Chapter 18: Language Proficiency in the Community

18.1 Hong Kong in the 1990s is a language-conscious community. The issue of language proficiency - a tri-lingual question involving Cantonese, Mandarin (or Putonghua) and English - is a major concern of government, of educationalists and of the community at large, and is often hotly debated. Hardly a day passes without one or more newspapers carrying a letter or article about the demand for teaching of Putonghua or the decline in English standards among Hong Kong pupils and students. A recent (March 1996) article in the Far Eastern Economic Review described one of our tertiary institutions as "a symbol of the decline in local English standards in Hong Kong. At a time when other parts of Asia are trying to boost their skills -- the battle for English on this campus appears to be a losing one". The various Education Commission Reports (ECRs), including its first in 1984, have drawn attention to problems of language in education at all levels, including that of teacher training. Partly in response to this, a number of research projects in the UGC-funded institutions and in the Department of Education's Institute of Language in Education (now incorporated into the Hong Kong Institute of Education) have explored and are exploring questions of how to identify the unique language problems of the younger generation in Hong Kong, and how to assess and enhance their language proficiency.

18.2 The most recent report of the Education Commission - ECR 6, issued as a Consultation Document in December 1995 and now finalised - is entitled "Enhancing Language Proficiency : A Comprehensive Strategy". Its chief strategic recommendation to government is the establishment of a Standing Committee on Language Education and Research (SCOLAR). This will establish a comprehensive institutional framework whose purpose will be to enable and co-ordinate research into language needs in Hong Kong, to develop policies to meet those needs, and to monitor and evaluate those policies. Among the other recommendations are minimum language proficiency standards for all teachers before they can be qualified, benchmark qualifications for language teachers (see paragraph 19.3), and more use of native speakers of English and Putonghua.

18.3 A central aim of higher education in Hong Kong must be, as our Interim Report phrased it, to "provide very high quality bilingual manpower for both Hong Kong and the hinterland". With 1997 fast approaching, "bilingual" should now more appropriately read "trilingual". The government has formulated, as a post-1997 objective, the policy of having a civil service which is bi-literate (Chinese and English) and tri-lingual (Cantonese, Putonghua and English). Much the same language expectations must apply to those being educated to enter the spheres of finance, business and other professions, and a recent survey by the Federation of Hong Kong Industries has shown fluency in Putonghua as the most sought after attribute by its members recruiting middle to senior management.

18.4 Some 98 percent of Hong Kong's population are of Chinese background, with Cantonese as their first language. English is spoken as a home language by less than 1 percent of the population. Unlike Singapore, where English is the common language of a linguistically diverse community, most Hong Kong citizens use the same Chinese dialect (Cantonese) for everyday purposes. At the same time English is not simply the language of the administration: vital needs and interests of the community require the acquisition of language other than the mother tongue. Those needs are well summarised in ECR 4 (1990):

"Hong Kong is an international business, financial and trading centre. English therefore has an important place in the economic life of our community. In order to maintain Hong Kong's international position, we have to ensure that we produce sufficient well-educated people able to communicate in both English and Chinese. Political and social developments mean that we also need to give proper emphasis to the use of Chinese."

It is in the spirit of this statement - that the social and economic well-being of the territory is vitally dependent on the language ability of its population - that higher education in Hong Kong aims to produce proficient users of both Chinese and English.

18.5 In the successive stages which make up an individual's educational experience, no stage stands quite alone; each builds on what has gone before. That is particularly true for language proficiency; and the perceived problems as well as the developing policies at the tertiary level are interdependent with those at primary and secondary levels. We need, therefore, to look briefly at language problems and developments in the schools. The POSTE study (see paragraph 1.7) provides interesting background.

18.6 When, in the 1980s, a perception began to take hold that there was a decline in the ability of tertiary students to communicate effectively either in Chinese or in English, this decline was attributed to the broadening of the school population brought about by the extension of the period of free and compulsory education to nine years in 1978. While there were as many, or more, high achievers, there were also many more low achievers; and undoubtedly there occurred a lowering of the average level of language proficiency. In the case of English the decline was also attributed to the progressive change to Chinese as the medium of instruction in secondary schools, a topic with which we start our next chapter.

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