Two languages in class better than one, Hong Kong teachers say

Young bilingual teachers are keen to pass on their English-language expertise in our schools, bit city doesn't understand how valuable bilingualism is, experts say

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 July, 2015, 6:14am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 July, 2015, 6:14am

Having grown up in a bilingual environment in Hong Kong, Daphne Chu chose to be a teacher. A year ago, she joined Lam Tai Fai College in Sha Tin and has since relished her time brushing up students' English.

When she was in school, English was used by teachers across the board. At home, her parents talked to her in Cantonese, but together they also watched movies and read books in English.

"I have always enjoyed learning English, so when I grew up, I decided to combine my passion for this dynamic language and my wish to work with young people to become a teacher," she says.

Hong Kong has an increasingly large population of young homegrown bilinguals such as Chu, many of whom are now coming of age as informed parents and teachers.

Amid recent concerns over Hong Kong's declining English standards and possibly waning competitiveness, Chu is positive about what she and others like her can bring to the picture.

"I understand the reasons why the public feels that less emphasis is placed on English now. In the education sector, for example, schools are stressing the use of Putonghua more, on top of the move toward mother-tongue teaching," she says. "But there are still many of us who were brought up and trained in a bilingual environment. Most of my peers are fluent bilinguals working in different fields despite this common feeling that English is becoming less important."

For professors Virginia Yip and Stephen Matthews, husband-and-wife linguists and co-directors of the Childhood Bilingualism Research Centre (CBRC) at Chinese University, this emerging generation of bilinguals underlies a distinct edge of Hong Kong - a fertile environment for bilingualism, something that the couple feel is often undervalued by the media and society at large.

"As a result of historical circumstances, we have a bilingual, and increasingly trilingual society," says Matthews. "This can be a challenge but also an opportunity. The public is just not sufficiently aware of the advantages this presents."

Most of my peers are fluent bilinguals working in different fields despite this common feeling that English is becoming less important
Daphne Chu

Under the linguists' leadership, CBRC has conducted studies of local children growing up bilingually in English and Cantonese for more than 10 years. In reference to their substantial and continuously growing body of research, Matthews says: "The fluently bilingual young people from our earliest studies are adults about to enter the workforce. Is the standard of English in Hong Kong declining? It could be said to be the opposite."

Over the years, the CBRC's studies have clearly shown that children can achieve fluent bilingualism given the right environments, even in two languages as unrelated as Chinese and English. Both research done by Hong Kong linguists and by the international scientific community also consistently shows how bilingualism gives children wide-ranging cognitive benefits and, counterintuitively, allows them to gain literacy in both languages more efficiently for academic success.

Despite these robust research findings, Yip and Matthews still find themselves clarifying many misconceptions among parents and educators. Many still wrongly believe that children can only handle one language at a time, or that bilingualism stalls literacy. This has often led to missed opportunities for nurturing bilinguals in the most effective ways possible, both at home and in school.

The importance of immersion for both first- and second-language learning has long been established among linguists. Many parents, however, still choose not to provide their children with a bilingual home environment even if they can. Parents from less privileged or educated backgrounds, on the other hand, often do not have the means to do so.

We have a bilingual, and increasingly trilingual society. This can be a challenge but also an opportunity. The public is just not sufficiently aware of the advantages this presents.
Stephen Matthews

Because these discrepancies in the home are unavoidable, bilingual school environments are all the more vital. While Yip and Matthews think that much more could be done to experiment with teaching content optimally in bilingual classes, existing language policies in the education system are doing some things right.

For instance, recent research shows that extra and varied language input, of the type that Native English-speaking Teachers (NETs) provide in classrooms, help activate certain language instincts in students who are primarily exposed to only one type of English.

Teachers such as Chu present another ideal opportunity for bilingual education. As competent bilinguals, they can provide the double benefit of complete immersion on the one hand and linguistic and cultural understanding for students on the other.

"In school, I use English exclusively with my students, as that is the only way to provide them with an immersive environment in the classroom," says Chu. "But as a native Cantonese speaker, I understand the unique difficulties my students are facing in learning English." Yip agrees that bilingual teachers bring a unique advantage.

"This new, emerging generation of homegrown bilinguals are ideal as teachers because they understand the students' perspective. This sensitivity allows them to highlight meaningful language contrasts more effectively."

This sensitivity is most important when helping students gain not only proficiency in spoken English but also literacy.

"Many students are used to translating sentences from Chinese to English directly, which often results in ungrammatical writing," Chu says. "As a bilingual teacher, I understand exactly where many of these mistakes are coming from. It is easier for me to pinpoint and tackle them precisely."

As a native Cantonese speaker, I understand the unique difficulties my students are facing in learning English
Daphne Chu

The Education Bureau has tried to tap into this pool of competent bilinguals by offering incentives for talented youngsters to become teachers.

Established in 2010, the scholarship offers HK$50,000 per year to high-achieving secondary students of English to study education or a relevant subject in university. In return, they are required to teach English in local schools for a minimum of three years.

According to the bureau's Language Teacher Qualifications Team, the scheme has attracted many new and qualified graduates to join the teaching profession in the past five years.

Although initiatives to encourage bilingualism at home are harder to implement, it is clear that young bilingual Hongkongers understand its importance from their own experience. "I will use a 'one parent, one language' policy at home when I have children," says Chu.

Yip is hopeful about the rise of even more competent bilinguals in the future. "This emerging group is equipped with both the awareness and high-level bilingualism to do the right things as both teachers and parents."

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