Now teaching in English must be done correctly

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 December, 2009, 12:00am

The government portrayed the relaxation of the 12-year-old mother-tongue teaching policy in secondary schools as fine-tuning. That was always wishful thinking. As expected, many schools have seized the opportunity to teach wholly or partly in English from September. The government is thus falling into step with parents' demands, with the support of schools and teachers.

That was the easy part. Now the new language policy must be made to work for children as part of ongoing education reforms. There is a thin dividing line between changes in the medium of instruction and experimentation with the lives of generations of children. After the second big change in little more than a decade, Hong Kong is putting this to the test.

One way of easing the new arrangements is to ensure that parents are fully informed about the details. This is especially important with the discretionary round of secondary school placements coming up soon. Regrettably, not all the information they need has been made available. There is a lack of clarity about which classes will be taught in English, a key piece of information. The government's announcement excluded such detail and some schools appear reluctant to disclose it. This is causing unnecessary worry for parents. Officials should make the information available immediately or order the schools to do so.

The new language regime will be similar to that which existed before 1998, when many schools taught in English, though a lot of students and teachers had difficulties mastering it. As a result, while textbooks were in English, teachers often communicated in 'mixed code' - Chinese mixed with English phrases.

Educators were divided about that then and remain so. Those who held the situation responsible for students' failure to develop skills in either language were behind the switch to Chinese-language teaching. It was argued then that native-tongue teaching would help students who were struggling in English. Some support for that view has been found in moderate improvements in Hong Kong Certificate of Examination results for subjects other than English. But scores in English have been falling. Now, those who say the advantages of exposing students to at least some English outweigh the disadvantages have prevailed. Parents are foremost among them.

They have a point. However, it will not be advanced by going back to past teaching methods. Decades of mixed-code teaching failed to produce more competent English-users. And mother-tongue teaching will not have improved the English of those who teach it. How can students be expected to become proficient in a language when their teachers are not? Secretary for Education Michael Suen Ming-yeung has said he wants to raise the number of secondary school entrants capable of learning in English. But the lack of proficiency in the language among primary schoolteachers is even more pronounced.

If the pressure for English to be the dominant medium of instruction is overwhelming, it must be done properly this time, from primary school level or even in kindergartens, so that no student capable of an English or bilingual education is denied the opportunity. The cost in teacher training, recruitment and resources will be huge. But we can afford it. Such expenditure may be necessary if Hong Kong is to avoid becoming a Cantonese-speaking Chinese city where most people speak neither English nor Putonghua well.