Language policy must work to pupils' benefit

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 May, 2009, 12:00am

No government policy can hope to succeed without the support of key constituents. The policy of using Chinese as the medium of instruction in most secondary schools, commonly referred to as mother-tongue teaching, never won the necessary support from parents and teachers. Instead, since it was introduced in 1998, it has proved to be highly divisive. Many parents worry their children are being denied an opportunity to learn English; some schools think their autonomy has been undermined. Whether all this is in fact the case is less important than that it is believed to be so. That is why education officials are now embarking on a policy overhaul, even though they insist they are only 'fine-tuning' it.

Secretary for Education Michael Suen Ming-yeung yesterday called mother-tongue teaching policy a success, even though it is clear the government is going in a very different direction. There is no doubt the changes have been formulated with a view to winning support from parents and teachers. To an extent, that goal has already been achieved. Few schools would object to being given more freedom and resources to choose their teaching language. Currently, on the basis of the overall academic ability of their students, only 112 schools are allowed to teach in English; all others must teach in Chinese. With the policy change, from September next year secondary schools can teach a class in English if 85 per cent of pupils in it belong to the top 40 per cent of their age group academically. Many more of the city's 400-plus schools will be able to teach some classes or subjects in English as a result.

Schools have long demanded a say in choosing the language of instruction they use. The temptation now is to teach more classes and pupils in English, whether they are ready or not. That is what many parents want; schools are happy to oblige, because many believe it is more prestigious to be an English-teaching institution. But such attitudes need to change. Forcing pupils with poor English skills to learn in the language prevents them fully engaging in class; many become bored or drop out.

Though the government checks on schools, the changes will only succeed if schools themselves act responsibly. This means they must apply objective and professional criteria to design classes and help pupils develop the necessary language skills in appropriate settings. School heads should not incessantly worry about attracting enough primary-school graduates with high scores so they can teach everything, or at least most classes, in English. As an enlightened society, we must stop treating schools or pupils who prefer mother-tongue teaching as second class.

An old adage says there are no bad pupils, only bad teachers. It is an open secret that a fair number of English teachers in Hong Kong lack fluency or mastery of the language. The situation is much worse in primary schools. How can we expect pupils to learn a language well when their teachers have not mastered it? Mr Suen has expressed the wish to raise the number of pupils capable of learning in English upon entering secondary schools from the current 40 per cent to 50 per cent or even 60 per cent. He did not spell out how that could be achieved. To reach that goal, primary schools must do a better job of teaching English.

The government has put forward a mother-tongue teaching policy that allows more English teaching in schools. That is what the community wants. Now, let's make it work for our children.