With the yawning gap in Chinese-language proficiency between ethnic-minority and local students, and the increasing need to learn it as a second language, Hong Kong is under pressure to respond to the demand.
Despite being a relatively new area of research, teaching Chinese as a second language could be well worth the investment because the city's resulting expertise could be extended to serve the world's learners, a senior academic has said.
Tse Shek-kam, associate dean of University of Hong Kong's education faculty, said Hong Kong had the potential to become the world's education hub in teaching Chinese as a second language.
'Hong Kong's research into the pedagogy of teaching Chinese as a second language is not confined to the territory alone,' Professor Tse said. 'It can be extended to the rest of the world.'
Professor Tse is director of the centre for the advancement of Chinese language education and research at HKU, and a former consultant to Singapore education ministry's Chinese language curriculum and pedagogy review committee.
Although most people were learning the language using Putonghua rather than Cantonese, Hong Kong's colonial background gave the city an edge in research into teaching Chinese as a second language, he said.
'Hong Kong has an advantage because of its former British colonial background. It has a bilingual environment, unlike the mainland,' Professor Tse said. 'This background has allowed Hong Kong to develop good practices and theories in teaching English as a second language. This can be adapted to the teaching of Chinese to non-native speakers.
'The mainland has been strong in researching the linguistics, grammar, pinyin [phonics] and literature of the Chinese language.'
Nevertheless, he described the mainland's approach of using pinyin to teach the pronunciation of Chinese characters as 'using one set of language symbols to learn another language'.
Comparatively, learners of Chinese language in Hong Kong usually had a stronger awareness of Chinese characters, he said.
'Here in Hong Kong, we focus on the cognitive aspect of learning, which is how people learn a language. We also specialise in curriculum and teaching materials as well as how to deal with diversity in classrooms,' Professor Tse said. 'Hong Kong's pedagogy begins with the components of Chinese characters.'
He said there were 512 components for forming traditional Chinese characters. Mastering 77 of the component structures plus the eight different ways of writing strokes and the 12 stroke-sequencings, however, would already enable learners to recognise up to 1,000 characters.
There was an increasing global demand for Chinese language learning. In the United States alone, there was a shortage of about 4,000 Chinese teachers, and about 10 per cent of Taiwanese students were non-native Chinese speakers because many were born to mixed-race families with mothers mostly from Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines, Professor Tse said.
At HKU, there were students from around the world learning effective ways of teaching Chinese as a second language.
'With the rising commercial value of the language, Hong Kong's ethnic minority parents are starting to see the importance of their children learning the language properly.'
According to the Education Bureau, the total number of non-Chinese-speaking students in the primary and secondary public sector and in Direct Subsidy Scheme schools is 6,020 and 3,825, respectively. Yet, a large majority of these students find learning Chinese, especially reading and writing, very difficult.
Professor Tse said there was a four-year learning gap in the standards of Chinese-language proficiency between ethnic-minority and local students.
Figures released at a Legislative Council education panel meeting last year revealed there to be about 6,000 non-Chinese-speaking students in the primary sector in 2007. There were just 3,000, however, in the first four years of secondary education.
Just 70 of more than 200 students who sat the Certificate of Education Examinations scored highly enough to qualify for a Form Six place and of the 20 who took A-levels, seven met the minimum requirement for university entry but only five secured a place. A low pass rate in public examinations has been a major hurdle to students' access to local higher education.
Last year, the bureau announced details on the relaxation of universities' entrance requirements to allow minority students to apply through the centralised Joint University Programmes Admissions System, using the British General Certificate of Secondary Education and A-level Chinese-language qualifications aimed at second-language learners.
Sixteen primary and six secondary schools have been granted 'designated school' status to cater for non-Chinese-speaking students and receive extra bureau funding ranging from HK$300,000 to HK$600,000 for extra teaching support. The funding mechanism, however, has been criticised as unfair.
Government figures have shown that 10 primary and nine secondary schools with more than 30 non-Chinese-speaking students have not received the special grants. In at least two of these schools, non-Chinese-speaking students represented 83.1 per cent and 56.6 per cent of the student body.
Human rights and community groups have launched campaigns urging the government to improve the quality of Chinese-language education for students of Pakistani, Nepali, Filipino, Indian and other South Asian backgrounds in the local school system.
An alternative Chinese curriculum designed for non-native speakers has also been on activists' campaign radar but it has so far been deemed unnecessary by the bureau. Instead, the government offered a Supplementary Guide to the Chinese Language Curriculum for Non-Chinese Speaking students last November. But critics said the guide did not go far enough.
At HKU, Professor Tse is leading two university support programmes to help secondary schools that teach Chinese to non-native speakers, to develop classroom pedagogy and provide tuition to ethnic-minority students.
Teachers require urgent support to address the needs of minority students in learning Chinese, as a majority of Hong Kong teachers have not received specialised training in teaching Chinese language to non-native speakers.
The outcome of his research will be used to generate handbooks for parents and teachers from 2010.
Professor Tse urged the government to extend the existing school-support programmes to cover kindergartens and primary schools as well as provide alternative assessment standards for students.
'Setting separate assessment standards for minority students would give them a transition period before catching up with the local students,' Professor Tse said.