• Thu
  • Sep 18, 2014
  • Updated: 9:13pm
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

539e8b8e-97a0-457f-b17b-52c30a3209cb
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.
jflooking03
And, by the way, nobody is forcing anyone to become a fluent speaker. It would be nice however, if the staff in shops didn't need to avoid foreigners just because they are too shy to even attempt to use English or their hands/feet in order to communicate. The NET scheme is also about changing attitudes and obviously it needs to continue for a long time to come.
jflooking03
Learning a second/third/fourth language has never hurt anyone. As a matter of fact, it is good for child's development to learn several languages in early years. They should not be forced...well Hong Kong children are forced to do lots of useless things...and I know many who prefer learning and reading English over Chinese....What I don't get is why English is the target here? It just happens to be part of the history and one of the most desired languages in business, politics, research..etc. If Hong Kong were a Spanish colony in the past, would the same argument be brought up against Spanish? Learning English in early years gives you a good foundation for learning any other language - and let the kids pick which one, once they can make that decision themselves.
As for the NET scheme, yes it could be improved AND should be extended to kindergartens. But that's a long discussion.
johnyuan
A foreign language in school should be an elective course. No students without desire or natural ability for a non mother-tongue language should be forced to learn English. The argument that English is an important language may it be so, still can’t impose its acceptance as a must. Such argument just even can’t be substantiated by how little English is used in Hong Kong not to mention how poorly English is mastered when it is in use. That is even when our children must go to spend time after school to have more tutoring lessons in English.
.
Free the children from the English language bondage. Use the NET to the maximum for students who have the gift for language skill only.
.
Yes I will support a reform of Hong Kong’s expansive but ineffective NET program. I will advise some of the NET teachers to see beyond good pay but get some job satisfaction because you are teaching to some children who can master your language. Wonderful! Advocate reform.
.
For those NET teachers who can’t see the state of English language – poorly and not widely used in Hong Kong after big budget and long time of your service, your objective in teaching English in Hong Kong is rightly to be questioned.
539e8b8e-97a0-457f-b17b-52c30a3209cb
All children have the ability to learn a second language. If the system were improved all children would speak it fluently. Indeed, there are special needs students who speak and listen in English FAR better than so called normal kids. Why? Because special needs students often have less fear of being wrong. So they keep at it and become quite good.
You make some good arguments here but as usual the focus is on the teacher and not the system. A NET can't come into a band three high school and change form 4 students into top 1% English students in a couple of lessons per week. You could make the case that NET teachers are going to be far more effective with band one and band two students in the high schools. But, if band one kids get to have a NET then band three student's parents will argue that their child should not go without the same service.
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The reality is that companies hire English speaking students - no so much for the English but it shows employers that the student is someone who is willing to WORK and work hard to succeed at something very difficult. If two applicants come in - one who passed the passable English examinations versus ones who get 3/100 on listening papers after 10 years of ignoring the teachers and doing NOTHING - which one are you going to want to hire? I want the one who works. The writer is on about class and money - you can learn English with no money and you can fail with lots of money. Example; Obama versus W. Bush.
johnyuan
This investigation report on 'Do what comes naturally to help your child find inner drive' -SCMP) on parenting is a timely report on the recent SCMP comment columns and most of all sheds light on Dr, Vaughan Repatahana’s ‘Time to retire the native English teacher scheme’ who says most of Hong Kong’s students don’t need to master the language. '
53704601-e82c-4fd1-bffc-350b0a320969
So you believe in reform, not abolition? I concur. This position does not shed light on Rapatahana's stance.
mercedes2233
Can't we let students themselves choose if they want English lessons? In most parts of HK, people really do not have any contact with the English language. They do not hear, speak, see any English, even if it is on public notices or announced in public thoroughfares. Obliging them to pass English at a particular level is a non-starter. I have heard young kids try to memorize grammar, or spelling, or struggle with pronounciation when, outside of that English class, they would never need to know how a word is spelt, and never have an occasion to put it to use. For those who aim for an office job, or a profession requiring English, let them pursue it. It is wasted on the majority of kids. Maybe we could start to consider a two-tier education with or without English, for customers to select, and acknowledge that many HK people do not need or use it.
People who learn new languages would agree that if you don't use it, you lose it. So a lot of energy spent on teaching English language is lost on very many of HK's kids.
53704601-e82c-4fd1-bffc-350b0a320969
Fair point but for as long as English lang. remains compulsory on the curriculum, every attempt must be made to help its teaching be as effective as it can be.
53704601-e82c-4fd1-bffc-350b0a320969
Irony, I assume?

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