Ethnic minorities in Hong Kong

Grounding in Cantonese will help ethnic minorities learn Chinese

David Li says to be really effective, a Chinese-language curriculum for ethnic minorities must take account of the way the language is learned

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 April, 2014, 5:21pm
UPDATED : Friday, 25 September, 2015, 11:17am

The government's decision to set aside HK$200 million in the next academic year to support the development of a curriculum of Chinese as a second language is a welcome move.

It remains unclear, however, what kind of support measures are being explored, and whether they address ethnic minority students' learning difficulties adequately, especially in written Chinese.

Referring to ethnic minorities, the policy address said that, "to integrate into the community and develop their careers, they must improve their ability to listen to, speak, read and write Chinese". This gives the impression that the Chinese language is the same across the four skills. It is ambiguous, to say the least.

Listening and speaking are done in Cantonese, whereas reading and writing, taught in Cantonese, require students to acquire vocabulary and grammar grounded in Putonghua. Research has shown that the successful decoding of hundreds of non-alphabetic Chinese characters is not easy for first- or second-language learners alike. It is the main cause of ethnic minority students' linguistic predicament.

A recent study of the linguistic perceptions and language-learning experiences of 15 South Asian undergraduate students (including four from the Philippines), at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, found that the methods for teaching written Chinese were far from efficient and effective. Some students compared their experience of composing Chinese characters with drawing pictures, which, according to their teachers, could only be learned through rote learning and frequent practice. They found Chinese characters difficult to learn and easy to forget.

Worse, a failure to pronounce those characters accurately in Cantonese was a frequent source of frustration. The majority had to put up with embarrassment and sometimes humiliation when the mispronunciation led to laughter, causing bitterness and damage to their self-esteem, dampening any motivation to practise using Cantonese.

The study also found that three of the 15 students whose self-ratings of Cantonese and written Chinese were relatively high shared one thing in common: they studied in Cantonese-medium kindergartens and Chinese-medium primary schools, which enabled them to master Cantonese tones accurately and develop a network of Chinese friends and peers to turn to for help.

Written Chinese is challenging for Chinese and non-Chinese speakers alike. This point is encapsulated in the title of an informative research-based book, Difficult Characters, which presents compelling empirical evidence showing speech plays a crucial role in the process of becoming literate in Chinese (and, indeed, in any language).

In Hong Kong, where Chinese is taught in Cantonese, it is crucial for ethnic minority students to master Cantonese early. Without a solid foundation, there is virtually no hope for them to develop a grade-relevant level of Putonghua-based written Chinese like their local Chinese peers. Special teaching methods are needed to help newly arrived young ethnic minorities who missed out on learning Cantonese and written Chinese at pre-primary level.

David C.S. Li is a professor in the Department of Linguistics and Modern Language Studies at the Hong Kong Institute of Education