Cry CU 有關中大國際化討論

星期一, 2月 14, 2005

A tongue-tying dilemma


Most post-colonial societies have gone through periods of intense political strife over education and language. This was because it was generally believed that the colonial system served mainly to groom loyalist elites, and the language of the colonial rulers served to make the locals culturally subservient and to suppress their indigenous identity.

Hong Kong appears to have escaped this type of traumatic process, partly because the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law allow a high degree of continuity of pre-existing systems and institutions. Neither was there a nationalist movement championing a new regime of indigenous culture, language and values. The new rhetoric about nationalism and patriotism has more to do with identifying with the mainland than rediscovering Hong Kong history and identity.

Companies prefer to recruit employees who have a good command of English. Thus, parents worry that their children might be at a disadvantage if they are educated in Chinese. Chinese-medium schools also resent the labelling effect. Hence, when the government introduced compulsory guidance on the use of the mother tongue as the medium of instruction in schools in 1998, it triggered uproar.

Here lies a fundamental dilemma. For Hong Kong to remain an international hub, English - the language of business and the professions - has to be a working language. Until the 1990s, the government adopted a laissez-faire policy. Schools were free to choose their language of instruction. The result was that most proclaimed themselves Anglo-Chinese. But this just produced students who were neither good at English nor Chinese.

Universities face a similar dilemma. Undergraduates prefer to be taught and conduct tutorials in Cantonese. Some academics already use Cantonese in lectures. But this goes against the universities' policy to become international and admit more foreign students. An added complication is that teaching in Cantonese may make Hong Kong even more parochial, and mean it is hard to recruit mainland students.

There is no doubting the merits of using the mother tongue in education, assuming that students can still be proficient in English by the time they leave, through extra input such as the NET (Native English Teacher) scheme. Whether such a strategy can succeed is still not known. In practice, any policy option is, at best, a trade-off. The community has to make a choice.

An elitist option is to build Hong Kong into an English-speaking city like Singapore, in which case we should forget the ideal about mother-tongue teaching, ignore those who would be marginalised by their poor language ability, and just concentrate on nurturing an English-speaking cream for government, business and the professions.

Alternatively, we could be pragmatic and accept that the majority cannot benefit from English-medium education. All government-funded schools should use Chinese, and better-off parents should pay for private English education. However, some people believe that this would reduce English standards overall.

A third option, being pursued by the government, is co-existence, with, ideally, quality Chinese- and English-medium schools competing for students. It may succeed if parents are indifferent to which type of school is best, and accept that it is the quality rather than the language of teaching that matters.

In reality, many parents cannot wait for such a model to produce results. Chinese-medium schools tend to be labelled inferior, so they want to switch to teaching in English. This creates a vicious cycle, resulting in a two-tier system that makes a mockery of the mother-tongue policy, and is one reason for the failure of education.

Anthony Cheung Bing-leung is a professor of public administration at City University of Hong Kong and chairman of SynergyNet, a policy think-tank.

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



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