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Hong Kong’s ethnic minority pupils still struggling with Cantonese at school – despite annual funding of HK$200 million, NGO finds

Hong Kong Unison said its research found biggest difficulty for schools was catering for varied Chinese language abilities of ethnic minority pupils

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 May, 2018, 8:03am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 June, 2018, 5:44pm

Ethnic minority children in Hong Kong are struggling to learn Cantonese because schools are not equipped to teach it as a second language, even though the government devotes HK$200 million (US$25.6 million) a year to the cause, an NGO said on Monday.

Hong Kong Unison said its research found the biggest difficulty for schools was catering to the varied Chinese language abilities of minorities, ranging from no Chinese or English for new arrivals, to the fluent Cantonese ability of Hong Kong-born children who have come through the local education system.

“This report found that although the government has been investing resources for non-Chinese students, it has not fully responded to their learning needs, or assisted teachers in formulating effective learning strategies,” Unison executive director Phyllis Cheung Fung-mei said.

Research officer Li Sin-lam said: “The framework cannot cater to this learning discrepancy. There is an objective for the ethnic minorities to be able to learn in mainstream schools, but schools cannot do it.”

Lawmakers Ip Kin-yuen of the education sector and Claudia Mo Man-ching of HK First, who both sit on the Legislative Council’s subcommittee on the rights of ethnic minorities, said the government was throwing money away.

Ethnic minorities are Hongkongers too, and should be treated as such

In the 2016-17 school year, there were 9,200 primary school pupils and 9,000 secondary school students from non-Chinese-speaking families.

Since 2014, the government has spent HK$200 million annually on two funding schemes so schools could better teach Chinese to ethnic minority pupils. Schools can get between HK$50,000 and HK$1.5 million a year, depending on the number of non-Chinese-speaking pupils they have.

As well as helping children overcome the difficulties of learning Chinese as a second language, the money is allocated to help schools create “an inclusive learning environment in schools”.

However, a Chinese language teacher who spoke at Hong Kong Unison’s media briefing, giving his name only as Mr Kwong, said schools that had at least nine ethnic minority children were hiring Chinese language teachers who based lessons and exam papers on the mainstream curriculum.

They were also hired on one-year contracts, which did not provide incentives for better teaching. Kwong said they should be paid more, and have stable job prospects.

Khan Huma Nisa, who was born in Hong Kong and is of Pakistani descent, is awaiting the results of her Diploma of Secondary Education examinations for non-Chinese subjects. The 17-year-old is multilingual: she can speak Cantonese, Urdu and English, and write in Chinese and English.

She is hoping to go to the University of Hong Kong. She sat the GCSE and GCE Chinese papers.

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“In primary school there were a lot of ethnic minorities and Chinese students. In class, I had Chinese, Nepalese, Indian classmates, and everyone was learning Cantonese. That’s why I was able to communicate with them,” she said.

“But in secondary school, I had fewer Chinese classmates and a lot of ethnic minority ones. I am from Pakistan so I talk to Pakistani students in Urdu, and there’s little chance for me to practise Chinese.

“I took the GCSE Chinese paper in secondary school and it was very easy for me. From Forms One to Three, the Chinese language subject was too easy,” she said, adding she learned Cantonese from watching her mother bargain for and order food in Cantonese when she was young.

Hong Kong Unison’s 70-page Chinese-language research report was based on a review of 130 Chinese and English books, academic papers, thematic reports and teachers’ handbooks published between 2006 and 2016 on the teaching of Chinese to Hong Kong ethnic minority students. The NGO spent a year on the research, starting in May last year.

Ip and Mo hoped a new steering committee on ethnic minorities, with HK$500 million allocated to help the group, would carefully consider the NGO’s research. The two lawmakers said the committee, which is chaired by Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, should comprise a wider selection of people from society.

A mother of three said her eldest child learned Cantonese from having Chinese primary school classmates, even though her elective language was French. Her two sons attend a different school, and she had noticed that since 2014 it had improved its teaching methods for non-Chinese students.

“Every Saturday, an NGO will hold tutorial classes on the practical application of Cantonese at their school,” the mother, who asked not to be named, said. “There are no examinations, but at the end of the school year, they go to public places to talk to locals.”

Separate and unequal? Hong Kong ethnic minorities suffer at school

The Education Bureau said the “learning framework” had only been implemented for a little more than three years and needed time to take hold.

“The first non-Chinese-speaking students who began to learn Chinese from the beginning of Primary One are currently studying only Primary Four,” the bureau said in a statement. “These measures need to take root and achieve results.”

The bureau added: “Learning through small steps enables non-Chinese-speaking students with different learning needs to approach Chinese in a step-by-step manner, and adapt to the mainstream of their classroom at an appropriate time.”