SCMP Saturday, September 29, 2001

'Mother tongue' schools bow to English as best medium


Almost a half of secondary schools using Chinese as the medium of instruction are now teaching senior students in English.
As many as 134 out of the 294 Chinese-medium secondary schools in Hong Kong are now teaching either all or some of this year's Form Four students in English. These students are the first group affected by the Government's "mother tongue" policy, introduced three years ago when 223 secondary schools were forced to adopt Chinese as the medium of instruction.
Many principals said that the decision was made because students educated in Chinese-medium schools needed to be proficient in English both to succeed in the tertiary education system and to meet society's expectations. Aberdeen Baptist Lui Ming Choi College is a typical example, teaching senior science students in English.
"We have to take into consideration how our students can cope with university education, where most lectures and science textbooks are in English," said principal Peter Yuen Pun-shek. Finding good teachers was also a problem because most were educated in English-medium schools, he said.
The principal of one of 11 Chinese-medium schools which is now teaching all senior secondary subjects in English, who declined to be named, said: "I fully understand the strength of Chinese-medium education. However, it's a pity that students educated in their native language are not popular with employers and local universities."
Like many other Chinese-medium schools, Aberdeen Baptist Lui Ming Choi and Salesian English both offered bridging courses to would-be Form Four students during the summer holidays to facilitate their transition from Chinese to English teaching. The courses mainly focused on subject-specific vocabulary.
However, Evelyn Man Yee-fun, assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the Chinese University, believed that bridging programmes of only a few weeks were insufficient to prepare Form Three students for the sudden switch in language.
She said the need for the wholesale use of English from Form Four was because the Chinese-language environment only allowed limited exposure to the language. Moreover, the design of the primary and junior secondary curricula rarely integrated English content.
She added that contradictory messages sent by the Government and the business community prompted many Chinese-medium schools and students to opt for English. "On the one hand, the Government is saying how mother-tongue education can encourage interactions with teachers and better develop students' critical thinking skills," she said. "On the other hand, criticism flocks in from the business sector on the low English proficiency of university graduates in Hong Kong."
She also accused the Government of being unrealistic in expecting Chinese-medium students to perform equally well in English as their peers who attended schools where they were taught in English.
The present exam system failed to show schools and parents the strength of Chinese-medium teaching, added Dr Tse Shek-kam, director of the University of Hong Kong's Support Centre for Teachers using Chinese as the Medium of Instruction.
"Without the need to overcome the foreign language barrier, students of Chinese-medium schools are theoretically expected to focus on high-order thinking. However, they are still following the same syllabus and the same set of exam questions as their English-medium counterparts."