Plan to offer lessons in Chinese as a second language remains vague

Ethnic-minority pupils are crying out for the chance to learn Cantonese, but details of new curriculum to help them remain sketchy

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 April, 2014, 4:54am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 April, 2014, 4:54am

Sehrish speaks Cantonese with an accent and often struggles to find the right words. Reading and writing is even worse, she says.

The 16-year-old is of Pakistani descent, but grew up in Hong Kong, going through the segregated local school system.

"I want to take the [Diploma of Secondary Education exam in Chinese language] too; I don't want to take the lower-level, easier exams. But it's too late for me," she adds. The diploma is needed to enter local universities.

Sehrish is exactly the kind of pupil who should benefit from the government's plan to introduce lessons in Chinese as a second language at Primary One level from September. But campaigners say little has been heard since the idea was announced in Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's January policy address.

Sehrish entered an English-language kindergarten and then a primary school designated for ethnic minorities in 2003, as her family had no way of helping her if she went to a mainstream Chinese-language school.

She later attended Delia School in Mei Foo, as her two siblings had before her. The majority of its pupils are from ethnic minorities. She has few Chinese friends because of the language barrier, and the fact she has had little chance to learn Chinese.

Sehrish's story is common among Hong Kong's non-Chinese families - especially those who cannot afford an international school education.

Ethnic minorities lack the chance to practice and learn Chinese at home, so school is often their only opportunity, said Wong Shek-hung from Oxfam.

The charity has released a report comparing second-language learning in California, British Columbia and New South Wales. In all three cases, English lessons start in the first year of kindergarten, as the early years of childhood are the best age for learning languages, Wong said.

All mix in-class support - from a teacher there to help those struggling in the new language - with separate language lessons.

"Since the government proposed a Chinese-as-a-second-language framework, there has been little detail," Wong said. He criticised the lack of a concrete curriculum and absence of clear targets for what the lessons would achieve.

All of which does little for pupils like Afsa Fatima, 15, who found herself lost at a Chinese-language school in her early years. "I relied on this one Chinese friend who sat next to me. She didn't laugh at me even though I would say the wrong words, but she would actually teach me instead," she recalled.

Afsa did well enough that she now hopes to take the diploma and train as a teacher. She dreams of teaching Chinese to other ethnic-minority children.

"There is not enough support for ethnic-minority students for sure," she said. "I spent so much time thinking of myself as stupid and useless."