Cry CU 有關中大國際化討論

星期五, 2月 04, 2005

Breaking English

C. K. LAU2005-02-04

Michael Tien Puk-sun minced no words as he explained in fluent English the need to press on with the so-called mother-tongue policy of requiring most schools to teach in Chinese.

I know my proposals will not please everybody, but the students' interests come first, said the garment businessman who devotes most of his time to public service as chairman of the Standing Committee on Language Education and Research and the Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation.

For the past two years, he was chairman of an Education Commission working group tasked with reviewing the controversial language policy and the Secondary School Places Allocation (SSPA) scheme.

Despite stinging criticism of the mother-tongue policy since it was introduced in 1998, a year after Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty, the group has decided not just to stick with it, but also to tighten requirements on the 114 secondary schools granted exemptions to teach in English.

These schools will be required to prove that their teachers in all academic subjects - not just English language - can really teach in English. These teachers must have obtained a grade C in English in the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination or its equivalents, or have their classroom performance assessed.

If they fail to make the grade, and less than 85 per cent of their school's Form One intakes are capable of learning effectively in English, the schools will be required to switch to Chinese.

The move to use public examination results as a measure of teachers' capability is a response to criticisms that one of the criteria used in 1998 to determine which schools can teach in English was the principals' assessment and certification of their staff's ability. Critics noted that principals who wanted their schools to continue to teach in English had an interest in giving their staff a positive judgment.

The working group's proposals have understandably disappointed the English-medium secondary schools, as they may be forced to switch to Chinese and their proposal to introduce an English language test as an admission tool has been rejected.

In a society in which English is the key to a good career and has a high market value, forcing most schools to teach in Chinese seems illogical.

When the mother-tongue policy was introduced, it was condemned by some as a patriotic move aimed at downgrading English. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Before and after the handover, bi-literacy in Chinese and English and trilingualism in Cantonese, Putonghua and English have remained the goal of language education in Hong Kong.

The question that has taxed many minds is how the goal could be best achieved in a predominantly Cantonese society in which English is the key to a good career and Putonghua has become the power language.

The colonial administration began to wrestle with the issue of medium of instruction in the mid-1980s, but it lacked the political will to mandate a clear language policy, other than encouraging schools to teach in Chinese.

At most primary schools, then and now, all textbooks are written in standard Chinese, whose spoken form closely mirrors Putonghua, but classes are conducted in Cantonese, the mother tongue of most students.

English is taught as a subject, but the quality of instruction varies, as many teachers were untrained and a benchmark test for English teachers was not introduced until after the handover.

However, in the belief that more exposure to English would enhance students' fluency in the language, most secondary schools used to teach all subjects in English, except Chinese language and Chinese history.

While the practice did enable a small number of students motivated enough to learn in English to attain fluency at an early age, the abrupt language switch at Form One proved a disaster for the majority who were stunted by the requirement to learn in a foreign tongue.

Worse, many teachers at schools that claimed to teach in English actually conducted classes in a mixture of English and Cantonese, because they did not have a good grasp of English themselves.

Most students ended up failing to master English by the end of their secondary schooling, and the huge amount of time they devoted to learning through English also meant they failed to learn most subjects well or develop their skills in Chinese.

The policy move in 1998, requiring most secondary schools to teach in Chinese, was aimed at addressing the previously lop-sided emphasis on English. At the 114 schools allowed to continue to teach in English, teachers are required to use only English to conduct classes, to eliminate the harmful effect of mixed-code teaching.

But the policy has been regarded by many as socially divisive, as it amounts to grouping schools into two categories, with those teaching in English officially designated as superior.
Ardent advocates of the mother-tongue policy say all schools should be required to teach in Chinese during the nine years of compulsory education, while others feel schools should continue to be allowed to choose their own teaching language.

The government's policy of forcing the majority to teach in Chinese, but permitting a minority to use English, is seen as a compromise. It may be educationally illogical, but is reluctantly accepted by most.

Explaining the rationale of the working group's proposals, Mr Tien took pains to remind the community that fluency in English was but one of the goals of education.

He said the starting point of the group's discussion was that at the end of nine years of compulsory education, every child should have built up a firm foundation for further studies and personal growth.

They must have achieved basic competencies in Chinese, English and mathematics, and developed sound cognitive skills and a positive attitude towards life.

The most effective medium of achieving these goals is the mother tongue, said Mr Tien. This approach may not be best in delivering the highest standard in second language [English]. But trying to achieve the three goals through a second language is a long and winding road.

Our position is that a child should learn through the mother tongue in the early stage of his life. If we teach through English too early, the child may not learn because he would lose interest.
Mr Tien said while he had no hard evidence, he wondered if the apparent decline in English standards among young people in recent years had to do with their exposure to bad English spoken by subject teachers with poor skills in the language.

He brushed off complaints from teachers at English-medium schools that they would be required to prove their proficiency in English, saying they should not be teaching in English if they could not get their message across in the language.

Consistent with the mother-tongue policy, the working group has rejected English-medium schools' demand to introduce an English test to screen students. Instead, it will continue to use primary students' scores across all subjects, after taking into account variations of standards across schools, as an indicator of who could benefit from learning through English.

Mr Tien said experts believed that whether a child could learn effectively in a second language was not entirely dependant on skills in that language, but on a range of factors, such as whether he or she had developed good cognitive abilities and was keen to learn through that language.
He called on the community not to obsess with the distinction between English-medium and Chinese-medium secondary schools, as the only difference was the former would be permitted to use English from Form One and the latter from Form Four. The difference is just three years, he said.

In future, he envisioned most students switching to learning in English at different points and to varying extents after Form Four, while some may choose to stick with mother tongue through university.

Mindful of parents and students' desires to switch to English, the working group has proposed allowing Chinese-medium schools to devote some class time between Forms One and Three to conducting English activities in which students' performance will not be assessed.

For example, Mr Tien said, some schools may want to go through vocabularies for science subjects in English, so students would not be intimidated by such terms when they made the language switch in Form Four.

In reviewing the SSPA, the working group has retained an important feature of the system - grouping primary graduates into three bands according to their performance, with band one students given priority in choosing secondary schools, followed by those from bands two and three.

In practise, this will perpetuate the situation in which schools end up being labelled according to the banding of their intakes, with its associated branding effect on the reputation of schools and the self-image of their students. Is democracy better than benevolent dictatorship? Mr Tien asked rhetorically.

Despite criticisms of the system, he said a pragmatic course had to be taken as it would be more difficult to teach students of varying abilities without streaming, given Hong Kong's unique language demand for bi-literacy and trilingualism.

Copyright (c) 2005. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.



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