• Mon
  • Dec 22, 2014
  • Updated: 5:57am
CommentInsight & Opinion

Time to retire the native English teacher scheme

Vaughan Rapatahana says most don't need to master the language

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 June, 2014, 2:10pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 June, 2014, 2:31am

Let's get real about the native-speaking English teacher (NET) scheme - it is a white elephant and has been from day one. I question its rationale, benefits and viability, particularly when considering the quite staggering HK$710 million annual costs involved; the scheme has been bleeding taxpayer money for over 15 years.

There has never been any cogent and consistent reasoning for the scheme, other than a knee-jerk reaction back in 1998 as a sop to angry, dismayed parents and students when Chinese language was unilaterally introduced as a medium of instruction.

The scheme divides so-called "native English speakers" (almost all of whom are foreign-born and many of whom are monolingual) from local teachers of English, who have the requisite cultural and linguistic skills to connect more easily with most students.

Most Hongkongers don't really want to internalise the language and in many cases cannot afford the training necessary for proficiency. English proficiency has always been largely accessible to only a wealthy elite. As has been noted, English is like ginseng for most Hong Kong residents: it tastes bad, but they suffer it because they feel they must somehow have it to "succeed". In reality, few of them actually use the language at home or anywhere else.

We must ask why so many Hongkongers feel they have to expend so much energy chasing English-language acquisition, fighting to enrol in schools that use English as its medium of instruction and in so-called elite institutions such as Harrow School and Malvern College.

There is, in many cases, an element of snobbery: in their mindsets, having English, or some semblance of it, sets Hong Kong apart from the mainland, whose students ironically have better English. But this is not the prime reason behind the drive towards mastery of "standardised" English, and indeed behind the entire NET system. The problem is, parents and students labour under the misguided belief - cleverly instigated since colonial times - that they "need" the English language.

Global English-language dominion has been maintained and encouraged by a host of Anglo-American instruments and interests for primarily fiscal reasons: Western proponents of the English language make heaps of money from tests and exams.

By also being staunch gatekeepers to academic publishing and restricting access to all manner of journals; by mesmerising universities into switching the medium of instruction from their own indigenous languages; and by instilling a fear about rankings and citation indexes, such agencies hegemonise their form of English language, so that traditionally non-English users all too often have their own indigenous tongues devalued.

Here in Hong Kong, we should allow local teachers to teach English bilingually and without attempting to achieve some impossible and unnecessary mass English-language mastery. English does not need to be of this mythical "standard" variety, for the very important fact that there are not enough jobs requiring this level of proficiency.

Nor is there any validity to the rationale for the need to have such proficiency to enable Hong Kong to "compete" as a true "international" city, to maintain its "edge". This is a long-standing myth, along with the one about "slipping standards in English" - myths propagated by a business community with strong international ties.

There is no necessity for the NET project - as well-meaning and diligent as many of its teachers are. There is absolutely no need to maintain its mastodon-like existence here any more.

Dr Vaughan Rapatahana first commenced working as a NET in 2002. His co-edited book, Why English? Confronting the Hydra, is due out next year


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This article is now closed to comments

