Expert: reform of language policy flawed

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 January, 2009, 12:00am

Academic calls for bilingual education

The government's plans to reform the medium-of-instruction policy are pedagogically flawed and it should instead be encouraging bilingual teaching, a leading language expert has said.

Andy Kirkpatrick, head of the English department at Hong Kong Institute of Education, spoke out as the institute pledged to step up its research on bilingual education and how to combine English and Cantonese effectively in the classroom.

The moves came as legislators clamoured for more freedom for schools to decide their medium of instruction policies, with some calling for a return to 'mixed-code' teaching - often referred to as 'selling dog meat as mutton' in Cantonese - at a special meeting of the Legislative Council's education panel on Thursday.

Mixed-code refers to classes held in a mixture of Cantonese and English. The practice was prevalent in Hong Kong schools before the handover.

Secretary for education Michael Suen Ming-yeung insisted at the meeting that schools should use the same language for textbooks, exams and medium of instruction.

The new 'school-based' approach to the medium of instruction, which was unveiled by Mr Suen last week, will abolish the strict divide between English-medium and Chinese-medium schools and allow schools to decide their own medium of instruction.

Professor Kirkpatrick said the switch would put schools under pressure to increase the number of English-medium classes which was likely to be problematic for children.

'I think, pedagogically, it is not the way to go,' he said.

'It is certainly not going to improve children's English. And I think it may penalise children, if they have to switch to studying through English when they have been successful studying through Chinese. I also think it's inevitable that there will be mixed-code teaching in schools as a result of this latest change in policy. The more English-medium teaching there is, the more mixed code there will be.'

Professor Kirkpatrick said it was important not to 'demonise' mixed-code teaching and to start thinking about classes that involve teaching in both Cantonese and English in a more positive way, as 'bilingual pedagogy'.

'Bilingual teaching is not the same as mixed code because it is systematic and you do not mix the languages in the same sentence,' he said. 'If we could convince people that using a bilingual pedagogy in a systematic way would allow students to increase their knowledge about the content and increase their language pedagogy, then we would have a huge breakthrough in the language policy.'

Unionist legislator Lee Cheuk-yan, Civic Party leader Audrey Eu Yuet-mee and legislator Leung Yiu-chung all called for a return to teaching that combines the use of English textbooks and spoken Cantonese at Thursday's meeting.

Mr Leung, a maths teacher, said there was no problem with teachers combining English and Cantonese.

'Teachers are in the frontline,' he said. 'They should be allowed to decide for themselves. What's wrong with selling dog meat as mutton?'

But Mr Suen said: 'I don't want classes to be turned into translation classes. That won't do students any good.'

Rosalind Chan, chairwoman of the Association of English Medium Secondary Schools, said: 'The use of mixed code will prevent Hong Kong from becoming an international city.'