WHEN IT COMES to language learning, it is not what you teach that matters - it is how you teach it. That is the message principals, teachers and students had to share at an Education Convergence forum on the teaching of English last Saturday. Learning English could be fun, they said, and that could be achieved through innovative and interactive techniques used both in and out of the classroom. 'The one thing you could see from today was that curriculum is not the most important thing in teaching English to students,' said James Lam Yat-fung, principal of Lions College in Kwai Fong. 'What matters most is the teachers - their relationship with students and whether or not they have a professional attitude.' The rapport between teachers and students was key, agreed Yip Chee-tim, principal of Pui Ching Middle School in Kowloon City. He encouraged schools to adopt a student-focused approach, rather than traditional methods that took the teacher as the central figure. 'When teaching a language, the teacher is also a student,' Mr Yip said. 'We have really had a breakthrough in our classes since we adopted that mindset.' Halina Poon Suk-han, principal of Christian and Missionary Alliance Sun Kei Secondary School in Tseung Kwan O, said the atmosphere outside class could have as big an effect on students' progress as what went on inside. 'The whole environment plays a part,' she said. 'If you can create a total English-learning environment, then that will strengthen the students' practical grasp of English.' Encouraging regular spoken practice was the best way to improve their familiarity with the language, she said. 'It would be incredibly difficult to get all the students and all the teachers speaking to each other in English,' Ms Poon said. 'But it is possible to persuade a small portion of students to get into the habit.' The influence of that small group would then gradually spread, creating a culture within the school. Activities played a major role, she said, making the use of English lively and interesting, compared with the dryness of book-based learning. One successful initiative in her school had been to establish links with students in other local schools and also overseas. 'That way, the 'chat corner' becomes a whole chat network,' she said. Students could use the internet to communicate and learn about other cultures while at the same time increasing their English skills in a fun setting. Students who took part in the forum said they welcomed more opportunities to practise their English. 'We should have more opportunities to speak,' said Yeung On-kei, 18. She said that teachers in Chinese-medium schools should have more confidence in students. Other students pointed out that the home environment played a big role as well and encouraged parents to play an active part in their children's language learning. Form Three student Anita Wan Tsz-ling, 13, said she had made a breakthrough with her English by going on an overseas exchange. 'I really hope my parents and the teachers will let me spend more time with the host family,' she said. 'It has improved my English a lot.' However, they agreed there was no quick-and-easy path to learning the language. 'To learn a language, you have to soak it up for a long time,' said 16-year-old Tang Hei-man. 'This is a fact.' The Form Six student said it had taken her at least six months to adapt when she went from a Chinese-medium primary school to an English-medium secondary. If the change of medium was inevitable, that transition period meant students should make it as early as possible, she said, to avoid a clash with the increased workload of exams. 'If you did not switch until Form Six or Seven, then it would be too late, too rushed,' Hei-man said. Speaking after the forum, Hei-man said although she had only come 'half out of interest and half because my teacher told me to', she had enjoyed taking part in the event. 'I've learnt a lot,' she said. 'It has helped me gain more confidence in public speaking.' Sam Ng Yeung-ming, principal of Yan Chai Hospital Law Chan Chor Si College, said this was the secret to communicating well in a foreign language. 'Above all, the most important thing we have to teach students is how not to be shy, not to be afraid to make a mistake.' He said attending the forum had been 'very fruitful'. 'I have previously been to seminars where there was a lot of talk about government language policy,' Mr Ng said. 'This time it was very different. It has been much more practical. The key word here is implementation.' It was also 'very encouraging' to have heard valuable input from students themselves, he said. 'I hope that the government and policymakers can start to listen to the students' voices more.' Sunny Wong Wai-chung, head of English at Sun Kei Secondary, said the content of the forum 'was very diverse'. He said it was helpful to be able to look at things from a different perspective. 'As a teacher, we tend to go along with your own ideas, hoping this is the best way to do things. An event like this enables us to take a step back and see how other people do things. That helps us look at our own teaching methods and assess them more objectively.'