Language switch causes a stir

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 June, 2009, 12:00am

The release of the language policy proposal in January has sparked a huge storm among parents and educators. Under the scheme more schools using Chinese as their medium of instruction will be allowed to teach in English.

The plan will remove the current strict segregation of schools into Chinese and English streams and will allow Chinese-medium schools to set aside a quarter of their lesson time for 'extended learning activities conducted in English'.

The plan received an overwhelming response from parents who have long equated English-medium schools with the elite.

The penchant for classes conducted in English can be traced to the old colonial days when former governors such as Sir John Pope Hennessy placed an emphasis on English teaching.

Under the colonial government's relentless push, English-medium schools mushroomed in the city and schools advocating mother-tongue education wilted under the dominance of their English counterparts.

Using English to teach non-language subjects was credited by the colonial government as creating an immersive environment that helped students master the language. Good proficiency in English has also been seen as a requisite for future success, as it is considered the global business lingua franca. Graduates with a poor command of the language are confined to low-paid jobs with low status.

While encouraging local schools to put more emphasis on English teaching, the colonial government adopted a laissez-faire approach to language in schools before 1998, allowing them to set their language policies according to their needs.

Most schools claimed to teach in English, but in reality many lacked qualified teachers, and the result was mostly teaching in Cantonese or in 'mixed code', a jumbled mixture of the two.

The practice, known as 'selling dog meat as mutton' colloquially in education circles, was largely stamped out when mother-tongue policy came into force in 1998.

Under the mother-tongue policy, all but 114 secondary schools were forced to switch to Chinese from English for junior secondary classes.

This policy led to wide resentment among parents who tend to label Chinese-medium schools as inferior. The policy has also been blamed for a decline in students' English proficiency over the years.

The latest proposal for adjustments to the medium of instruction policy has been seen by some educators as 'overturning the mother-tongue policy' and a 'throwback to the days before the handover'.

Under the new plan, schools with 85 per cent of their Form One intake in the academic top 40 per cent will be given total autonomy in deciding their language policies. This means that they can conduct all of their classes in English or opt for a mixed language approach in English and Cantonese.

Those schools which fall short of the 85 per cent threshold can set aside up to a quarter of their class time in non-language subjects for 'extended learning activities conducted in English'. Coupled with English-language classes, which account for 25 per cent of total class time, half of the class time would be taught in English.

Another flexible arrangement involves splitting subjects, classes or lesson periods according to students' needs and abilities.

Under the plan, schools can use all 25 per cent of the time allowed for a single subject (subject-splitting), assign all the capable students to select English classes (class-splitting) or teach certain chapters in a non-language subject in English, while retaining Chinese teaching for the remaining chapters (lesson-period splitting).

In spite of the extra autonomy and flexibility afforded to current Chinese-medium schools, the plan has drawn criticism from teachers and principals who say the new plan will add to their already heavy workload.

Another concern voiced by critics is the intense competition that the new plan will raise among schools in order to offer as many English classes as they can, irrespective of the language ability of their students.

This worry is particularly relevant today as schools increasingly face the threat of closure due to dwindling enrolments.

In order to boost their student numbers, schools would do everything possible to attract parents, who in spite of the advice of education experts, still treat schools offering English classes as sacrosanct.

Under the new plan, educators also fear that students studying in Chinese-medium classes would be further stigmatised.

The watering down of the mother-tongue policy also antagonised its supporters who said the plan put students' English learning above their understanding of subject knowledge. They reiterated the benefits of the mother-tongue policy and said that students, especially those who are of weaker ability, learnt best in their mother tongue.

A strong supporter of the mother-tongue policy since 1986, Shun Tak Fraternal Association Tam Pak Yu College in Tuen Mun is one of the Chinese-medium schools that will be forced to adopt more English teaching after the plan goes into effect this September.

School principal Ho Ki-to said changes to the medium-of-instruction policy would deprive the school of an environment conducive to continuing to learn in their mother-tongue.

'With many schools switching to English or flexible classes to cater to parents' needs, we will be forced to do the same,' he said.

'It's really sad because mother-tongue teaching has benefited our students a lot over the years. While we adopt Chinese to teach most subjects, students' English learning will not be sacrificed as we have set aside extra resources for English enhancement courses.'

While schools supporting mother-tongue teaching are upset by the plan, there are those which are eager to shake off their Chinese-medium tag and jump on the English-medium bandwagon. Yan Oi Tong Tin Ka Ping Secondary School in Tuen Mun is one of them.

Principal Tai Hay-lap said it would offer both 'pure English' and 'flexible' classes after the new language plan went into effect.

'Under the plan, we can offer all academic subjects in English, while retaining mother-tongue teaching for cultural subjects,' he said.