Hong Kong must change how English is taught to raise standards

Zhang Longxi says a utilitarian approach to teaching is largely to blame for Hong Kong gradually losing a key component of its competitive edge - good English

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 September, 2015, 2:45pm
UPDATED : Monday, 14 September, 2015, 3:33pm

More than 10 years ago on this very page, I posed the question: "Are we losing our advantage in English?" Today, this is no longer a question; it is reality. The government's policy of mother-tongue education has produced a generation of students with less competence in English and, even more seriously, less impetus to learn about the outside world. In different ways, we are witnessing the consequences of this inward-looking turn.

The use of English as a medium for communication has always been Hong Kong's strength as a great international city. It is crucial in attracting people with talent and expertise. It has made Hong Kong a favourite destination for tourists, and given the city a competitive advantage in education, research, science and technology. We cannot afford to lose this advantage.

English is the lingua franca of our world today, used in communication in an international setting for the exchange of information, ideas, skills and technologies. That is why teaching English is such an important part of education in China and neighbouring countries, and governments all try to make sure English is being taught effectively.

In the last decade or so, while Hong Kong was pushing more primary and secondary schools to teach in Cantonese, mainland China was pushing for more English. Now the results are clear to see. On the mainland, the level of English among college students is steadily on the rise, while in Hong Kong the perception is just the opposite.

We should teach English in a rich context of history and culture, with ethical and humanistic values

Recently, the nation's Ministry of Education commissioned a group of professors to set up a national standard for undergraduate English teaching and to design a basic bibliography of literary works in English to be used nationwide as guidelines or even required texts. Literary texts offer students examples of good English, which will inspire greater understanding and better command of the language.

In Hong Kong, by contrast, we have courses on English for "special purposes" - business English, English for science, English for media, and so on. Such an ultra-utilitarian teaching method is preposterous, because, without a good foundation in its general usage, it does little to help one acquire a truly good command of English. Special terminologies can be learned as and when needed, just as we do with our native language.

Ten years ago, we could still say without much hesitation that the average Hong Kong student had better English skills than their mainland counterpart; today, we have many students from the mainland whose English is often better than that of our local students. One may say that these mainland students are the cream of the population, and thus the comparison may not be fair. But, outside the university, many companies in Hong Kong have employed young Chinese who were born on the mainland but educated in American or British universities. They are fluent in both Putonghua and English, and are thus more competitive than our local graduates.

What stronger evidence do we need to see the defects of our language policy?

One way to raise our English standards is to put a greater emphasis on teaching English, not just talk about its importance and ask for more courses in schools. We can also make English language scores count more in university admission.

We should teach English as a living language rather than as a mechanical tool used for a limited purpose. We should teach English in a rich context of history and culture, with ethical and humanistic values - a perfect medium for general education.

My own teaching experience in Hong Kong for more than a decade tells me that our students, like young people anywhere, are naturally filled with intellectual curiosity. It is our responsibility to guide that sense of curiosity towards effective learning.

Despite some disparaging reports and rankings, Hong Kong has not lost all of its advantages, but we cannot be complacent. We must come up with an effective language policy to improve the teaching of English.

Zhang Longxi is chair professor of Chinese and comparative literature at City University of Hong Kong