Good Schools Guide

Real-life learning the key to mastering a second language

Second language learners should grasp opportunities to use the language in authentic contexts

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 September, 2018, 10:39am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 September, 2018, 10:44am

The pithy phrase “could do better” has adorned numerous report cards over the years, and many parents feel it may still apply to the teaching of second – and third – languages at international schools in Hong Kong.

At the outset, of course, the expectation is that students – and here we’re mainly thinking about those with an English-speaking background – will emerge at least functionally fluent in a couple more languages, if not completely bilingual or trilingual, after several years of secondary education.

But despite all the classroom hours, the end results somehow fall short. Students collect their exam passes and can claim a “working knowledge” of French, Spanish, German or Mandarin as they move on to new challenges. But deep down they know the level achieved has probably not equipped them to hold their own in anything more than day-to-day exchanges with a native speaker.

Vanessa Cheung’s experience is a case in point. She studied French and Mandarin at an international school in Hong Kong and has recently returned to the city after completing a master’s in psychology at University College, London.

She admits, though, that she would feel tongue-tied and a little flustered if asked now to converse with the locals in Paris or Beijing.

“I can understand Putonghua 100 per cent and read Chinese like a native,” says Cheung, who is from a Cantonese family and was educated in English from the age of six. “I’m just not confident when it comes to speaking. I don’t remember all the sounds because I don’t use them every day, and often the teachers just assumed you knew how to pronounce things without helping explicitly.

“Writingwise, I was pretty good at school, but in all the essays you used the same vocabulary to express your ideas, so now I find it hard to write anything [in Chinese] at an academic or professional level.”

As for French, which she studied for five hours a week from Year 7 to Year 13, Cheung recalls the teachers were great, but it was still something of a “neglected” supplementary subject.

“No one expected you to achieve fluency, and the progress was kind of slow,” she says. “The focus was on grammar and vocabulary, and it only got intense in the IB diploma years. In France, I can read the signs, but I can’t really hold a conversation.”

How soft skills smooth the way to career and life success

Noting such concerns, Lai Chun, an associate professor in the University of Hong Kong’s (HKU) faculty of education, points out that most second language curricula and textbooks used in international schools now pay more attention to developing learners’ “communicative functions”.

However, there is still room to improve the relevance of topics to students’ daily life and interests, which is an important factor in increasing overall motivation.

“The essentials for reaching near-native levels of fluency are sufficient exposure to the language and opportunities to use it in authentic contexts,” Lai says. “In the early stages, it is important to prioritise spoken abilities, since developing this proficiency boosts students’ confidence and facilitates the development of written skills.”

In the early stages, it is important to prioritise spoken abilities
Lai Chun

If learners are first engaged through text, pictures or on-screen visuals, they can then move on to basic conversation, role-playing, drama and other exercises which bring the language alive. In that way, they want to express themselves and language acquisition becomes meaningful and relevant.

Lai adds that the use of suitable literature is also important, not just to study the language per se, but also to gain an understanding of the culture and history of native speakers and their way of thinking.

“It should be included early on for different ages and levels. And, by literature, we don’t just mean the classics. It can also be stories, poems, plays and songs.”

Elizabeth Loh, an assistant professor and programme director at HKU’s faculty of education, adds that students should be given more exposure to second languages outside the classroom. Effective learning comes from interactive and authentic situations, not simply completing the term’s quota of class hours. Technology can play a big part, assuming it is used with clear pedagogical goals in mind.

In school, it can help teachers to present material in more imaginative and visually appealing ways. Outside, though, it offers immediate access to examples of a language being used in everyday social-cultural contexts, while making it possible to connect with native speakers.

“Shared learning with technology definitely helps,” Loh says. “If courses only rely on textbooks, students have little sense of autonomy or self-direction. But that changes when they work with apps or formats they find more interactive and interesting.”

Joining the dots holds the key to boosting Mandarin skills

For Louisa Yen, a senior lecturer from the same faculty as Lai and Loh, textbooks still provide a good foundation, especially when introducing and building Chinese characters. However, as soon as practical, teachers should switch to using newspapers, magazines, adverts and TV shows to add that essential real-life element and avoid the risk of learning only a “classroom language”.

“Teachers have to create confidence,” Yen says. “They can do that, for example, by getting students to create their own blog [in Chinese] or sending text messages to arrange a pizza party. Those can be assessment tasks too.”

According to Henrik Hoeg, managing director of The Jadis Blurton Family Development Center, if students are to become genuinely bi- or trilingual, the focus has to be on communication.

“Necessity is a powerful tool,” he says. “We have to come up with ways to make the secondary language useful, necessary, and applied in a genuine way rather than memorising vocabulary without context. The era of the textbook is fading. As with primary language acquisition, spoken abilities should come first with literacy following after.”