A worsening problem, in any language
Let me dispel a few myths about teaching and learning English in Hong Kong. To start with, people believe that, to become a world-class city, we have to master English. Most Japanese do not put much effort into learning an alien language, but that does not prevent Tokyo from being indisputably a world-class city.
Many people say the standard of English here is not what it used to be. Don't be misled by the impression you get from overhearing women barking down the phone at their Filipino maids. The fact is that there are a lot more people in Hong Kong with a good working knowledge of English than before. In the 1970s, only about 3 per cent of the population were able to enter university and, of course, they could speak good English. Now, more than 1 million residents have a foreign passport and about 70 per cent of those studying in international schools are locals. Thus, the percentage of good-English speakers is far higher.
The problem is that, unlike in Singapore, English is not a working language here. Without an English-speaking environment, learning the language is an uphill battle. Some people think we can create an artificial English-speaking environment in schools for at least 12 years. But it has never been an English-speaking environment in our schools. Even in our universities, the medium of instruction is Chinglish, as most teachers cannot adequately express themselves in English.
On the whole, students from English-medium schools have a larger English vocabulary, but many of the words they learn from textbooks are technical, and they will never encounter them again. On the other hand, most of our students have a hard time communicating in English in a restaurant.
Our students are now forced to spend much of their time and effort learning a language instead of other subjects. That is why statistics show that students from Chinese-medium secondary schools, though they are not the brightest to begin with, do better in exams. They are also happier.
These students will, however, find it more difficult to adjust in our universities where all the material is in English. They have to learn many English terms in a very short time, in order to compete. Now that 60 per cent of our secondary-school graduates are supposed to get a tertiary education - following former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa's pledge - this may be too big a challenge for quite a few, and those coming from English-medium secondary schools seem to have an unfair advantage.
To make it fair, we can either have all schools teaching in Chinglish, or in Chinese, with an extra boost in English. I favour the latter, but policymakers prefer the old English secondary-school system because parents love it. Because English as the teaching medium became politically incorrect after 1997, they have come up with many ingenious ways of saying black is white.
First, the government downgraded many English-medium secondary schools to Chinese-medium schools. When faced with angry protests, they altered course. Chinese-medium secondary schools could be upgraded to English-medium, they said, provided their teachers and students were qualified. They have now gone back one more step: there is to be no labelling of English- or Chinese-medium secondary schools. For any class, if both the teachers and students are up to it, English can be used as the medium of instruction.
This shifts the stigma from the school level to the classroom. Students in Chinese-medium classes are still lower forms of life being taught by second-class teachers, but worse, because discrimination is now inside the school, it is everywhere. Your basketball team pals know you are stupid. By defining away the problem to make it even worse, it is - in official-speak - an improvement.
Lau Nai-keung is a member of the Basic Law Committee of the NPC Standing Committee, and a member of the Commission on Strategic Development