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Operation Santa Claus

Why a youth charity thinks Hong Kong students need more adventurous English lessons

Education centre hopes fun activities will raise language proficiency of the underprivileged

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 November, 2016, 4:28pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 November, 2016, 7:04pm

Carlo Lai Kwok-seung wants to make English lessons fun again.

The director of charity organisation FHL Adventure Education Centre, based in Cheung Sha Wan, believes many Hong Kong schools are failing to get their students speaking English fluently, and it is holding them back in almost all areas of their lives.

His organisation, inspired by the 19th century philanthropic Catholic priest Don Bosco, has launched a programme that combines English tutoring with games and activities to give underprivileged children a better chance at learning one of the city’s two official languages.

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A Step Towards Your New Life aims to tutor 100 young adults and 2,000 primary school children. It will receive almost HK$850,000 from Operation Santa Claus – the annual charity fundraiser organised by the South China Morning Post and RTHK – to run activities between November and August next year. The adults, aged 18 to 25, will then be expected to develop a high enough proficiency of English to allow them to teach younger children on future courses.

Each participant will be charged a nominal fee of about HK$100, which Lai said he hoped low-income families, particularly those from ethnic minorities, would be able to afford.

The former camp site programme officer said he wished his own command of English was as good as his son’s, a teacher, so that he could feel more confident in his professional life.

“I am really devoted to my mission,” he said. “I am Chinese so I really want to learn, because my English is not fluent, I thought it was important to do this. It is difficult in my life; sometimes I have to try to use my body language to communicate.

“Sometimes children don’t understand what I’m saying. I would’ve liked to have had a programme like this when I was younger.”

Last year Hong Kong fell two places on the EF Education First’s English Proficiency Index, ranking 33rd out of 70 countries. In 2011 the city ranked No 12.

The trend has prompted some parents to pay for their children to have private English tutoring, as local schools tend to communicate mainly in Cantonese.

Fluency in English can also be beneficial for school-leavers and university graduates, who face stiff competition in the jobs market.

We want to give children a way of learning English that is not just through exams
Alex Melia, Swoosh English

Alex Melia, director of online tutoring service Swoosh English, is collaborating with FHL Adventure Education Centre on A Step Towards Your New Life.

The former primary school teacher from Manchester, England, said he was shocked to encounter Hongkongers who described their education system as a “loser-making factory”, because those who did not pass exams were often blocked from pursuing good careers.

“The level of English has deteriorated in Hong Kong,” he said. “We want to give children a way of learning English that is not just through exams.”

Melia’s colleague Mandy Lau, one of the company’s senior managers, said her own experience of failing the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education exam, before passing it at the 10th attempt, meant she felt compelled to help those struggling with their English.

“I hope that they can improve their level of English and improve their quality of life,” she said.