend the time at university from three to four years. But, unless we arrest the decline of language - which, according to George Orwell, is a sign of social decline - our hopes are just prayers. Language is social. Yet, English is taught here mechanically, as an anti-social testing exercise.

I stumbled on the root cause of Hong Kong's deteriorating English after listening to a group of frustrated students. It seems the government sets the curriculum and teachers follow it slavishly. Students are drilled, year after year, in the passive and active voice, direct and indirect speech, and such like - all without content.

Rule-obsessed teachers dictate that a letter to the editor must begin with: 'I write to express my opinion about ...' when no one in real life ever does.

In essay-writing, paragraphs must begin with 'first', 'secondly' or 'thirdly', or a topic sentence. If these are missing, a penalty follows. Creative expressions are frowned on. Form trumps function. Rules override content. Shell matters more than meat. This has become the Hong Kong disease.

Education Secretary Michael Suen Ming-yeung needn't have gone to Finland for answers on how to teach English. All he has to do is listen to our students.

For seven long years, from Primary Five until Form Five, children are overdrilled, overtested but understimulated and underlearned. By the time they graduate, they have lost all appetite for English. Quality Education Fund projects and tertiary language learning are just remedial exercises.

This 'contentless' approach ignores two crucial functions in language learning: the 'heuristic' or 'discovery' function, and the 'imaginative' function. Both can easily be satisfied with an early exposure to literature. Only a few local secondary schools now offer English literature in the first two years. But the difference is dramatic. These students go on to become readers, hooked on learning for life.

By contrast, the meatless curriculum has left students bored and vocabulary-deficient. A quarter of Chinese University students are said to have a vocabulary of less than 3,000 words.

Force-fed on this diet of mechanical, mundane and inauthentic English, a whole generation of students has grown up without knowing the beauty of a poem, a play or a novel. No wonder they prefer science or maths, where at least new content is taught.

In the good old days, all students read English literature up to Form Four. Now, early specialisation and lack of qualified teachers have squeezed it out.

The pain persists after school, when tutors continue the drill. By the time students emerge from our system, they are communicatively crippled, emotionally stunted and culturally illiterate. No wonder 66 per cent of employers are dissatisfied with their workers' English, as library books remain on shelves and English bookstores are underpatronised. Our book-reading culture is dead. The stranglehold of the Canto-pop culture hasn't helped. This international city has become a wasteland for English.

We now produce students who know direct and indirect speech backwards, but who have never heard of William Wordsworth. They are unprepared to be global citizens who share certain common cultural concepts.

Tellingly, Hong Kong students score just 18 out of 30 in Test of English as a Foreign Language comprehension exams. They lack the word power, inferencing skills in reading contextual clues and knowledge of idiomatic expressions, all of which can only come from reading.

If we fail to nurture an interest in reading, all talk of reform is just empty talk, lifelong learning is but wishful thinking, and 3+3+4 is destined for costly and early retirement.

Philip Yeung is a Hong Kong based university editor/speechwriter