We increasingly hear concerns that English standards are dropping at Hong Kong schools. Yet, one insider argues that standards have not actually declined: rather, perceptions of a downtrend are being created by a wide range of factors. These include the much larger pool of students who must be taught under compulsory education; the growing demand for English-speaking staff in this global centre of finance, business and trade; the rapid growth in tertiary education; and human nature itself.
These are all fair points. Let's narrow our focus, however, and zoom in on how English is taught abroad and in Hong Kong schools, and what seems wrong with the system.
How are foreign languages taught overseas? In high schools, it starts naturally with the basics - pronunciation, grammar, listening and speaking. At good American universities, getting students up to a superior level of proficiency within four years requires intensive daily instruction of at least one hour. Then there are weekly grammatical and writing assignments, frequent vocabulary and grammar quizzes, online listening and computer-assisted speaking exercises, and participation in skits and interviews.
More earnest learners are encouraged to participate in study-abroad programmes. In exams, one point is deducted from a student's grade for every grammatical mistake made. If such an approach were adopted in Hong Kong, large numbers of students who are unable to get their grammar right would find their scores in negative territory.
I once attended a six-week course in Japanese at Tokyo's International Christian University, where a similarly intense approach was adopted - except that the grammatical drills were even more intensive. All the instructors were native speakers.
Naturally, it's difficult for educators to adopt such a resource-intensive approach when they have large numbers to educate. How many local schools have enough language-critical resources - hard-working teachers with native-speaker or near-native-speaker fluency? How many students are prepared to work equally hard to hone their skills?
I am the last person to put the onus solely on teachers. At Stanford University, all undergraduates are required to take the famous 'Power' (Program in Writing and Rhetoric) course, in which every student has to read widely and write weekly essays of 3,000 words on such topics as 'journalism' or 'western civilisation'. The low student-teacher ratio helps, but the students' willingness to work hard is also crucial.
Hong Kong's educational authorities try hard to improve standards by introducing benchmark tests for teachers, and bridging programmes such as the Native English Teacher (NET) scheme. But NETs provide limited help if each school gets only one or two of them.
The shortage in some schools is such that a class gets only about two weeks of instruction by a NET in each academic year.
A local university is trying to give its students the English language skills needed to succeed in their core subjects by engaging NETs in an 'English partner' programme. But even there, some problems have emerged: these NETs dislike being used as what they call 'essay-checkers', and they find much of the technological equipment provided to be unnecessary.
All these problems boil down to the basic one of getting language teaching right at the junior levels. English language teaching will never be right in Hong Kong if the number of English-medium schools remains set at 114 under the current 'mother-tongue' policy.
That policy unfairly restricts parental choice, creates social injustice and undermines English language teaching in Chinese-medium schools. The division into Chinese-medium and English-medium schools should be dropped, and more subjects should be taught in English by more graduate teachers in all schools, starting from the junior levels.
Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is chairperson of the Savantas Policy Institute