For most students, it's tough enough trying to learn one foreign language. But under the Hong Kong government's policy of bilingualism and trilingualism, local students are expected to master two languages - Putonghua and English - on top of their native Cantonese. Until fairly recently, however, their instructors may never have received formal training in teaching the languages. That is because many teachers of other subjects were simply 'drafted' into language teaching after primary and secondary schools across Hong Kong ran short of qualified instructors. Those temporary arrangements eventually became permanent. In 2001, the government moved to rectify that situation. With the move towards a 'knowledge-based' economy, language skills were seen as essential to maintaining the local workforce's edge in competing for service industries in the region. Now, to continue teaching, instructors of Putonghua and English must pass a benchmark test showing they meet a minimum standard of reading, writing, comprehension, speaking and assessing students' use of language in classrooms. Serving teachers were given five years to make the grade. But when the last test results before the cut-off were announced last May, more than 2,000 Putonghua and English teachers still hadn't met the requirements. Although the Education and Manpower Bureau hailed the benchmarking procedure as a success, it remained a slap in the face for many language teachers even after they had passed. 'The language benchmark test is devised on the assumption that teachers are not capable, and sets standards from a managerial point of view,' said Leung Hiu-king, a secondary teacher of Putonghua. 'It was a big blow to the morale and self-confidence of teachers. The test reflects mistrust in teachers, and an authoritarian culture.' But benchmarking was just one of a number of initiatives introduced since the handover to improve language training. The Native English-speaking Teacher (NET) Scheme - introduced to secondary schools in 1998 and later extended to the primary sector - has attracted many overseas teachers. They give students a greater opportunity to interact in a language they would otherwise hardly encounter. There are more than 800 NETs in local schools. More schools are using other sources of funding to hire additional expatriate teachers on their own. Schools have also been encouraged to move away from the traditional, textbook-dominated approach towards creating more inclusive and less formal 'language environments'. 'We hold two Putonghua days and three English days each week,' said Anita Ng Mei-han, principal of Hon Wah College's primary section. 'On those days, pupils must use the specified language whenever they speak to a teacher or other staff members outside class ... They soon get used to it. It takes this sort of exposure to feel natural while speaking in a foreign language.' The new school in Siu Sai Wan is one of a new breed of Direct Subsidy Scheme schools with greater flexibility over their language of instruction. Its teachers use Putonghua to teach Chinese language, English for liberal studies and Cantonese for maths. But schools in the aided sector have no such luxury. The mother-tongue education policy, introduced in 1998, limited the number of secondary schools entitled to teach in English to 114. That number has since fallen to 106. To stay on the list, schools must keep 85 per cent of their Form One intake coming from the 40 per cent of students in the top academic bracket. Though it may be 10 years since the handover, some colonial habits die hard. English-medium secondary schools remain far and away parents' preferred option. William Yip Kam-yuen, chairman of the Hong Kong Association of Heads of Secondary Schools, says the handling of language policy in secondary schools has been one of the government's failings over the past decade. 'Continuing the distinction between Chinese-medium schools and English-medium schools is divisive,' he said. 'It has disturbed the harmony between schools.' Enian Tsang, secretary of the Association of Chinese-Medium Middle Schools, agreed, saying it effectively labelled schools that used Cantonese a second-class option. 'All of the cream goes to the English-medium schools,' she said. 'Since the introduction of the mother-tongue policy, pass rates in other subjects have improved, but to get to university, students still need to pass English, so it is hard to blame parents [for wanting to send their children to an English-medium school].' She acknowledged that less exposure to the language meant it was harder for Chinese-medium schools to teach English to the same level. But she said success was possible by using more flexible approaches, such as split classes and creating informal English environments within the school. 'We need to strengthen our language teaching to prove that Chinese-medium schools can produce students with good English skills,' she said.