Research centre wants government decisions based on logic The University of Hong Kong is to spearhead a language research centre intended to influence government policies. Academics met this week to form a working group to develop a proposal for the centre, which will study wide-ranging issues affecting children to adult education. Chairperson Christine Davison, an associate professor at the university's Faculty of Education, said there was a need for policymaking that drew on research. 'Often the decisions made are based on people's own experiences of what works for them or on their own prejudices. So you get the English business community stereotypically saying unless we do everything in English, we will not learn English well. It is very subjective,' she said. 'Policies are often based on political imperatives. There has never been consolidated, research-base input to policies.' She expected the centre to bid for joint research projects and be a strong voice on policy. Jim Cummins, a language expert from the University of Toronto, who also addressed the International Language in Education Conference at the Hong Kong Institute of Education this week, cited the Centre of Applied Linguistics in Washington and Toronto's Modern Language Centre as having played an important role in providing a co-ordinated response to issues in language education. He and Dr Davison agreed there was much room for research on issues relating to the medium of instruction in schools, including switching languages in class, and the quality of teaching and learning. 'We need to look at not so much the medium of instruction but what is happening in classrooms, what kind of pedagogy is going on,' Professor Cummins said. Dr Davison said: 'We have to go beyond simplistic views that giving schooling in English will automatically produce a high level of proficiency in the language. Teachers are desperate in many cases to use Cantonese with students; it's ridiculous to use a monolingual approach with bilingual students. There are certain points of teaching where it is far more effective to do it in Chinese.' She was also concerned with the current method of assessing university students' English proficiency. The exit test showed limited differences in the proficiency level of graduates from various universities because it was not intended to measure fine differences at the upper level, she said. She also dismissed the assumption that there was a universal general language proficiency level. Pro-vice-chancellor Paul Tam Kwong-hang said HKU would provide a seed grant for the centre to enable it to get external funding later. 'Language and communication is among the 21 key research themes under the eight areas we have identified as our strategic areas of development,' he added.