Pupils who study a foreign language at secondary schools must take the university entrance exam for the subject months before the tests in mainstream subjects are held, leading to a potentially high drop-out rate, teachers say.
The exam authority offers its own Chinese and English tests but exams for other language subjects must be outsourced to overseas providers, and that complicates the scheduling.
The teachers say an emphasis on foreign-language training, which the recent academic reforms stress as important, will amount to a waste of public resources if the situation is not fixed.
"The subject will never become popular if students have to face unfair conditions," secondary school French teacher Anthony Adames said.
Since the new academic structure came into place in 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.
Schools receive HK$3,500 a year for each pupil taking the course as they prepare for the Diploma for Secondary Education (DSE) examination.
But as Hong Kong does not offer exams on foreign-language ability, pupils must take the tests with Cambridge International Examinations. These are held only in November and June.
Exam authorities have proposed that beginning next year students taking one of the six languages sit the exam in November because when the results of June exams are known from overseas' markers, they will be too late for universities to consider.
This year, examinations for DSE core subjects, such as Chinese language and English writing, start around April.
"Pupils only have two years plus two months [to study], how can they manage it?" Caritas school principal Lobo Ho Lik-sang asked.
Ho, whose school has dozens of students studying Japanese or Urdu, said the Cambridge exams were equivalent to matriculation level but many students started learning from scratch in Form Four.
Schools were told of the potential change in December, which would mean classes might have to run through the summer to complete the syllabus.
In an e-mail dated December 31 from the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority, development director Thomas Cheung Kwong-yuen, told the Hong Kong Association of French Teachers that the exam body had faced demands to advance the release date for DSE results.
"There is a constraint because of the necessity to conform to the working schedules of different parties. We need to work out new arrangements in case the results release date is further advanced in 2014," Cheung wrote, stressing that no final decision had been made.
Universities have asked the exam authorities to release the DSE results early so that they can consider candidates.
The DSE grade release is scheduled to be announced on July 15, five days before the July 20 release for the first batch of students who sat the new examination last year.
Exam markers are set to face an even tighter schedule with mainstream schools having asked the authority to start key subjects later so there is more preparation time.