Trying times

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 June, 2011, 12:00am


It's true that, when it comes to learning English, one big challenge local schoolchildren face is lack of confidence. But should we go down the route suggested by Professor Andy Kirkpatrick, of the Hong Kong Institute of Education, and have English taught by non-native-speaking English teachers rather than native speakers?

According to Kirkpatrick, non-natives can relate better to local schoolchildren because they also struggled with English. Our local schoolchildren feel intimidated when it comes to speaking English because of their less than perfect pronunciation, he argues. Therefore, we should employ teachers whose pronunciation is not perfect, either.

But confidence does not generally come from learning from someone who is similarly weak. Football teams don't employ coaches who don't play well to try to boost players' confidence. So, such a strategy may work in theory but, in practice, it may further weaken the city's English.

Hong Kong's standard of English is already low. This year, only 37 per cent of 1,369 aspiring new teachers passed the English writing component of the language proficiency assessment. Languages, like anything else, are best learned through imitation and instruction from patient, methodical teachers. Native-speaking teachers, if they are able to teach well, are the best candidates for this. However, many native-speaking teachers in Hong Kong don't see teaching as a long-term profession. I've encountered many native-speaking teachers who are here only for a few years and take the job because it allows them flexibility to travel. Clearly, that's not what our city - or our children - need.

Ultimately, the way to build up confidence is to first create a compelling urge to try. There are an estimated 300 million people in China learning English, and most are beginners. However, one of the main differences between mainland students and their Hong Kong counterparts when it comes to English is that the former are almost always eager to try. They are not worried about their pronunciation, but not because their English teacher is a non-native speaker. Instead, they try to use English at every opportunity because they know that if they don't try, someone else will.

I recently gave a talk about learning English to a group of English students at Lingnan University. I was surprised that, at the end, no one wanted to ask a question. This was completely different from when I talked to students at Peking University last year. When I asked the Lingnan students why they were reluctant to speak English, one student said: 'Because we know that if we don't speak to you, it's OK. There will be another speaker soon and we'll have another chance.'

This speaks volumes about the mentality of students towards English in Hong Kong. It does not just show a lack of confidence; it also shows a more serious problem - that many take for granted our English-speaking city and the many opportunities it offers. This is a problem that teachers alone, non-native or native, cannot solve.

Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School.