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Psychological Underpinnings of Measures to Support Non-Chinese Speaking Students’ Learning of the Chinese Language

Psychological Underpinnings of Measures to

Support Non-Chinese Speaking Students’

Learning of the Chinese Language

Speech by Mrs Cherry Tse, Permanent Secretary for Education

(Unison Roundtable Lunch on Saturday, 3 May 2014)


Chairlady of Unison, Miss Margaret Ng, Ladies and Gentlemen,


Good afternoon.  You have had a whole morning of heavy-going discussions on curriculum and policy issues relevant to non-Chinese speaking students’ acquisition of the Chinese language.  I am not going to upset your appetite by repeating the list of the existing and new measures that the Government has adopted and will adopt.  Instead, I shall focus more on the psychological underpinnings of various measures.  Our approach can be summarized in two catch-phrases.  First, a “Can Do” spirit.  Second, a “Future-oriented perspective of time”. 



A “Can Do” Spirit


2.          Let’s start from the fundamentals.  Why do we see education as an important means to facilitate non-Chinese speaking students’ integration?  We regard education as important because it is transformational.  It promotes social mobility.  It does not take the starting point as deterministic.  Nor does it assume that the status-quo is cast-iron.  Instead, we believe that education can change things and change people, yes, change things and change people, not overnight, but over-time.  Then, how does change come about?


Attribution Theory


3.          Social psychologists study why people do what they do.  In particular, the study of causation, or “attribution”, 「歸因」in Chinese, examines how our perceptions of ourselves and of the world around us can affect how we behave, what we do and ultimately, our achievements.  Attribution theories have evolved for over a century.  For simplicity, I shall focus on Bernard Weiner’s achievement attribution theory which is widely regarded as the most relevant and practical for education.  Weiner attributes achievement to four factors, being efforts, ability, task difficulty and luck.  He identifies three causal dimensions, namely, locus of change, stability and controllability.  There are things which a student cannot change and cannot control, such as his parents, his mother tongue, his racial and socio-economic background, his test paper and whether he has luck.  If a student attributes his success or failure to something external to him, beyond his control and unstable, then it does not make sense for him to try harder, or to give up immediate satisfaction (such as playing computer games and other hedonistic pursuits).  Only if a student sees that he can influence his own future would his efforts today become meaningful.  Without this sense of empowerment, ownership and responsibility for his own future, it is difficult for a student to relate today’s sacrifices to tomorrow’s achievements.   Of course, support measures and a congenial environment count but what is irreplaceable is a student’s motivation.  Let me cite an analogy.  Even if there is a library full of resources, knowledge cannot sink in the consciousness of a student if he does not take the initiative to read up.


4.          Weiner’s theory ties in perfectly well with the essence of education.  Education is never starting point-deterministic.  Were it otherwise, then there would be no need for primary and secondary schools.  We might as well just assign university places according to the wealth, social status or other criteria of the children’s background.  Well, even university might not be needed too.  All of us, I am sure, will dismiss this as ridiculous.  We are in this room today because we do not take the status quo as immutable.  We believe that efforts pay off.  We invest in education because we believe in its value adding potential.  The starting point and the status quo are relevant only as the basis for us to work on.  Success does not drop from the sky.  Education adds value.   How far a student can go depends on many things, the most important of which must be his efforts, aspirations and perseverance.  Success is the culmination of small, incremental improvements made, over time.  A student must be made to believe that his efforts matter and the more he practices, the better he will become.  This applies to learning about almost anything, from language, ball-game, dancing, musical instrument and even cooking.


