Hong Kong ‘needs a radical language overhaul’

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Tue Jun 10 13:37:46 UTC 2008

 Hong Kong (HK) - "Needs a Radical Language Overhaul"

(June 7, 2008 press release)

Hong Kong needs a "complete overhaul" of its language policy if it is
to achieve its goal of dual literacy and trilingualism, a leading
education expert told a public lecture last night. Andy Kirkpatrick,
head of the Hong Kong Institute of Education's department of English,
presented a radical schools model that would see Putonghua become the
main language of instruction after Primary Three, a dramatic shift in
the role of English and Cantonese being taught as a written language.
In his "One Country, Two Systems, Three languages" talk, Professor
Kirkpatrick called for an end to the distinction between English and
Chinese-medium schools, and instead for all schools to be seen as
"multilingual sites".

Speaking to Education Post ahead of the talk, he said the switch to
Putonghua was "inevitable", although he admitted there were not enough
qualified teachers to make it possible immediately. When it happened,
he said, Cantonese should be introduced as a subject to preserve its
cultural importance.
However, his proposals have been dismissed by other figures in the
education sector as impractical and "very unlikely" in the foreseeable
The Education Bureau is looking into ways to "fine-tune" the
implementation of new rules governing which language secondary schools
can use to teach, due to come into force in 2010.

Education Secretary Michael Suen Ming-yeung announced details of his
"fine tuning", giving schools flexibility to divide students by
ability to remove the rigid distinction between English and
Chinese-medium schools in place since the mother tongue policy was
launched in 1998. The proposals are likely to mean an increase in the
number of schools permitted to teach in English.

Speaking before the announcement, Professor Kirkpatrick said it was
"good that the government is listening", but he was not convinced.
"The kind of fine-tuning that is being talked about at the moment does
not seem to address the real issues," he said. "The whole system needs
a complete overhaul."

The system was "geared towards gaining university entry" for less than
a fifth of students, meaning it was skewed to an over-emphasis on
English skills and the "completely false expectation" of all students
reaching the standard of a native speaker.

Students should be set the more attainable goal of "functional
trilingualism", using each of the languages to the level they needed.
However, he conceded such a move would be resisted by parents.

Cheung Man-kwong, president of the Professional Teachers' Union, said
it was unlikely the plan would be welcomed by teachers. "There is even
resistance to the suggestion that Putonghua could be used to teach
Chinese. It would be even harder to gain acceptance for using it to
teach other subjects as well."

University of Hong Kong assistant professor of education Cheung
Kwok-wah, a member of the working group that set down the medium of
instruction policy in 2005, said there was neither the political will
nor demand for schools to switch to Putonghua. "Politically this is
still very sensitive. It is very unlikely that this could happen in
the short term."

But Dr Cheung was most dismissive of the idea Cantonese could be
taught as a written language. Although value could be seen in writing
in the Cantonese vernacular, teachers frowned upon it.

"I think the majority of the Chinese teaching profession would have
great difficulty accepting that."


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