24 August 2019
The education bureau should allow teachers to exercise their professional judgment and use code-mixing in teaching English. Photo: HKEJ
The education bureau should allow teachers to exercise their professional judgment and use code-mixing in teaching English. Photo: HKEJ

What’s the best way for students to gain English proficiency?

In view of the demands of a knowledge-based society and the labor market, the Hong Kong SAR government has adopted a language policy that seeks to nurture “bi-literate and tri-lingual” citizens.

Immersing students in an English-rich environment is considered one of the key functions of educational institutions.

According to the latest data from the Census and Statistics Department, 89.5 percent of Hong Kong people are Cantonese speakers.

The language is widely adopted in homes, schools, banks, courts, hospitals, mass media, government departments and many other settings.

Though English is also an official language, using Cantonese alone would be sufficient for survival.

From the perspective of the Education Bureau, in order to compensate for the students’ inadequate use of English in daily life, it must be used regularly and widely in schools to maximize their exposure to the language.

That’s the reason why the bureau forbids teachers from using Cantonese for any reason in subjects where English has been adopted as the medium of instruction (EMI), whether to explain difficult concepts or facilitate academic discussions.

This policy has been in place since the 1990s, upon the recommendation of the Education Commission Reports.

It is believed that code-mixing – the mixed use of English and Cantonese in the classroom – would prevent students from gaining maximum exposure to the English language, and the infiltration of Cantonese would hinder students from mastering English.

However, I beg to differ. First of all, it is uncertain if there is a causal relationship between code-mixing and the declining proficiency in English.

To my knowledge, there has not been any empirical evidence supporting this claim.

In fact, based on my own experience, Hongkongers who have adopted code-mixing are fluent English speakers.

There are many complex reasons to account for the declining English proficiency among Hong Kong students, and putting the blame on code-mixing alone is not convincing.

Meanwhile, many academic studies indicate that while learners are developing a second language, they are likely to experiment; they tend to use their knowledge of the mother tongue to learn and become proficient in the target language. This phenomenon is known as language transfer.

While studies worldwide suggest that as long as teachers can wisely and strategically speak in the mother tongue to teach students and help them achieve learning goals, code-mixing can achieve desirable learning outcomes and encourage active student participation.

But since the education bureau’s instruction of “maximum exposure, no mixing of codes” is a rigid, top-down approach, no ground is left for improvisation of teaching.

Band 1 students who are capable of using English completely in EMI classes will largely remain unaffected by this policy.

But in the case of band 2 or 3 students, teachers should be allowed to exercise their judgment and fine-tune their lessons with the use of appropriate amounts of Cantonese instructions. This in turn would allow the students to keep up with the curriculum.

We believe the bureau should let bilingual teachers apply their professional judgment in teaching.

As the teachers understand their students’ needs, they should have to right to switch to the learners’ first language for quick explanation, for example.

And if students are encouraged to express themselves in their mother tongue first and then use English, they will be able to think bilingually and be able to organize and express their thoughts well.

In short, a complete English environment of instruction does not guarantee learners’ mastery of the language.

Leung Wai-mun is the co-author of this article that appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan. 21

Translation by Darlie Yiu

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Head of Department of Chinese and Bilingual Studies at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University

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