17 July 2019
A teacher attends to pupils learning Putonghua at an international school in Hong Kong. Experts have called for more efforts to promote language skills among local students. Photo: HK Government
A teacher attends to pupils learning Putonghua at an international school in Hong Kong. Experts have called for more efforts to promote language skills among local students. Photo: HK Government

Policy rethink needed to foster language skills among youth

Hong Kong government has recognized many years ago that it is important to nurture linguistic skills and talents among local youth if the city is to maintain its competitiveness in the global arena.

While the objectives are good, authorities are yet to take all the necessary measures to achieve the goal, especially in terms of policy.

Among the many challenges on education that need to be conquered, we believe one thing must be put at the top of the list-get more linguistically talented teachers to help students master written Chinese and English as well as enable the pupils to speak fluent Cantonese, Putonghua and English.

In his 1999 Policy Address, then-chief executive Tung Chee-hwa said: “It is the SAR Government’s goal to train our people to be truly biliterate and trilingual”, comments that signaled that the administration was aware that teachers would play a very important role in the process.

However, while the Education Bureau has since been working hard to bring in more teachers with the necessary standard of language ability, the city, as of now, is still short of qualified teachers who can teach English or Putonghua.

Why is that so? The root of the problem lies in that only a small number of people, especially those with linguistic talents, have been willing to work as educators after they graduate from universities.

In fact, statistics show most students who excel at languages tend to choose to pursue non-educational degrees, such as business, medicine, law, in universities so that they can make more money and gain higher social status in their careers.

Such phenomenon suggests education-related degrees are not attractive enough to the students, a problem which we think can only be resolved through policy initiatives.

It is well known that the Hong Kong government has long had enormous resources and reserves to support various educational activities, something that is envied by many neighboring countries.

But the fact is the city’s education-oriented policies have not been able to effectively solve the problems faced by the academic system.

Former chief financial secretary John Tsang, for instance, said in his budget speech in 2013 that the government would set up a scholarship fund of as much as HK$480 million to provide financial support for excellent local students to take degree courses or receive teacher training in prestigious universities overseas.

But it has one condition-receivers of the scholarship have to teach in local schools for at least two years once they return to Hong Kong.

Such a restriction was slammed by lawmaker Regina Ip, who said the fund is a proof of short-sighted bureaucracy and disarrayed policy goals.

Instead of giving money to only 20 or so excellent students each year to study abroad, Ip suggested that what the government should do is proactively hunt for local talents and train them to be capable teachers for preschool kids.

To avoid pouring public money down the drain, Ip noted that the government must ensure that these local telnets are not only capable but also enthusiastic about education.

This is something which we totally agree about.

The government really needs to re-think its education policies from the angle of what we call “prestige planning”- making teachers in kindergartens and primary schools feel proud of what they do.

Good social status and respect is as important for the teachers as getting a decent salary.

Leung Wai-mun is the co-author of this article which appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 2

Translation by Taka Liu

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

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