Hong Kong trails rival Singapore in students' English skills

While Hong Kong has stressed bilingualism as a key goal, the city falls far behind Singapore in English literacy, with no remedy in sight

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 February, 2013, 10:22am

Every Saturday afternoon Cindy Tse takes her eight-year-old son to a private class near his school, where he joins other children for two hours under the guidance of an expatriate teacher.

"We want to increase his chances of listening and talking in English, as he goes to a Chinese-medium school," says the doting mother.

Many others like her spare no efforts in brushing up their children's language skills - and not just in English. Demand for Putonghua teachers is soaring as China's clout in the global economy increases.

Since 2009, the Education Bureau has delivered HK$10 million under a special grant to 47 schools to promote six languages other than Chinese and English - Urdu, Hindi, German, Japanese, French and Spanish.

About 15,000 people study French in Hong Kong in primary, secondary and tertiary education classes, with private tutors, at private centres or at the Alliance Francaise - a global institute promoting French language and culture. The French consul said last year that French had become Hong Kong's fourth language.

But while it has long been a key goal of the government to foster bilingualism in Hong Kong, the language skills of the city's young people have become a cause of significant concern.

Hong Kong compares favourably with other countries in the region in terms of language skills, but it trails far behind its key rival, Singapore.

Singapore has a much higher proportion of people who are literate in English, according to Amy Tsui Bik-may, chair professor of language and education at the University of Hong Kong.

As its economy grew in recent decades, the government of the Lion City made a conscious effort to popularise the use of English. In 1980, the proportion of Singaporean families who used English as their main language in the home was just 8 per cent. That figure had risen to 23 per cent in 2000 and stood at 48 per cent in 2010.

In comparison, according to last year's census, the proportion of Hong Kong's population which use English as the main language at home is just 3.5 per cent. About 45 per cent of Hongkongers used English sometimes while speaking Cantonese as their main language, Tsui said.

And it isn't just the proportion of people speaking more than one language; language standards have also become a cause for concern, especially since the introduction of the government's mother-tongue teaching policy in 1997. The policy saw all but a handful of secondary schools required to switch to teaching all classes in Cantonese, rather than English, and is cited as having encouraged more local parents to seek places for their children at international schools.

The government changed direction in 2009, when it announced that from the 2010-11 academic year, schools would be allowed to teach a class in English as long as 85 per cent of students in a class are in the top 40 per cent of their age group academically.

It ended the strict segregation of schools into Chinese and English streams and allowed Chinese-medium schools to set aside a quarter of their lesson time for "extended learning activities conducted in English".

But the changes are not sufficient to remedy the declining standard of English.

As an international city, we have no choice but to use English as the medium of instruction

Jao Ming, chairman of the Eastern District Parent-Teacher Association, echoes a common concern about the lack of a stimulating linguistic environment in the territory. "Learning in a person's native language is a good idea, but you need support measures in society to ensure that students are well exposed to English outside school; there aren't such measures."

His daughter, who learned in Chinese, struggled to cope when studying at university, where lessons are often delivered in the lingua franca. "She often studied until very late at night to catch up. She had to make double the effort in her first year and her results in that year were not good either."

The issue of medium of instruction has long been divisive, a subject of debate among those who favour mother-tongue teaching on the grounds that it will help students learn and others who insist on the value of learning in English in a globalised world.

Anita Poon Yuk-kang, associate professor in Baptist University's department of education studies, is a staunch advocate of using English as the medium of instruction.

She sees the idea of "fine tuning" the mother-tongue teaching policy as being inadequate for achieving effective bilingual education. Hong Kong has a long way to go, she feels, in raising the level of proficiency in both English and Chinese. She calls for the creation of a holistic curriculum based on studies of the common threads in teaching the two languages.

"I don't see bilingual education coming yet. It requires long-term planning and funding from the government, but that is not happening. As an international city, we have no choice but to use English as the medium of instruction," she says.

James Lam Yat-fung, chairman of the Subsidised Secondary Schools Council, agrees that Hong Kong is not a bilingual society, at least on the surface.

"It lags far behind Singapore," he said. "We have more Chinese than English signs here. There isn't the linguistic environment here. Employers in the commercial sector and universities have worries about students' English standards."

There isn't the linguistic environment here. Employers in the commercial sector and universities have worries about students' English standards

More than 15 years after the handover, students appear to be more comfortable learning in Chinese. The typical student, Lam says, will want lessons to be taught in Chinese even when they are relying on an English-language textbook. "They don't want to translate ideas into English, or vice versa," he explains.

In the past three years, about 70 per cent of Form Three students achieved basic competency in English in territory-wide assessments carried out by the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority. But among the problems identified was students' lack of the topic-specific vocabulary they needed to help them express their ideas.

There were wide variations in the standards of the bottom 30 per cent who failed to meet the benchmark, Lam added.

In the Chinese-medium school where he works, at which English is used to teach maths and science subjects in some classes in junior forms, the changes to the policy on medium of instruction have helped increase students' confidence about learning in English.

Still, in last year's maiden Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education examination, only 0.7 per cent of candidates reached the highest level, 5**, in English; only 0.8 per cent achieved it in Chinese.

A report issued by the University Grants Committee in 2010 on aspirations for the higher education sector urged institutions to make renewed efforts to ensure and enhance students' bilingual (Chinese and English) and trilingual (Cantonese, Putonghua and English) abilities.

Grasping two languages is never easy, particularly in a predominantly Chinese society like Hong Kong. Lam believes there must be more research into how best to enhance students' acquisition of both languages. He echoes Tsui's concern about the quality of teaching.

Lack of exposure to a different language environment has undermined the standards of serving English teachers and those under training, he says.

"Some are not good at communicating in the language. To attract more talent to the profession, the government should review the entry-level salary for potential teachers with English-related qualifications from other fields. It is a matter of whether it wants Hong Kong to be an open or inward looking place."

For now, the burden is perhaps on parents to expose their children to more English - on top of Putonghua. But they'd better make sure their children are building the right foundation to use the language, rather than merely getting prepared for examinations.

"There is so much drilling with exam papers in class due to the exam-oriented system in Hong Kong, something that seems hard to change," said Jao.