This week the spectre of declining English standards among Hong Kong's graduates rose once again, with another new piece of 'evidence' seized upon to cast blame - implicitly upon English teachers and our school and university systems. But even as Hong Kong's universities consider how to prepare for the new four-year curriculum in 2012, they still appear reluctant to grasp the medium-of-education 'nettle' - the reality that language and thought, disciplinary 'content' - are inextricably related, and that separating them, in universities in particular, is a doomed enterprise. Hong Kong risks reinforcing this dislocation, pressuring English teaching units to revert to remedial solutions to the problems they envisage once students start arriving at university one year younger, and in greater numbers. Sadly, most tertiary educational thinking about language in Hong Kong continues to see it as both foundational and as a code for transmitting it. Language problems are seen as something that should have been addressed and eliminated before students arrived at university. This view leads to remedial solutions being proposed for the universities' English teaching units, often against their advice that this is a misconception of the problem, and that language and thought are actually intertwined and interdependent. Most language educators have now swung behind the idea that as students develop socially and cognitively, so their language competence develops to handle the more sophisticated concepts and arguments with which they are challenged. This linguistic competence develops optimally through performance, just as abstract ideas are more indelibly learnt through concrete application and interaction. The disciplinary texts students are confronted with are couched in longer, more complex sentences, the arguments are far more sophisticated and drawn out, and above all, the reasoning is contingent, hedged with circumstantial phrases and conditional clauses. In the world of published academic discourse, very few ideas are expressed in simple staccato sentences of the kind students are encouraged to write in school as a strategy for committing the least errors. I've called this dislocation of language from content the Shylock syndrome: a belief that one can impart and then extract the flesh of knowledge with no attention to the language that both courses through and constitutes that flesh. Because of the ESL-medium nature of their higher education, Hong Kong students are done a great disservice by teachers aspiring only to illuminate light bulbs of understanding. The transferable and communicable value of that understanding lies in its articulation and application. Universities are aware of the sea change facing them in 2012 and all aspire to transform their curricula. But the University Grants Committee and universities are faced with a very real problem if they continue to operate with outworn metaphors for the 'medium' of education. Nigel Bruce is principal language instructor at the English Centre, HKU. This is the first of two articles; the second will explore some of the questions raised this week.