Towards the ultimate goal of trilingual teaching

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 June, 2009, 12:00am

I was the education secretary responsible for implementing the policy of using the mother-tongue (Cantonese) as the medium of instruction in secondary schools, which came into effect from 1998. The policy upset a lot of schools and angered many parents.

Today, most of the education sector and parents have welcomed the government's decision to fine-tune it. This will allow schools to use up to 25 per cent of total lesson time for extended learning activities in English. Some claim this change was the result of the failure of mother-tongue teaching. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The mother-tongue teaching policy mandated that only secondary schools that met three prescribed criteria - students' ability to learn through English, teachers' capability to teach through English, and adequate measures in the school to support English medium of instruction teaching - were allowed to teach in English. These criteria remain intact under the fine-tuning policy. As a result, most of the former will still have to teach the majority of 'content subjects' - non-language subjects such as mathematics, science and geography - in Cantonese.

The primary objective of the mother-tongue teaching policy was to improve students' learning in content subjects. This objective has been met. During the same period, the government also introduced a number of measures to improve the learning of English.

There are several reasons why students' English standards have declined. But it is not right to blame mother-tongue teaching of content subjects.

I support the fine-tuning policy for two reasons. First, compared with the situation 10 years ago, we have now laid down clearly the basic requirement for staff teaching content subjects in English. Second, the English environment in schools has been enhanced with the provision of Native English Teachers and other government-funded support measures.

The success of the fine-tuning policy is dependent on three factors. First, parents must be closely involved in the implementation.

Second, the government must closely monitor the readiness of the schools to use the fine-tuning flexibility. The government will inspect 70 schools each year, which is still a small proportion of the 500 secondary schools in Hong Kong. It should publish the inspection reports on those schools, to inform all secondary schools and parents about some common problems and challenges.

Third, provided teachers can teach competently in the language chosen for the subjects, there is no reason why students cannot write proficiently in both English and Chinese, and speak English, Cantonese and Putonghua fluently.

Hopefully, the fine-tuning policy will help us move towards the ultimate goal: a trilingual medium of instruction policy for teaching Chinese in Putonghua, some content subjects in Cantonese, and the rest in English.

Joseph Wong Wing-ping, formerly secretary for the civil service, is an honorary professor at the University of Hong Kong