Are best English teachers born to it?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 May, 2011, 12:00am


An education professor's call for a change in the way we teach English certainly grabbed headlines. Whether it would have the 'revolutionary' effect Andy Kirkpatrick has predicted is debatable.

The English chair at the Hong Kong Institute of Education wants bilingual or multilingual teachers, rather than native English speakers, to teach English to our students.

He sees the locals' bilingual experience as an asset, not a liability. He says the goal of learning another language is to be understood, not to speak like Henry Higgins. Hence, we should not demand that local English teachers write or speak the language perfectly. Their success in acquiring enough of the language so as to be bilingual or multilingual could be held as an example for their students.

The professor is certainly right that non-native speakers ought not to feel ashamed to mispronounce a word or write an ungrammatical sentence. Many people, even native speakers, use non-standard forms that in colonial times would be called mistakes. English is very pliable that way.

Still, there are basics one has to master. Below a certain threshold, one simply is not speaking the language properly. This may not be easy to formalise, but when you hear or read it, you know. If you get rid of the tennis net, anyone might play like Roger Federer. But it is no longer tennis.

In any case, the debate that Kirkpatrick hoped to trigger is moot. As he well recognises, the vast majority of English teachers in Hong Kong are local Chinese, just as they were in colonial times. There simply are not enough NETs, or native English-speaking teachers, to go around. Far from revolution, our professor is advocating the status quo.