Mentors, not tutors

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 April, 2009, 12:00am

When a responsive government offers to modify its flawed teaching language policy, it is bitterly disappointing to see language scholars pour cold water on its initiative. Instead, they suggest that we stand pat on a failed approach.

This do-nothing stance is insupportable. For one thing, it defies the wishes of parents and schools for flexibility and change. Besides, it makes little sense to teach in Cantonese for the first three years of junior secondary school only to revert to English in the fourth year. The problems thus created are neither necessary nor fair to the students.

It seems that some educators still cannot shake loose their distaste for mixed code teaching, which has been given a bad name by misguided policymakers. Used creatively, code switching offers rich pedagogic possibilities, and bridges cultural chasms.

Through it all, no one has ever questioned whether the wrong kind of English has been taught, or is taught in the wrong way. This is hardly a surprise. Hong Kong has never bothered to gather qualitative feedback from students on any subject.

I stepped into this breach when I asked students at an elite school to give their candid comments on the quality of English teaching and learning. Without exception, they all condemned the numbing drills, quantitative emphasis and total lack of oral practice. They dismissed it as extrinsic learning in which little was retained. Such coaching is about form, largely devoid of content.

What is at play is a psychological misjudgment. Chinese is essentially a grammarless language. Yet Chinese learners are thrown in at the deep end, floundering and drowning in a sea of alien English grammar rules.

So, what is the alternative? First, we need a radically learner-friendly approach that is both fun and functional, teaching students alphabetical literacy, word-formation skills, prepositional sensitivity, borrowed concepts from English that are embedded in Chinese expressions, and a knowledge of concepts and idioms shared by the world's educated middle class.

This last point was brought home to me when I was recently asked by an international law firm to help polish the conversational skills of its Chinese lawyers. It quickly became apparent that what they needed was more than just work on their accent, or on proper speech. Above all, they need to acquire certain cultural concepts or idioms that native speakers take for granted. Language is a carrier of cultural values and perceptions. Used skilfully, they are an effective social lubricant.

In the past, I have crusaded for the abolition of local public English exams. I now realise the exam system can be used as a vehicle to drive genuine learning and alter learning habits.

One thing we must steer away from is playing this cat-and-mouse game with high-priced tutors, some of whom have made a name and buckets of money for themselves by guessing essay topics. If we continue with this charade, English exams will degenerate into a trivial pursuit, evidenced by such infamous essay topics as 'lemon tea'. We should, instead, test our students on concepts and expressions shared by educated global citizens. Test them on book reading and on effective use of English word classes. Grammar can be learned later, deductively and contextually.

A new focus on practical language knowledge will take the wind out of the sails of clever tutors. When the reading culture takes root, it will alter the relationship of teachers to students. Under our current system, teachers are no more than dull exam coaches. The old Chinese idea of a teacher being a life-long mentor is gone. Tragically, many students are drifting aimlessly.

So this new approach to language teaching is more than just pedagogic reform. We can make nurturing mentors possible. Take language learning out of the classroom with language quiz competitions, and other co-curricular activities. For too long, our language teaching has been hijacked by small-minded but high-priced tutors. It is time we refused to play this game.

Philip Yeung is a Hong-Kong based university editor.