Well-spoken, but struggling to be heard

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 February, 2012, 12:00am

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While we debate declining language standards and failures at bilingualism, we often overlook the groups in our midst who have been most successful linguistically - the ethnic minorities. Many younger members of the city's South Asian communities speak excellent English and Cantonese, as well as Hindi or Urdu, if not more languages.

They often come from low-income families, attend schools with poor resources and graduate with fewer job opportunities. Yet many manage to master several languages or at least speak them at a highly functional level. How do they do it?

Nabela Qoser, the talented news reporter on the Chinese-language TVB Jade channel, shows how much South Asians have to contribute to mainstream society. But far from recognising and celebrating their achievements, we put obstacles before them. Unison, a welfare group that fights for minorities' rights, has recently pointed to what amounts to language discrimination in the way minority secondary school graduates have to pay for unsubsidised language exams.

Many local students with South Asian backgrounds find the more advanced GCE Chinese-language exams, which cost between HK$2,720 and HK$4,080, prohibitively expensive. This set of exams - rather than the much easier GCSE exams, which are subsidised by the government - is especially important for admissions to university. Their results are also important for people applying for government jobs. (Local ethnic Chinese students usually take the HKDSE Chinese-language exams, which are even tougher than the GCE.)

As Unison points out, proof of Chinese-language competency has become far more important since the handover. We need to encourage more students from ethnic minorities to attend our universities and work for the government. Subsidising GCE exams would be a start.