How Chinese words can aid in English learning

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 February, 2013, 5:46am

I read with great empathy Linda Yeung's article ("A city of broken English", February 3), which expressed a realistic concern over the state of English here.

Yet the situation is by no means desperate. In fact, it has improved steadily over the past decade, thanks to deliberate strategies: the requirement for teachers to reach a specific standard of English competence (the so-called "benchmark"), the "all graduate, all trained" status of teachers and the supporting native-speaking English teacher (NET) scheme.

There is in progress, however, a more dynamic paradigm shift in language learning. It involves the targeted use of the mother tongue (in this case, Chinese) to increase the rate and motivation in learning the other language (English).

For many years, the second-language acquisition (SLA) theory created a myth that learning another language was the same as learning the first one. This is patently absurd, as everything we learn in whatever field is mediated through what we already know (in this case, our first language).

More recent brain research has emphatically validated this. Further, a survey of more than 200 theoretical and empirical studies reveals the strength of a bilingual approach.

Surprisingly, there is still a residual "understanding" in Hong Kong schools that using anything other than English in an English-teaching/learning classroom is forbidden.

The time is ripe for the education authorities to dispel the "ban on Chinese" myth, if it exists. If it is a now-invalid central directive, then it is indeed high time for it to be repealed.

However, using Chinese in the class must not be indiscriminate, indifferent or lazy; it must be used to increase English use.

Professor Wolfgang Butzkamm, a leading exponent of bilingual teaching, has recently consolidated the range of such strategies and techniques he has developed over the years. These include, among others, the "sandwich technique", or giving new meaning by sandwiching the Chinese equivalent between two statements of the new English term or phrase; reordering the normal Chinese structure to match the English one to highlight contrasts; and encouraging students to say what they really want to say in English but allowing them to use Chinese on occasion where a language knowledge breakdown occurs, allowing the teacher or class to help out.

It may be time that we in Hong Kong took notice of this paradigm shift. We may not be able to outpace Singapore's advance, given its use of English as the universal teaching medium, but we could certainly begin to move towards the greater level of English competence that Hong Kong needs.

Dr John A.W. Caldwell, Australia