With progressive teachers like that, no doubt the NET scheme is doomed. We pay you good money to teach us English, not to teach us that we don't need English. Just do your job, and let us be the judge of our needs.
This is outrageous from a guy who has done quite nicely out of the NET scheme since 2002. Any email you receive from him is footed by a list of all the properties he owns worldwide! He's firing these parting shots on the eve of his retirement. If the scheme's so disastrous, Vaughan, what in your 12 years on it did you do to improve the situation? Couldn't you now hand it over to a new generation who might do a better job? To think this guy served as a NESTA Councillor until earlier this year, when he resigned on the grounds of ill health. As I remember correctly, he simply used his position to promote the books he'd written, as I can see he has also done here. This is hypocrisy and selfishness on the grandest scale. Don't let this guy's Ph.D fool you into thinking he's some sort of expert on HK education. He's solely a NET, likely many of us are and I for one see this article as kick in the teeth!
I have no problem with looking at/questioning/discussing the problems with the NET scheme - but the argument that people "don't need English" and can somehow "rely on a translator" is the most ludicrous thing I've ever heard.
Even for something as simple as going on holiday, the likelihood is you're going to use English as the intermediate language to communicate. If your job involves dealing with tourists (Mainlander Chinese excepted) or doing any sort of trade with non-local suppliers/buyers (i.e. in India, Japan, USA etc) English is invaluable. So its not like use of English is restricted to purely high end academic papers "Gosh I must write in English to submit my revolutionary paper to this prestigious journal - fetch me a translator at once!"
But never mind common sense because it's all clearly some sort of COLONIAL CONSPIRACY TO MAKE MONEY! Ridiculous.
This is just a cynical attempt at advance book promotion by a NET who spends a lot of the tax
payers money working on his own writing while at work.
Can't believe SCMP actually put this in print.
The writer recycles several arguments against promotion of English in Hong Kong, but I think there are flaws in his own. He suggests the NET scheme is just an ongoing bid for cultural hegemony by an English language establishment in Hong Kong and worldwide. Yes, students should learn core subjects in their mother tongue Cantonese, but why not English separately at the same time? Local studies the writer does not reference have shown learning English in a bilingual classroom only teaches translation to and from English. English can become a tool for second language learners. Research shows that "mixed-code" conversations in both English and Cantonese can help speakers be precise and express themselves clearly. In fact, the writer seems elitist himself when he states Cantonese locals don't need English. Yes - perhaps NET resources could be used more wisely, but English, is unavoidable for Hong Kongers who want to advance beyond the class divide. English level can affect students' ability to articulate to university. English is the world's lingua franca for many reasons. English as the medium of instruction at universities is based on the fact it is the language of science, IT, business, the Arts, sports - and many other forms of discourse. Is the writer suggesting Hong Kongers should be excluded and kept in isolation? Finally, I am glad the writer acknowledges being a NET for so long. He has been heard to say he has little to do at work all day and can focus on his writing.
I think happycamper is the author of this article. He's such an a.sshole.

You want rebuttal? Hong Kong is a trading and business oriented city. English is a very useful language in commerce. HK is behind Singapore, but its English level is far better than other East Asian countries. HK needs to step it up and take steps to improve English here rather than retire the NET scheme.

Honestly Dr Vaughan Rapatahana is trying to get people riled up so they can buy his garbage book. Shame on him for stooping so low and being so unethical.
Presumably the author is willing to return the $8 million+ of salary he has "bled from the taxpayers" during his 12 years employment as a NET teacher?
Might also be worth explaining why he authored the article above under the name "Dr Vaughan Rapatahana", is employed as a teacher in HK under the anglicized name "Vaughan Robertson", responds to comments below under the name "happycamper" and worked for the Native English Teachers' Association using the name "Vaughan Rapatahana".
Also worth noting that the 'Dr' prefix used by the author originates from a doctorate in "Existential Literary Criticism" from the University of Auckland rather than any other professional standing.
Why learn Physics or Algebra since 99% of students will never use either when they leave school? Why teach them sports they're not likely to play? Why teach them literature since they would rather play video games? Why learn Piano? The chance of becoming the next Rachmaninoff is unlikely. These are the same arguments western kids have when they are forced to learn Shakespeare (which may as well be a second language), or learn history or study the quadratic equation.
The reason of course is that education is not about learning a skill to do a job, but to critically think. And to do that, the brain needs to solve problems. English is an extremely difficult language that few master. But it is not about the result it is about the process. The NET scheme could be better for sure and one step would be allow NETs to bring more to the school than merely teaching everything the Chinese teachers already teach. Like most things it's not a perfect system. They have the people, now they need a system that can get maximum value out of them.
English is also a gateway to culture and if you are going to learn something you may as well learn it from someone who knows the "feeling" of the language and not just the words, grammar, and syntax. The NET is also supposed to be utilized to improve the English departments at their schools as a resource person. NETS have an enormous amount of ability and resources to bring to schools. Three bands needs three systems however.
Your polemical misunderstanding of the vital role English plays in the modern globalised world is shocking and displays an antediluvian ideology at odds with the reality of modern HK. Your employers TWGHs Chen Zao Men College must be delighted with your attitude and sclerotic commitment towards their provision of English education. What are your students opinions on the importance of English in providing for their future tertiary education and employment needs?
Perhaps you'd also like to comment on why so many principals continue to willingly and actively employ NET teachers; regularly express their support for the NET Scheme and the impact their NET teachers are having on students' education; and urge the EDB to expand the schemes to allow two NETs per school?



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