Is Hong Kong's path of trilingualism really feasible?

Kelly Yang says more can be done to help Hong Kong children improve their English, if we accept costs to their Cantonese proficiency

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 November, 2014, 12:20pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 November, 2014, 4:45am

The rise of mainland China's English proficiency and decline of Hong Kong's should come as no surprise. It's a matter of simple maths - two is fewer than three. Children on the mainland have two languages to master - Putonghua and English - while most Hong Kong kids have to know three different tongues - Putonghua, Cantonese and English.

Stroll through any local school and what do you hear? Cantonese. As Hong Kong people, we are fiercely proud of our vibrant dialect and do not want to give it up. Many say Cantonese is our last hope of keeping our city unique. Without it, we are at greater risk of becoming just another Chinese city.

Thus, for important cultural and deeply emotional reasons, our city clings to trilingualism. But this comes at a cost. It's rare to meet someone who can speak three languages perfectly.

What's much more common is for a person to have one dominant language and two secondary ones. For most local schoolchildren, the dominant language is Cantonese. That's because it's the lingua franca of the environment for most, whether it's in the playground, at home, or on the streets.

Mainland Chinese children, on the other hand, have Putonghua as their dominant language. And with the rest of their time and energy, they focus on learning English. As the number of after-school English learning centres rises, along with household spending on education, it should come as little surprise that their English proficiency has overtaken that of Hong Kong students.

If Hong Kong's top priority is to get children to be able to speak both Cantonese and Putonghua, then there's no problem. Nearly all our children can speak both dialects of Chinese, whereas most mainland children can speak only one. Hong Kong children can speak perfect Cantonese and their Putonghua is improving year after year.

However, if the priority is English, then we have a problem. We need to rethink the main language of instruction in local schools and, more importantly, how local schools teach English. The only way to beef up English is to have more English. English-medium instruction should be used for all subjects, aside from Chinese. Currently, only select local schools, many of them Direct Subsidy Scheme schools, do so; the rest still teach mostly in Cantonese.

More importantly, the way local schools teach English needs to change. Right now, students as young as six spend hours cramming for exams and then routinely disregard their new vocabulary as soon as the exam is over. The emphasis needs to shift to discussion- and project-based learning.

If these two thing happen, expatriate families will start to send their children to local schools rather than put up with the exorbitant international school fees. This, in turn, will cause the language environment in the playgrounds of local schools to switch from Cantonese to English, thereby changing the dominant language. But that's if we want it to. Whatever path we take, there are trade-offs. Ultimately, it's up to us as a city to decide.

Kelly Yang teaches writing at The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school centre for writing and debate in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School.