19 May 2019
At present, the quantity and quality of English and Mandarin inputs for kids in Hong Kong depend on parents' choices of nurseries and kindergartens. Photo: HKEJ
At present, the quantity and quality of English and Mandarin inputs for kids in Hong Kong depend on parents' choices of nurseries and kindergartens. Photo: HKEJ

New approach needed to help kids develop strong language skills

Previously, we mentioned that the Hong Kong government was seeking to nurture “bi-literate and tri-lingual” citizens by immersing students in an English-rich environment in school settings.

Such route can be described as a “late immersion” approach.

For instance, English-capable primary school graduates would be allocated to secondary schools using English as the medium of instruction (EMI).

Meanwhile, Mandarin is a required subject from the start of junior primary (Primary 1) until the end of junior secondary (Form 3).

However, as for preschool education, the Education Bureau has yet to issue any detailed official curriculum guidelines on both languages. As a result, the quantity and quality of English and Mandarin inputs depend on parents’ choices of nurseries and kindergartens.

In general, preschool English would start from ABC and simple everyday words. Meanwhile, there has been a huge discrepancy in Mandarin teaching, ranging from introducing no Mandarin to teaching it as a regular school subject.

According to many results from studies from psycholinguistics and neuroscience, there are internal and external factors affecting individuals’ second language acquisition, among which age is an indispensable factor.

Irrespective of acquisition of the mother tongue, second language or foreign language, preschoolers aged between four and six and junior primary pupils aged between six and eight are identified as better languages learners than adults, as they are more able to readily pick up and internalize what they have learned into their own language system.

In other words, the greater the age to enter the learning of second or foreign language, the lower would be the learning effectiveness, it has been noted.

The government’s promotion of “bi-literate and tri-lingual” has been difficult since the bureau has left out the golden learning period: preschool education.

It is the prime period for individuals’ brain development, whole person development and language development. As mentioned, it is yet to be a part of the standard curriculum. 

That said, the government has been getting half the result with twice the effort.

In fact, individuals also suffer by this curriculum design of “late immersion”.

For most local university students who are native Cantonese speakers, if their English foundation is weak, it is unlikely to do anything that can possibly boost their level of proficiency profoundly within only three or four years.

It is found that the acquisition and development of languages by pupils aged between four and eight (from kindergarten and Key Stage 1) is better than that of secondary and tertiary students.

In other words, when children aged between four and eight are subject to quality language inputs, they are more likely to succeed as competent speakers of English and Mandarin.

In conclusion, we would urge the Education Bureau to conduct a comprehensive review on language policy for every key stage and formulate policy with consideration beginning from pre-primary education, instead of depending on “late immersion” approach.

Leung Wai-mun, Director of Chinese Language Center (CLC) and Assistant Professor at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, is the co-author of this article that appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb. 10.

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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