Chapter 19: Language Teaching

19.1 In respect of language, one of the two main thrusts of the recommendations in ECR 1 (1984) and ECR 2 (1986) was towards encouraging secondary school authorities to adopt Chinese as the medium of teaching. It was based on the assumption, borne out by research, that for children from a monolingual Cantonese environment teaching through the unfamiliar medium of English blurred comprehension and encouraged rote-learning; and that, in the lower forms in particular, both teaching and learning were more effective in the mother tongue. The other main thrust was towards strengthening the teaching of English in Chinese-medium schools, in order to try to prevent any drop in the standard of English because of reduced exposure.

19.2 By the time ECR 3 was published (1988), it could report a series of measures taken by government in an endeavour to improve English standards in primary and secondary schools. These included the establishment of the Institute of Language in Education (ILE) to raise the quality of language teaching in schools through in-service training of teachers and through research; the recruitment of expatriate lecturers in English for the Colleges of Education and the ILE; and the provision of extra teachers in schools for remedial language teaching. The language of instruction, however, remained a more vexed issue: ECR 4 (1990) still had to report that "because parents perceive English-medium instruction as providing a better future for their children, pressure is placed on schools to offer English-medium teaching, which means in practice that they offer instead mixed-code teaching". ECR 6 recommends further support for the policies regarding the medium of instruction, such as encouraging schools to employ more native English-speaking teachers. Noting the effectiveness of the intensive English programme which acts as a bridge into tertiary education for students who have studied in Chinese-medium schools (referred to in paragraph 18.6), ECR 6 recommends the extension of such intensive English courses in Secondary 6 and 7 to students from English-medium schools. At the same time this Report keeps the needs for Chinese proficiency to the fore and recommends that Putonghua should become part of the core curriculum for all primary and secondary students.

19.3 The ability of teachers to teach competently through the chosen medium of instruction is clearly very important. The Education Commission Working Group on Language Proficiency, which was set up in October 1993, showed particular interest in strengthening the language proficiency of all student teachers; and in response to its recommendations the HKIEd, when established in 1994, devised special language enhancement programmes to be introduced into initial teacher education. Furthermore, the Institute has confronted, for its own teaching, the problems with mixed-modes (written medium in English and spoken medium in Chinese) and mixed-codes (spoken medium in both English and Chinese) and has resolved on using the mother tongue for primary certificate courses and for secondary (Chinese) certificate courses. English will be used for secondary (English) certificate courses and all postgraduate diploma courses. ECR 6 lays particular stress on remedying deficiencies in the education and achieved standards of language teachers; it recommends that the Advisory Committee on Teacher Education and Qualifications (ACTEQ) explore the possibility of establishing "benchmark qualifications" for all language teachers.

19.4 Returning to ECR 3 (paragraph 19.2), this 1988 report also paid some attention to language enhancement in the tertiary institutions. While insisting that "a general improvement at secondary level must, of course, be accomplished by the schools themselves", this report recommended that "the government consider providing additional resources for the teaching of English at tertiary institutions, where this can be justified as a remedial measure".

19.5 The UGC had long been committed to emphasizing the importance of language standards in the institutions which it funded and, in its advice on academic development plans and on its regular visits to the institutions, had encouraged the use of block grant funds to support remedial English and Chinese teaching. With the expansion of tertiary education, which inevitably meant a widening intake of students with lower language scores, the institutions themselves became increasingly concerned about the English proficiency of their students. In all of the UGC institutions some of the teaching and most of the course literature is in English, and inadequate command of English affects the whole learning process. Furthermore, English is of importance not only as a medium for learning, but also for vocational purposes: Hong Kong employers rightly expect graduates to command fluent English, and increasingly also Putonghua. Both English and Chinese are also essential for contacts with students and scholars of mainland China and of other countries and cultures.

19.6 In response to a generally perceived need, and to the ECR 3 recommendation referred to in paragraph 19.4 above, the UGC undertook to monitor three factors which directly affect language quality in the tertiary institutions under its aegis. These are 1) language requirements for admission; 2) the language ability of entrants; and 3) the use of additional resources for language enhancement provided by indicated grants. We discuss these further in the next chapter.

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