Mixed messages on language teaching

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 January, 2009, 12:00am

Language bridges communication, but mother-tongue education has been among the most socially divisive government policies since Hong Kong's return to China in 1997. The switch to mother-tongue teaching in 1998 was seen by some as a political decision. In reality, it was not a break from the past but the culmination of a decades-long debate about the direction schools should take to upgrade language and academic standards. It was thought native-tongue teaching would help students who had difficulty following instructions in English and were losing interest in study. Improvement in their academic standing would help remove their label of being underachievers. Paradoxically, the policy has ended up enhancing the prestige of so-called elite schools that have been allowed to continue teaching subjects in English. Most other schools that had to make the switch to Chinese came to be considered second best.

So, 10 years after its controversial introduction, the mother-tongue policy is being rolled back. Of course, the government kept up appearances in its announcement yesterday. It said it was only fine-tuning the policy, not abandoning it. There will be some restrictions on wholesale switches for schools with students who do not meet specific benchmarks. But in effect, many schools will now be free to switch the language of instruction in more classes. With clear support from parents, more schools will start teaching in English in no time. This will be similar to the situation before 1998, when many schools taught entirely in English. It was done even though many students and some teachers had difficulty mastering the language. While English textbooks were used, teachers lectured in 'mixed code' - Chinese sprinkled with broken phrases in English.

Educators are split on whether 'mixed code' teaching is desirable. Some abhor it for failing to help students develop their skills in either language; they were behind the switch in 1998. Others say the advantages of exposing students to some English outweigh the disadvantages; these have now won the ears of policymakers as well as the political support of most schools, teachers and parents. The endorsement by parents shows that most people still deem proficiency in English as highly important, despite the passage of colonial rule and the growing popularity of Putonghua.

Does the government's latest U-turn mean that native-tongue teaching has failed? It depends. Hong Kong Certificate of Examination results in subjects other than English have moderately improved, especially for students from lower-band schools. That suggests the policy has worked. But overall scores in English have dropped, and a study has found that mother-tongue teaching does not help students gain entrance to universities, because their English is weak. Even though mother-tongue education's objective is not to raise English standards but to improve overall learning, the government has been under pressure to change tack. Will the new policy produce more competent users of English? Perhaps, as more students will be exposed to more English. But perhaps not, as decades of 'mixed code' teaching before 1998 failed to achieve that.

Arguably, it does not matter what code is used. As long as competent teachers with the necessary skills are fielded to teach students at the right level, effective learning will take place. With the new policy, the authorities must properly monitor schools and make sure teachers and students meet benchmarks. We need a policy that is educationally sound, not just politically expedient, and professionally implemented.