Boosting language skills

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 January, 2009, 12:00am

Many of the influences that once defined colonial Hong Kong have faded, but the importance of the English language has proved resilient. The language is standing the test of time even as Legislative Council hearings are being predominantly conducted in Cantonese, and most local schools use the mother tongue in classrooms.

'During the 1997 handover, there was a feeling that English would be eclipsed and Putonghua would become the official medium of instruction, but the English language has shown a lot of tenacity in remaining the language of instruction and business,' said Chris Green, programme leader of the MA in English language studies and programme co-ordinator of the MA scheme in language studies for the professions at Polytechnic University's English department.

Globalisation and the outsourcing trend have further underpinned the importance of English in a global context and, in turn, fuelled its dominant position in Hong Kong.

'The popularity of English as a postgraduate subject has grown as people realise the value of English as a tool for communication,' Dr Green explained. 'For example, better English can help to improve a salesperson's performance or widen an engineer's work scope.'

A survey conducted last year by Polytechnic University's research centre for professional communication in English reported that participants found written English to be the most important language in their professional lives.

Spoken English continued to play an important role too, especially in employment interviews, formal meetings, conferences, seminars and presentations, the survey said, while the need for effective written communication skills in English became increasingly crucial as a professional rose through the ranks of an organisation.

One of the most popular master's-level English degrees is Polytechnic University's MA in English for the professions.

Designed for mid-level managers, the programme requires applicants to have at least two years of work experience and aims to equip graduates with an understanding of concepts and skills that underline the use of English in a professional context.

Although the university's MA in English language studies programme has a broader appeal and is open to a wider pool of applicants - essentially anyone who wants to upgrade their English skills and the knowledge of concepts - the majority of participants are teachers from primary and secondary schools. The remainder are civil servants and executives who want to apply new English-language concepts and systems to their work.

Despite the overwhelming number of teachers on the programme, however, Dr Green emphasised the course was focused on language, not teacher training.

'The English language studies MA meets the Education Bureau's subject knowledge requirement for English teachers who did not major in English in their first degree,' he explained.

The course has no practical component in the sense that there is no observation of teachers teaching in the classroom. It is taught purely from a language point of view. Through coursework, including mini-projects, e-learning assignments, oral presentations, class quizzes and traditional academic papers, students are assessed continually with no requirement to take examinations.

Networking plays a huge role in both programmes. Aside from organising social activities outside the classroom, Dr Green said students were active in setting up their own self-help groups, which functioned much like a support forum, helping with the exchange of tips on the English language and advice on how best to handle specific scenarios in the workplace.

Moving away from the Polytechnic University, one of the city's most competitive master-level English programmes is the Chinese University's MA in applied English linguistics. It usually admits just one quarter of applicants following a rigorous interview process that includes a 500-word statement and the requirement of at least a second-class honours undergraduate degree.

The course attracts mainly experienced English teachers, from primary and secondary schools, who want to improve their understanding of teaching English as a second language so as to better equip them for the classroom.

'We give our teacher students a solid foundation in theory so that when they are teaching in the classroom, they have a better understanding of what is going on in the minds of their students,' said George Braine, who teaches the programme.

The teachers on the programme, the majority of whom learned English as a second language, typically find the acquisition of second-language theories taught on the course easier to grasp than native speakers because they can draw on their own experience of learning English.

'Teachers' experiences inform their beliefs and in turn influence their teaching. Thus, when theories they encounter in the MA programme reflect their own experiences as language learners, the two blend smoothly in their classroom practices,' Professor Braine explained.

Other benefits to being a non-native English speaker and teacher include the ability to empathise with students' difficulties and frustrations in the classroom, being able to incorporate their own English learning style into their teaching and having the capability to view English from the perspective of a non-native speaker.

'This means the non-native English-speaking teachers are better able to explain the concepts of grammar because they have learned it rather than acquired it unconsciously,' Professor Braine said.