PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 February, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 February, 2009, 12:00am

The joy of real language communication has been forgotten in HK schools

As a French teacher in American public schools for 12 years, and an English teacher in Asia for the past five years, I think the real problem in Hong Kong is not which language the teachers speak in the classroom, but rather the ultimate goal of linguistic instruction regardless of the medium.

If Hong Kong legislators, schools and parents remain myopically fixated only on 'good results' then any and all reform will continue to be an exercise in futility, producing the same dismal results currently lamented at all levels.

Children are being pedagogically abused on a daily basis, as they are force-fed through rote memorisation of meaningless grammar and vocabulary in order to demonstrate proficiency on fill-in-the-blank or multiple choice questions, coupled with formulaic, 'canned' writing of essays, while mere 'lip service' is paid to real-world listening and speaking skills.

Testing listening and speaking skills is not cost-effective and much more labour intensive. Even the 'sacred cow' IGCSE makes its listening and speaking sections 'optional' and not calculated as part of a student's final mark.

What kind of examination role model is that for teachers and what message does it send to students? Listening and speaking are not important because they are not on the examination.

Language study is an end in and of itself, not a means to some artificially imposed goal such as an exam mark, a teacher or college's reputation, university admission or pleasing mum and dad.

Such extrinsic motivators will not create the kind of lifelong language learner who will succeed in the biggest exam of them all: real life! Much-needed reform in Hong Kong will come, unfortunately, only when the exam mentality evolves.

Our children deserve better than the low-tech, paper-and-pencil test prep drivel currently masquerading as language textbooks and enter the 21st century of techno-savvy, real-world communication.

As I tell my secondary students: 'When the telephone in your office rings, your boss will not want you waving your HKCEE or HKALE test scores in front of it! And if you want to keep your job, you'd better be able to say a little more than 'Hello...wait a moment, please!'

A major part of the problem is that teachers, curriculum designers and administrators are under such pressure to produce high-flying results that they have forgotten the joy of what real language communication is about. The outdated mentality that 'if students enjoy it they can't really be learning anything' needs to be jettisoned.

I can teach passive voice and reflexive pronouns in a Form Three classroom whether discussing some boring piece of 'literature' or my students' reactions to Twilight heartthrob Robert Pattinson's new haircut. Which of the two do you think students will remember?

One year spent reading and discussing the plethora of diverse and excellent articles presented daily in the Young Post combined with listening and writing about RTHK's Radio 3 programme would provide a much more effective and engaging English curriculum than most Education Bureau or International Baccalaureate-mandated syllabuses which are soon to be canonized (or merely rubber-stamped!) by Legco.

But who in Hong Kong is brave enough to think that far outside the box?

CRAIG B. McKEE, Tseung Kwan O

Schools forced to make most of language policy

As a native speaker and teacher of English but of Chinese origin with 23 years' experience accumulated in international, band four, band one and now English panel chairman of a band-three school, my 10 cents worth might prove educational.

After teaching in Europe for six years, my first school in Hong Kong was an Anglo-Chinese one with students of low academic standard.

I quickly realised my students didn't understand normal conversational English nor possessed academic inquiry, although stoic perseverance in rote learning was a given in a joyful and spirited learning atmosphere. I enjoyed teaching there until the politically inspired decision of Chinese medium of instruction forced my departure.

My next school was very different. It gave me enormous satisfaction and a sense of purpose, at first. Alas, that didn't last as with another educational reform - the Direct Subsidy Scheme.

The student intake quality sharply deteriorated and external exam results quickly followed. What was seen as inspirational by the hiring of a western principal soon saw only nominal lip service being paid to teaching practise or methodology reform. Marketing and form over substance became the norm. With no hope for change, I departed.

My current school was described as bottom 10 per cent by the principal. As the new English panel chair, I asked that I be allowed to enter any class to see for myself students' English level. What I found was quiet conformation of the damage wrought by CMI over the past decade. The students, not using English daily, lack confidence and belief, make simple spelling mistakes and are afraid of simple words and incorrect pronunciation.

My first and most crucial task is to give students the belief that English matters, that it can be useful and, most importantly to me, FUN.

It's not constructive to constantly harp on or debate the wisdom of the language policy. It is a done thing. The recent 'fine tuning' is predictable Education Bureau politicking and doesn't consider that all Hong Kong schools are absolutely non-homogeneous.

Every school must look at the student intake level, and decide what is viable, necessary and do-able. Until the colonial and now, neo-colonial educational system is totally revised (unlikely), thrown away (even less likely), then hope and optimism is what ALL teachers, parents and stakeholders should give to ALL our students.