Speaking up

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 October, 2011, 12:00am


Whoever wins the chief executive race next year needs to have the nerve and boldness to bring Hong Kong back to the pre-handover days as far as using English as the teaching medium in high schools is concerned. The standard of English of our students in high schools and universities has declined sharply in the past 14 years.

Introducing Chinese as the teaching medium in high schools after 1997 was politically motivated. Before 1997, most used English as the medium of instruction. After the British rulers left, the local government servants swiftly adopted Chinese as the preferred language of instruction. Currently, about 300 high schools use Chinese as the teaching medium while only around 110 schools teach in English. That's a huge mistake.

The present government knows that, and, under pressure, has half-heartedly attempted to rectify its policy. It has allowed some high schools to start teaching in English from Form 4 in what has been described as 'fine-tuning'.

We all know that language skills are acquired and accumulated day by day. Speaking English is not like eating instant noodles. Pupils speak little English from Forms 1 to 3 and, suddenly, in Form 4 we expect them to speak fluent English and have a meaningful dialogue with teachers? It's a joke.

The next chief executive should adopt a new policy that all high schools in Hong Kong must use English as the medium of instruction. Period. Let our young people speak English from Form 1. The move will be good for Hong Kong's future to keep, and strengthen, its role as China's financial centre.

Recent research by an Oxford University scholar, Professor Ernesto Macaro, shows that the 'fine-tuning' approach in high schools has made Form 4 students reluctant to ask questions and seek clarification for difficult concepts. Lessons are less interactive, the research indicates.

Of course, we need teachers who are confident enough to teach in English from Form 1 to Form 6. At present, the English proficiency of some leaves much to be desired. But if we have the will to keep Hong Kong competitive economically, there must be many ways to make it work. First, those teachers whose English standard hasn't reached an acceptable level should undergo retraining. The government could afford to give a subsidy as an incentive.

Second, we must have the resolve to overhaul Hong Kong's teaching profession. How about doubling all high school teachers' salaries? This would attract more bright and talented university graduates to join the profession. Currently, many graduates shun teaching as the remuneration package isn't attractive and teachers' social status isn't as high as that of investment bankers. However, once the most talented and brightest graduates join the teaching profession, people's perceptions will change and that will only encourage more high-achievers to become high school teachers.

For Hong Kong's economic future and our children's job prospects, the 'fine-tuning' policy must be killed off and replaced with an English-speaking environment for our young people. Our next leader needs to be bold enough to tell the world to do business with us because we speak the language of international commerce.

Victor Fung Keung, based in Hong Kong, is a commentator on education and political issues