Time to change Hong Kong’s language policy so city can succeed

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 August, 2017, 8:01am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 August, 2017, 7:21pm

The anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from British to Chinese rule has caused lots of us to look back at the political developments of the past 20 years. Disputes have arisen constantly. We could continue to point fingers at each other, or instead we could sit down and find a way to strengthen the economic status of Hong Kong.

One of the biggest changes since the handover is in language policy. In 1999, the Department of Education mandated 70 per cent of schools to adopt Chinese as the medium of instruction (MOI). The government insisted that students would be better able to acquire knowledge, analyse problems and express their views with mother-tongue teaching.

It cannot be disputed that the English proficiency of Hong Kong students has declined since then. It is, in my view, the critical factor affecting our competitive edge.

The environment for students to be exposed to English has become stratified. Only a small number of elite schools continue to use English as the MOI. Most students lack a conducive environment for language practice beyond the classroom.

Twenty years on, most senior officials have voted with their feet and sent their children to international schools and overseas boarding schools. The schools which adopted Chinese as MOI have been labelled as inferior. Motivation for learning English has dropped, due to our strongly exam-oriented culture. The method of English learning is confined to drilling the past exam papers, not practising communication.

It is never too late to fix these problems. But fine-tuning of the MOI policy by the government is not enough.

The policy stipulates that only classes in schools belonging to the top 40 per cent group, and 85 per cent of students in the class reaching this level, will be permitted to use English as MOI. The labelling effect is thus shifted from inter-school to inter-class. The Education Bureau admits that the adoption of English as MOI could enhance students’ exposure to English, so why do non-elite students deserve to be deprived of it?

The government is injecting large sums of public money into teaching Chinese language in Putonghua. A lot of mainland exchange tours for teachers and students have been organised. If the same efforts were put into English education, the target of biliteracy and trilingualism could be achieved in the near future.

George Tsang, Ma On Shan