Hong Kong's education fails the language test

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 November, 2012, 2:28pm

The problems facing Hong Kong pupils are closely tied to the education and social environment in which they have been brought up. For decades, a spoon-fed culture and oppressive examination system are said to have made them more adapted to rote learning than critical thinking. Separately, their language proficiency in English and Chinese is also feared to be eroding, due to the inroads of foreign words and technology-related jargons used in everyday life.

A report on the first Hong Kong Diploma for Secondary Education Examination suggests the perceptions are not unfounded. According to the exam authorities, many pupils have yet to master the skills essential for liberal studies, a centrepiece in the new exam aimed at developing their analytical skills and thinking. Their answers were described by examiners as subjective, superficial and one-sided. For instance, pupils were unable to make use of the findings in a university survey to help analyse and comment on local political parties. Nor could they justify their arguments. This is hardly surprising, given the general lack of interest in politics in the city. Their poor performance suggests that pupils have yet to move away from a system based on textbooks and model answers to one that emphasises observation, analysis, reasoning and articulation.

Equally disturbing is the frequent use of the so-called "cocktail" language, a mix of Chinese and English words in an oral exam. Terms like Facebook, iPad and making phone "calls" are so commonly used in daily conversation that most Cantonese speakers are ignorant of the fact that they are foreign words. After all, we pride ourselves on being a bilingual society. But it is entirely different when it comes to a language exam. Our aim should be proficiency in each language rather than mix-and-match.

It is important that lessons are learned and improvements made. The problems and mistakes identified in the report should be seriously addressed so that they are not repeated.