Language in a crisis

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Apr 15 12:22:20 UTC 2005

>>From China Daily (Hong Kong edition)

                             Language in a crisis

                           2005-04-15 07:09

Wasn't Hong Kong a British colony? Aren't children taught English from the
kindergarten level? Isn't all official work in Hong Kong done in English
(and in Chinese)? If the answer to all these questions is in the
affirmative, why are expatriates disappointed with the standard of spotken
(and at times, written) English in the SAR?  Why is it that some mainland
cities, with no real history of English language teaching to boast of,
producing better English speakers?

                           The problems it seems are a lot easier to
pinpoint than the solutions. It may be true, as former chief secretary for
administration Anson Chan says, that some businessmen have found Shanghai
people's communicative skills in English to be better than Hong Kong's.
But it's also true, that many of Hong Kong's primary and secondary school
teachers don't have the skill to teach English pronunciation to
non-English speaking students.  In fact, some can't pronounce certain
words properly themselves. The problem then seems to lie at the root of
the education system. Or, is it?

                           As a language expert and president of the
Chinese University of Hong Kong's Tung Wah Group of Hospitals Community
College, Richard Ho comes across many Hong Kong and mainland students
every year. And he too doesn't particularly like what he sees.
"Generally, the majority of Secondary Five students speak terrible
English. The terms they use or sentences they speak are grammatically
incorrect...  Many times, it's difficult to understand what a native
speaker is saying and it creates communication gaps," says the language

                           But why is such the case? Ho says the
"communicative approach", practised for the past twenty years to teach
English is to blame. The communicative approach sees language as a vehicle
of expression, hence, emphasizes the teaching of English through
communication - reading, writing and speaking - instead of laying stress
on grammar, phonetics and pronunciation. In Hong Kong's schools, about
three-quarters of English-teaching hours are devoted to reading, writing
and speaking.

                           So is the failure to incorporate phonetics into
school curriculum the real problem? Is this why Hong Kong residents
confuse "n" with "l"? Is this why "r" is skipped so often? Exactly, says
Ho. That's why you hear many people pronouncing "nice"  as "lice" and
"breach" as "beach".  "Mainland students learn phonetics and
pronunciation, and learn it quite well, in the primary classes. And when
they are in Hong Kong, they use the chance to practise spoken English, and
they start speaking the language accurately, and fluently, in a short

                           The inability to understand phonetics and
pronounce properly hinder the expansion of one's vocabulary. "Local
students don't learn to look up the phonetic symbols in the dictionary, or
transcriptions to pronounce a word correctly."  As former registrar of the
Chinese University of Hong Kong, Ho is required to make newcomers (both
from Hong Kong and the mainland) to enrol and take exams in Cantonese,
English and Putonghua phonetics courses. "Shanghai and Beijing students
are good in oral English and all of them can pass the exams," he says.
But one-third of the local students fail.

                           Teaching in mother-tongue

                           The standard of English in Hong Kong declined
after the medium of instruction in schools was changed from English to
Chinese. Teaching in the mother tongue has its advantages, but not when it
comes to teaching a language such as English. Thus goes the refrain of
those opposed to Chinese as the medium of instruction.  Before Hong Kong
was reunified with the motherland, secondary schools could choose between
Chinese and English as the medium of instruction. Most regarded themselves
as Anglo-Chinese schools, and chose English. But teaching in an acquired
language often proved to be a struggle both for teachers and children.

                           To address the problem, the SAR government
introduced the mother tongue teaching policy in 1998 that forced about 300
government and government-aided secondary schools to adopt Chinese as the
medium of instruction (CMI). Only 110 schools were considered good enough
to continue with English-medium instruction (EMI). The division,
unfortunately, started a "labelling effect" - with EMI schools considered
elite. The result: every year, parents scramble to get a seat for their
children in the EMI schools.

                           Seven years after the introduction of teaching
in the mother tongue, the policy seems to have started bearing positive
results. A recent study conducted by the University of Hong Kong found
students taught in the mother tongue appeared more active in class and
were able to learn more.  The 2004 HKCEE results show a continuous
increase in the pass rates (in all major subjects) of CMI school students.
Some CMI students have even made significant improvements in English.
But despite the evidence to the contrary, teaching in Chinese has been
criticized and blamed for the poor English among students. Ho rubbishes
the allegations of such critics. He says a student must attain a certain
level of competence in English before he can benefit from using it as a
medium of instruction. "For primary schooling, there is no alternative to
teaching in the mother tongue because that's how students learn best," Ho
says. "This way students will find it easier to acquire knowledge and
understand better the academic subjects."

                           "Learning through a second language can create
language barriers. It can undermine effectiveness of learning for students
not competent enough. Teaching in English should be introduced gradually
and after students have attained (a certain level of)  proficiency in the
foreign language," he says.  Recalling his experience of having switch to
primary teaching in English, Ho says he made great efforts to overcome the
language barrier. When his parents sent him to the reputable Anglo-Chinese
secondary school, St Joseph's College, Ho did not understand what the
teachers said in the beginning. A private tutor had to be hired for him to
help him learn the subjects. Still, catching up with classmates was a

The lesson: a language should to taught step by step.

                            (HK Edition 04/15/2005 page4)

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