Second-language method feasible

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 June, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 June, 1994, 12:00am

IT was refreshing to see So Yan-lap put the case for mother-tongue education without overstating it (South China Morning Post, May 24).

Some advocates of Chinese try to argue that learning through a second language is inherently less effective than learning in the mother tongue. This view was indeed once held by many experts, but over the last generation extensive research has shown it to be false. The best documented case is that of Canadian children from English-speaking homes receiving a considerable part of their education in French.

Their general academic results are as good as those of their counterparts studying in English medium, and, of course, the level of proficiency they attain in French is much higher. Similar results have also been obtained with English-speaking children learning in Hebrew, a language much less similar to English than is French. Bilingual education is not unsound in principle, but for it to work properly a number of conditions must be met.

As So Yan-lap points out, the first is that the teachers must themselves be fully bilingual. In the Hong Kong context, this does not mean that teachers' English has to be indistinguishable from that of native speakers, but they do have to be totally fluent and also comfortable managing in English every aspect of their relationship with a student - including sharing jokes or giving personal guidance as well as lecturing. If they are to follow the principle developed in the Canadian ''immersion'' system, they have to encourage rather than coerce their class to speak to them in English, but they must always respond in English so that to the students they appear to understand Cantonese but to be unable to speak it.

The second condition is that the students' themselves understand and accept the objective of making English the language of the classroom - not just the language most of the books are written in. They will not have to abandon the use of Cantonese immediately (this was, I believe, required in Anglo-Chinese schools in the old days and resulted in many children just speaking as little as possible), but will be expected to switch progressively to using English both to the teacher and to each other.

Thirdly, all the students in one class need to be at approximately the same level of English proficiency when the switch to English is made. If this condition is not met, the teacher's English will be too difficult for one half of the class and too easy for the other. The students will also be less willing to switch to English amongst themselves because the gap in fluency between classmates will embarrass both the stronger and the weaker students.

Finally, although those learning through a second language can over the long term reach the same academic level as those using their mother tongue, the first group needs initially to progress more slowly while it concentrates on language acquisition. The teaching schedules and examinations both have to be flexible enough to allow for this.

If schools can demonstrate that they are able to operate a system like this, for some or all of their students and over part or all of the curriculum, they should be encouraged to do so, because real English-medium education is the most effective means of producing the fluent bilinguals that Hong Kong needs to remain competitive as an international business centre. On the other hand, schools which cannot meet these conditions would do better to switch to Chinese for the general curriculum and accept the extra resources which the Government would then offer for teaching English as a single subject. At present many such schools would probably like to make the change in principle but are afraid to be the first to do so in case their ability to attract higher-ability entrants drops.

To remedy this, I agree with Mr So that the Government needs to do something more than merely rely on ''encouragement''.