[lg policy] Hong Kong must change how English is taught to raise standards

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Mon Sep 14 14:40:41 UTC 2015

 Hong Kong must change how English is taught to raise standards

Zhang Longxi says a utilitarian approach to teaching is largely to blame
for Hong Kong gradually losing a key component of its competitive edge -
good English
PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 September, 2015, 2:45pm
UPDATED : Monday, 14 September, 2015, 3:33pm

Zhang Longxi

   - [image: English is the lingua franca of our world today. Photo: Nora

English is the lingua franca of our world today. Photo: Nora Tam

More than 10 years ago on this very page, I posed the question: "Are we
losing our advantage in English?" Today, this is no longer a question; it
is reality. The government's policy of mother-tongue education has produced
a generation of students with less competence in English and, even more
seriously, less impetus to learn about the outside world. In different
ways, we are witnessing the consequences of this inward-looking turn.

The use of English as a medium for communication has always been Hong
Kong's strength as a great international city. It is crucial in attracting
people with talent and expertise. It has made Hong Kong a favourite
destination for tourists, and given the city a competitive advantage in
education, research, science and technology. We cannot afford to lose this

English is the lingua franca of our world today, used in communication in
an international setting for the exchange of information, ideas, skills and
technologies. That is why teaching English is such an important part of
education in China and neighbouring countries, and governments all try to
make sure English is being taught effectively.

In the last decade or so, while Hong Kong was pushing more primary and
secondary schools to teach in Cantonese, mainland China was pushing for
more English. Now the results are clear to see. On the mainland, the level
of English among college students is steadily on the rise, while in Hong
Kong the perception is just the opposite.
We should teach English in a rich context of history and culture, with
ethical and humanistic values

Recently, the nation's Ministry of Education commissioned a group of
professors to set up a national standard for undergraduate English teaching
and to design a basic bibliography of literary works in English to be used
nationwide as guidelines or even required texts. Literary texts offer
students examples of good English, which will inspire greater understanding
and better command of the language.

In Hong Kong, by contrast, we have courses on English for "special
purposes" - business English, English for science, English for media, and
so on. Such an ultra-utilitarian teaching method is preposterous, because,
without a good foundation in its general usage, it does little to help one
acquire a truly good command of English. Special terminologies can be
learned as and when needed, just as we do with our native language.

Ten years ago, we could still say without much hesitation that the average
Hong Kong student had better English skills than their mainland
counterpart; today, we have many students from the mainland whose English
is often better than that of our local students. One may say that these
mainland students are the cream of the population, and thus the comparison
may not be fair. But, outside the university, many companies in Hong Kong
have employed young Chinese who were born on the mainland but educated in
American or British universities. They are fluent in both Putonghua and
English, and are thus more competitive than our local graduates.

What stronger evidence do we need to see the defects of our language policy?

One way to raise our English standards is to put a greater emphasis on
teaching English, not just talk about its importance and ask for more
courses in schools. We can also make English language scores count more in
university admission.

We should teach English as a living language rather than as a mechanical
tool used for a limited purpose. We should teach English in a rich context
of history and culture, with ethical and humanistic values - a perfect
medium for general education.

My own teaching experience in Hong Kong for more than a decade tells me
that our students, like young people anywhere, are naturally filled with
intellectual curiosity. It is our responsibility to guide that sense of
curiosity towards effective learning.

Despite some disparaging reports and rankings, Hong Kong has not lost all
of its advantages, but we cannot be complacent. We must come up with an
effective language policy to improve the teaching of English.

*Zhang Longxi is chair professor of Chinese and comparative literature at
City University of Hong Kong *
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as
Teach English differently to raise standards


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