Words fail

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 August, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 August, 2009, 12:00am

If your job involves the regular review of English-language government documentation, as mine does, you will agree that not a single day passes without encountering some basic grammatical errors or glaring samples of 'Chinglish' (Chinese English). Witness the chief secretary's reply to a written question from a legislator on care for the elderly: 'As for frail elders who cannot age at home and thus require residential care services ...' Worse still, in a recently released consultation report on the Obscene and Indecent Articles Ordinance prepared by a government consultant, every page is littered with all manner of English mistakes, such as 'the operation of the Obscene Articles Tribunal as well as the handling of the internet and new forms of media are of particularly concern of the public' or 'The mostly mentioned factor for consideration of the court is the circulation volume of the article concerned.'

You cannot help but wonder: has this government run out of people who can write simple, correct, functional English and senior officers who bother to review their subordinates' drafts? Good English matters, for as long as Hong Kong aspires to be a world city. The degradation of this city's English standards in places where good English matters speaks volumes about the steady decline of this city's leadership.

Is English that hard to learn? Grammatically, it is less difficult than many other Indo-European languages, and certainly not as hard as Japanese. You could blame it on our overambitious language policy of 'triliterate bilingualism', but the European Union has a language policy of 'mother tongue plus two [foreign languages]', and European children cope. Something has gone terribly wrong not only with our language policy but also with the way English is taught.

It is imperative to debunk (at least) three myths about the teaching of English. Myth No1 is that teaching of grammar is too boring and mechanical and should be abandoned in favour of a communicative approach. An interactive approach that de-emphasises grammar works only if a student steps out of the classroom into an English-language environment. That is not the case in Hong Kong. The average student steps out of the classroom into a Cantonese-dominated environment. More than 780,000 people in our workforce are educated only to Form 3 level and do jobs that do not require good - or any - English. It is unrealistic to expect our mass-educated students to master the nuts and bolts of the use of English by conversing with their parents or peers at home. Throw grammar to the winds and we end up with graduates who can't tell a sentence from a phrase, or singular from plural.

Myth No2 is the idea that good English can only be taught in schools where English is the medium of instruction, and that schools with insufficient numbers of students with a good command of English should be condemned to the Chinese medium-of-instruction category. In the latter group, students have exposure to English only in the English class, thereby substantially reducing their comfort level with the language. My own experience of teaching English shows that there is nothing wrong with teaching English in the 'mixed code' - that is, explaining English grammar and patterns of expression in the mother tongue. It works as long as the instructor can get across his points clearly, can motivate students and has a good grasp of the language.

Myth No3 is that the practical needs of a business city like Hong Kong only require basic, business English, so there is no need for students to delve into English literature or read widely. In fact, nothing is more important to learning good English than reading widely and picking up uses of English from many sources.

What should be done about teachers who flunk their English proficiency tests? Unfortunately, there are too many of them: a problem which upgrading our Institute of Education to university status will not necessarily help. The need for impassioned and dedicated English teachers is never greater.

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a legislator and chairwoman of the Savantas Policy Institute