Language policy leaves students lost for words

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 July, 2008, 12:00am

No one should shed a tear for the passing or watering-down of the mother-tongue teaching policy. It was conceived in ignorance and executed with savagery. It belongs to the darkest chapter in the most educationally hyperactive period in Hong Kong's history. Frankly, it belongs in history's scrap heap.

For all the pain and humiliation this policy brings, there is nothing to show for it. It will be remembered chiefly for the naked bureaucratic bullying and nasty name-calling. English schools caught teaching in mixed code are branded as 'selling dog meat dressed as mutton'.

It is an overdose that almost kills the patient. Those who fathered it are now scrambling to save face when they should be saving our children's education.

Thank God for our avuncular education secretary Michael Suen Ming-yeung and his minimalist instincts. He has retracted the strong elbows, and restored a semblance of civility and sanity.

This policy was triggered by a tragic misreading of what our schools need: better teachers and smaller classes. Instead, educational pretenders justified it with the use of pseudo-scientific figures. Schools are only allowed to teach in English if 85 per cent of its students are English-capable. Students in a primary school can graduate to an affiliated English secondary school. But the latter must have 85 per cent of its incoming students in the top 40 per cent of the student population, thus derailing the through-train.

The provenance of this percentage remains a mystery. But it is cooked up to create the impression that this half-baked language policy is wholly scientifically based. A formula this twisted can only be the figment of a mind that is 85 per cent demented. Welcome to 'government by percentages'.

What they fail to see is that post-handover, this community has turned inwardly Chinese. Students in Tin Shui Wai and other poorer areas have zero contact with English. They learn English fearfully, not as a second language, but as a foreign one.

What they need is not less, but more, reassuring exposure to English - mediated by a method that takes away the fear of the foreign. The under-used translation method will bridge the gap between Chinese and the unfamiliar world of English. Effective language teaching entails the interpretation of culture, making sense of English expressions and concepts through the students' repertoire of experience.

I recall my days of learning French in Paris. The school had a strict French-only policy, regardless of whether students were immersion-ready. This rigid approach left unready students suffering their incomprehension in silence. Immersion presupposes a basic competency in the target language. Introduced blindly in an overcrowded classroom to struggling students, immersion is a frightening experience.

Used judiciously, a mixed application of Chinese and English by bi-cultural and bilingual teachers keeps students engaged and prepares them to be progressively immersed instead of frantically submerged. If you ignore the fear factor, you only make learning so much harder.

Hong Kong, the world's freest economy, deserves a matching school system with minimum bureaucratic interference and maximum autonomy and assistance. Excessive control kills experimentation and initiative. A bad teacher is bad in whatever language he teaches.

'Fine-tuning' is ill-disguised face-saving. What we need is a complete U-turn on a disastrous policy that has turned education into enforcement, school autonomy into mechanical compliance.

This nonsense about arbitrary percentages has no place in education. What should be keeping policymakers up at night is not whether schools are 85 per cent English-capable, but whether students are 100 per cent drawn to learning the world's only international language.

Philip Yeung is a Hong-Kong based university editor