Language of instruction, after a fashion

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 February, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 February, 2009, 12:00am

The tussle over the language of instruction in our schools seems to have left a number of people (mother-) tongue-tied. Why do so many parents prefer that their children be educated in what is, for most, a foreign language? It can't be merely that English is the 'the world's language', because German and Japanese parents do not share this preference to anything like the same extent. The preference seems counter- intuitive: whatever the benefits to a student's English might be, English is not the sole educational objective, and surely teaching science or history in a foreign language makes a difficult subject even harder.

But in this, as in many other things, there is much about Hong Kong that is anomalous. Although some native New Yorkers and Londoners may attend the local Lycee Francais, for example, this is generally considered somewhat eccentric. International schools here, however, often cater as much for local students as those who find themselves temporarily away from home.

The Lycee perhaps helps if one intends to apply to the Sorbonne but, again, this is something US or British students relatively rarely do; but for Hong Kong students of at least a certain academic level, attending an overseas university, almost invariably in an English-speaking country, is common.

This, combined with the fact much of Hong Kong's own university education is in English, surely drives much of the demand for places in so-called elite English-medium schools. The result, however, is that many parents have apparently deduced a correlation between the quality of education and the language of instruction, a correlation that, even if it were demonstrable, says little about cause and effect. Lessons that are less than effectual in one language do not suddenly improve when delivered in another.

The result is a debate which, to me, seems at times driven more by fashion than logic. Of course, while it is easy to scoff at the focus on the ostensible prestige of teaching in English, one can however understand from where the idea arises. It is no more misguided than the idea that learning in English is somehow unpatriotic or a yearning for a colonial past. The primary consideration is, or should be, efficacy.

The desire for English-language ability is understandable. All things being equal, it is a useful and marketable skill. However, the impression one gets is that almost everyone, from parents to teachers and students, seems to have despaired of achieving this through normal English classes. I would not want to claim that teaching English is easy, but other countries (northern Europe in particular comes to mind) seem to manage without deviating from their version of mother-tongue teaching.

Surely the ideal solution, for the vast majority of students, would be efficacious English classes set in Chinese-medium schools of such well-accepted quality that there would be no particular demand for English-medium schools outside of those specialised groups for whom English-language instruction is necessary.

Is this impossible? Perhaps, but cities elsewhere have experimented with what are sometimes known as 'charter schools', often specialising in something like the arts, science or, these days, Chinese.

Fashion can be self-reinforcing. Groups of schools seen to be better tend to attract the better (and better-heeled) students and teachers, resulting in schools that often are, in fact, better. But fashion is a matter of perspective, and if at least some mother-tongue instruction were made exclusive and effective and thus prestigious and desirable - in addition to, rather than at the expense of, existing educational successes - fashion might begin to change.

And sooner or later, Chinese universities are likely to be competing for the attention of Hong Kong students, a development which would drive the language of instruction debate the other way.

Peter Gordon is a Hong Kong- based businessman, writer, editor and publisher