Few Hongkongers actually use English at home or anywhere else. Photo: Sam Tsang

Time to retire the native English teacher scheme

Vaughan Rapatahana says most don't need to master the language

Let's get real about the native-speaking English teacher (NET) scheme - it is a white elephant and has been from day one. I question its rationale, benefits and viability, particularly when considering the quite staggering HK$710 million annual costs involved; the scheme has been bleeding taxpayer money for over 15 years.

There has never been any cogent and consistent reasoning for the scheme, other than a knee-jerk reaction back in 1998 as a sop to angry, dismayed parents and students when Chinese language was unilaterally introduced as a medium of instruction.

The scheme divides so-called "native English speakers" (almost all of whom are foreign-born and many of whom are monolingual) from local teachers of English, who have the requisite cultural and linguistic skills to connect more easily with most students.

Most Hongkongers don't really want to internalise the language and in many cases cannot afford the training necessary for proficiency. English proficiency has always been largely accessible to only a wealthy elite. As has been noted, English is like ginseng for most Hong Kong residents: it tastes bad, but they suffer it because they feel they must somehow have it to "succeed". In reality, few of them actually use the language at home or anywhere else.

We must ask why so many Hongkongers feel they have to expend so much energy chasing English-language acquisition, fighting to enrol in schools that use English as its medium of instruction and in so-called elite institutions such as Harrow School and Malvern College.

There is, in many cases, an element of snobbery: in their mindsets, having English, or some semblance of it, sets Hong Kong apart from the mainland, whose students ironically have better English. But this is not the prime reason behind the drive towards mastery of "standardised" English, and indeed behind the entire NET system. The problem is, parents and students labour under the misguided belief - cleverly instigated since colonial times - that they "need" the English language.

Global English-language dominion has been maintained and encouraged by a host of Anglo-American instruments and interests for primarily fiscal reasons: Western proponents of the English language make heaps of money from tests and exams.

By also being staunch gatekeepers to academic publishing and restricting access to all manner of journals; by mesmerising universities into switching the medium of instruction from their own indigenous languages; and by instilling a fear about rankings and citation indexes, such agencies hegemonise their form of English language, so that traditionally non-English users all too often have their own indigenous tongues devalued.

Here in Hong Kong, we should allow local teachers to teach English bilingually and without attempting to achieve some impossible and unnecessary mass English-language mastery. English does not need to be of this mythical "standard" variety, for the very important fact that there are not enough jobs requiring this level of proficiency.

Nor is there any validity to the rationale for the need to have such proficiency to enable Hong Kong to "compete" as a true "international" city, to maintain its "edge". This is a long-standing myth, along with the one about "slipping standards in English" - myths propagated by a business community with strong international ties.

There is no necessity for the NET project - as well-meaning and diligent as many of its teachers are. There is absolutely no need to maintain its mastodon-like existence here any more.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Time to retire the native English teacher scheme