Mother-Tongue Teaching A Flop

A news report reminds me of my previous post titled “English Skills in China and Hong Kong” dated September 2, 2007. The part that is relevant to Hong Kong is repeated below:-

“Ever since the implementation of Tung Chee-Hwa’s ill-advised policy of teaching in the mother-tongue, the standard of English among secondary school and university students went from bad to worse. In recent years, there have been abundant reports that multinational firms are constantly complaining about the acute shortage of local staff with reasonably good English skills, both written and spoken. These go some way to show that that policy has done more harm than good.

It is simply paradoxical for Hong Kong to claim to be an international financial hub on the one hand, and on the other to have a dearth of suitably qualified staff whose basic skill sets should include good English skills.

Before over-zealous patriots start throwing stones at me for daring to promote the language of the hateful colonial gweilos, let us ponder for a moment on the pragmatic side of the issue. Using the words of my former boss, ‘It is only in the interests of Hong Kong people to speak and write good English. After all, English is the international language used in the business, finance, science, technology and medicine arenas. Being able to master the language is a prerequisite to a successful career or enterprise.’

It would really serve no purpose to use excuses such as nationalism, decolonization, respect for Chinese culture etc. etc. to deprive Hong Kong people of their right to properly learn to master the English language, spoken and written, which has more or less been hampered by the teaching in the mother-tongue program.

My nephew is one of the victims of the society slighting the learning and usage of the English language, made even worse by that program, in the days following the handover. His parents sent him to Vancouver to continue schooling here last year because of total frustration with Hong Kong’s education system. At grade 10 (equivalent to Form 4 in Hong Kong), his English standard was found to be far below that required for that grade and as a result he had to take extra-curricular English lessons. After struggling for a year, he made some progress and got just passing grades in English at his final exams. If he can’t catch up with his classmates in his grade 11 and grade 12 years, he will not stand a chance of reaching pre-university standard of English and will possibly be declined university entry because of it.

I can now understand why some parents in Hong Kong are willing to fork out a fortune to try to get their children into English-speaking international schools.”

Subsequent to the posting, I exchanged comments with a reader named “little Alex” and here is the exchange:-

“little Alex” said: “Thing is, on the HKCEE (sp?), while the students' English scores have gone down, their scores in other subject areas have gone up. Or at least that's what I heard.

So now we have to consider, do we want the students to do well in English but poorly in all the other subjects, or do we want them to do well in the majority of the subjects but do poorly in English...?

It shouldn't have gone down to a choice between the lesser of two evils, but unfortunately here we are..”

Alice Poon said: “Thank you for your comment. My personal view is that the key lies in how well one can master the English language (which is not difficult if the teachers are well qualified, and with all due respect to non-native teachers, native English teachers can naturally do the job much better but of course they demand higher wages). Once the student has a good grasp of the language, it will be easy for him/her to absorb knowledge in other subjects via the English medium. My own experience (and I am sure it is the experience of many from my generation) of being taught by native English teachers would attest to this.”

According to the news report, The Chinese University’s study found that “students learning in Chinese had lower success rates in the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination, including Chinese and English, as well as Advanced Level exams, including Chinese language and culture, and use of English, compared with students studying in the English medium of instruction.”

The findings show that “success rates of students studying in Chinese in passing the five thresholds (predetermined criteria) were significantly lower than that of their counterparts in the English medium of instruction stream”.

The screaming message here is: the mother-tongue program has failed miserably. Going down with it are not only the standard of English skills but also the average academic performance of high school students. Even if the Education Bureau starts to make adjustments to its policy now, many more sub-par graduates will still be coming on stream in the near future.