A study by Chinese University, released recently, compared the performance of students taught in Chinese- and English-medium schools since the implementation of the mother-tongue education policy. It found that Chinese-medium school leavers were 50 per cent less likely to gain admission into a university than their English-medium counterparts, although the two groups of students were of equal standard when they started secondary education. The mandatory use of the mother tongue as the medium of instruction is one of the most controversial policies in our education system. Since its introduction in 1998, the policy has been under almost incessant attack from schools, teachers, parents and politicians.
There has never been a lack of support for mother-tongue teaching among education workers and academics, for there are sound educational grounds for teaching and learning in the language in which students are most proficient. But most parents have preferred to send their children to English-medium schools, seeing the economic importance of English and believing that learning all school subjects through it is an effective way of learning the language.
To satisfy parents' desires, when the choice of the medium of instruction was left to the schools, most chose English. The snag is that English is a foreign language to most Hong Kong students and only a minority can attain an adequate level of proficiency to use it to learn the academic subjects without being seriously handicapped. Many students, having to learn in English, are unable to perform the necessary cognitive activities properly. Those who do not give up altogether have to rely heavily on rote learning.
When a panel of overseas education experts was invited to review Hong Kong's education system in 1982, one of their conclusions was: 'Many of the problems associated with schooling in Hong Kong - excessive hours of homework, quiescent pupils - are magnified, even if not caused, by the attempt to use English as a teaching medium for students.' This observation should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the situation in most of the schools that claimed to teach in English.
In response to the experts' recommendations, the Education Commission decided, in 1990, that Chinese should be the medium of instruction in all schools except those that satisfied the conditions required for teaching in English. These were that the English standards of their teachers and students should be adequate, and the schools should have support programmes to help students bridge any gap in English proficiency. To allow a transition period, the government decided to implement the new policy in 1998. Unfortunately, it was doomed from the start. The government had expected the new policy to bolster the morale of Chinese-medium schools: efforts would be made to convince the public of the merits of mother-tongue education, and Chinese-medium teaching was to become the norm instead of being an inferior species.
But the result proved the opposite. The mandatory policy officially entrenched the differentiation between English and Chinese schools. English-medium schools were greatly reduced in number, but this only made them even more prestigious.
Schools that passed the test won the privilege to teach in English; those that failed the test, or declined to be tested, could teach only in Chinese. The policy has hurt the self-esteem of even those traditional Chinese schools that took pride in their perseverance in mother-tongue education.
Many people object to the mandatory mother-tongue policy because they fear the English standards of our students will decline if most schools teach in Chinese. The Chinese University study seems to validate this fear.
To be fair, the study also found that Chinese-taught students perform better in science and social sciences, but this advantage is more than offset by their poorer proficiency in English, a serious handicap in their academic and professional development.
The findings of the study, though not earth-shaking, may prove to be the last straw. It is becoming increasingly difficult for the government to persist with the policy, and a new controversy is looming with the list of qualified English-medium schools due to be revised soon.
Reverting to letting schools choose their own medium of instruction is not an option. In looking for improvements to the present policy, one must not forget the problems it was intended to resolve. The decision makers have to balance education principles with the pragmatic aspirations of parents and the community.
Hong Kong is not the only place that has to deal with problems of using English, a foreign language, as the language of instruction in schools.
Globalisation has prompted many other non-English-speaking communities to adopt English as their classroom language in the past two decades. Some have been trapped in situations worse than ours, while others appear quite successful.
A lot of research has been done in this area, with some groundbreaking results. To find the right way forward, we should draw on others' experience, as well as our own.
Tsang Yok-sing is a directly elected legislator for Kowloon West