Hong Kong should invest in training local teachers for better English, rather than relying on its outdated native speaker scheme

Kelly Yang says the alarming fall in English standards in Hong Kong means we must rethink rote learning in schools and the out-of-date native-speaking English teacher programme

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 September, 2015, 12:33pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 September, 2015, 2:27pm

With 91 per cent of people polled by the Post agreeing that English standards are slipping in Hong Kong, what do we do about it? Two weeks ago, I sat on the stage next to politician Michael Tien Puk-sun at the Redefining Hong Kong debate, my heart pounding. Here was my chance to tell everyone the urgency of the matter, to play a small part in hopefully saving Hong Kong. In my mind, that's what this debate on declining English standards boils down to - how to stop Hong Kong's decline into irrelevance and ensure its future success.

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Instrumental to that success is having a high standard of English. Our economy must diversify. How many tech executives from San Francisco have I had over to dinner at my house this past year, only to watch them each shake their head at the possibility of setting up their Asia headquarters in Hong Kong. "But why?" I'd ask. "What's Singapore got that we haven't got?" English, they'd say.

This breaks my heart. In the past 10 years, while Singapore and Shanghai have invested heavily to beef up their English standards, we have slipped by being complacent. We've allowed 90 per cent of local primary schools to be taught almost exclusively in Cantonese. For the few schools that do teach in English, we've set the bar pitifully low for the teachers' English ability. Currently in most local schools, a subject teacher needs only to have got a D in English in the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination to teach various subjects using English.

When I was growing up in the United States, I would get a free pizza from Pizza Hut for every 10 books I read

Ten years later, what do we see? Our university graduates' salaries have plummeted by 20 per cent to HK$10,000 a month, compared with 20 years ago. Our tourist-reliant retail sector is drying up. Tying ourselves to China's economy is not the panacea it once was. It's time to see the writing on the wall.

To raise our English standard, the first step is to change the way English is being taught in local schools, starting at the primary level. We need to move away from dictation and rote memorisation, which are antiquated and ineffective, to discussion-based and project-based learning. We need to emphasise creativity, critical thinking, leadership and entrepreneurship.

At the same time, we have to gradually increase the amount of time primary school students spend learning in English. To do this, we need to raise their teachers' standard of English by first investing in teacher training and later raising the English requirement for teachers.

We can pay for this by breaking up the Native-speaking English Teacher programme, which costs the government about HK$710 million a year and is ineffective. Schools need more than just a token Caucasian teacher. The money would be better spent on training the existing teachers to lead discussions, inspire creative thinking and sharpen writing skills. It would also be better spent on English reading programmes for kids.

And here, the entire community can step in. When I was growing up in the United States, I would get a free pizza from Pizza Hut for every 10 books I read. I was an excellent pizza eater: thanks to this scheme, I ate my way through hundreds of books.

Recently in Iowa, US, a barber started giving free haircuts to kids as long as they read to him. We need more people and programmes like that in Hong Kong. Before you roll your eyes and say "good luck with that", consider this: Hong Kong's declining competitiveness affects us all. No one here is immune to this debacle, not even the tycoons.

And it's not just our economy that's at stake; it's our identity, too. We pride ourselves on being not just another mainland city. But what does that mean? Does it mean being able to speak good Putonghua? No. Does it mean having our own dialect? Plenty of other Chinese cities have that, like Shanghai and Chengdu . To me, being uniquely Chinese means being international, open minded, and a melting pot of ideas and people. For that, we need to raise our standard of English - fast.

Kelly Yang teaches writing at The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school centre for writing and debate in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School. www.kellyyang.edu.hk