Chinese Language Curriculum Second Language Learning Framework


5.          The vast majority of non-Chinese speaking students (notably ethnic minorities) are second/third generation born in Hong Kong.  They are in essence no different from the second/third generation Chinese emigrants to Caucasian countries.  To say that a student born in Hong Kong, due to his family or racial background, must be destined to learn a Chinese curriculum whose end-point is lower in standard and in standing to that pursued by his fellow students, also born in Hong Kong, is neither fair nor doing the student justice.  Irrespective of his racial and family background, a student should be given an equal chance to reach the same level of achievement.  This conviction of ours is borne out by anecdotal evidence from various sources.  The Territory-wide System Assessment (TSA) that measures the basic competency in Chinese, English and Mathematics of students at the end of Primary 3, Primary 6 and Secondary 3 indicates that the average TSA performance in Chinese language of non-Chinese speaking students is indeed lower than that of their Chinese speaking counterparts.  Nevertheless, there are some non-Chinese speaking students who out-perform their Chinese speaking contemporaries.  Similarly, the results of the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) Chinese language paper indicate that on average, Chinese-speaking students perform better than the non-Chinese speaking ones.  However, there are an encouraging 67% and 31% of non-Chinese speaking students reaching Level 2 and Level 3 or above respectively.  Some Chinese speaking students fail to attain even Level 2 and Level 3 even though Chinese is their mother tongue and they started learning Chinese from kindergarten.  These data tell us that education can defy starting positions and take a person to a destination which may seem unreachable when seen from the starting point. 


6.          Lowering our expectation for, and of, our students, in a lot of situations, is doing more harm than good.  Sending the message that their destiny is bounded by their ethnic background is very discouraging.  This is contradictory to the recent positive psychology or positive education movement that try to make all students, irrespective of their current stage of development, believe that they “can”.


7.          Therefore, despite the well-intentioned pressure asking the Education Bureau to introduce a second language Chinese curriculum with a lower end-point, we have responded with the “Chinese Language Curriculum Second Language Learning Framework” (or the “Learning Framework” in short).  Developed from the perspective of second language learners, the Learning Framework provides a systematic series of small steps with expected learning outcomes, supporting learning and teaching materials and assessment tools that seek to enable a non-Chinese speaking student to progressively bridge over to mainstream Chinese language classes.  The small steps make it easier for a non-Chinese speaking student to derive satisfaction from progress; and the satisfaction in turn fuels further efforts to reach to the next higher level.  The feeling that one can influence one’s future facilitates the formation of a virtuous cycle of efforts and achievements.


8.          Professional support, learning and teaching materials, assessment tools and enhanced funding support will be given to the schools so that they may adopt diversified measures to support non-Chinese speaking students’ learning of the Chinese language.  These include, for example, pull-out teaching, split-class teaching, increasing Chinese lesson time, co-teaching, learning Chinese across the curriculum and various forms of after-school support.  On a system level, we shall also be exploring various learning modes as well as encouraging sharing of good practices and development of learning communities.  These, in turn, will facilitate the growth, over time, of effective pedagogical practices on supporting non-Chinese speaking students’ acquisition of the Chinese language.




Multiple Pathways


9.          Though convinced that we should give non-Chinese speaking students a fair chance to reach an on-par standard, we also accept that some non-Chinese speaking students may face very challenging circumstances, for example, they may start learning Chinese at a rather late stage.  For those who for various reasons prefer to pursue a less academic route, we offer alternatives such as Applied Learning Chinese which is pegged to the Qualifications Framework and Workplace Chinese which is geared to the needs of different industries.  Furthermore, thanks to the suggestion by Hon Abraham Shek, we also, from 2012, started to offer subsidies to eligible non-Chinese speaking students to take various international examinations on Chinese language and expand the means-tested Examination Fee Remission Scheme so as to facilitate future academic or vocational pursuits by non-Chinese speaking students. In this connection, I would also like to point out that non-Chinese speaking students are one of target intake groups of one of the Youth Colleges of the Vocational Training Council.   


10.        To sum up, we believe in the intrinsic ability of all students, including non-Chinese speaking students.  We do not believe in giving them a pre-set glass ceiling.  Students also need to believe in themselves, in their ability to craft a brighter tomorrow by working hard today.  The opportunity to be on par with their Chinese speaking students must be there for those who want to give it a try.  This is complemented with diverse pathways that can enable them to articulate academically or vocationally. 


11.        To say that we want students to take ownership is not a justification for doing nothing.  We do believe that an encouraging environment with appropriate support measures can enable more to do better and in a less stressful and more efficient way.  The question is how.  This leads me to the second catch-phrase – a “future-oriented perspective of time”.



Future-oriented Perspective of Time


12.        The phrase “future perspective of time” is borrowed from a Royal Society of Arts Animate lecture “The Secret Powers of Time” by a renowned Stanford psychologist Professor Philip Zimbardo[1].  Professor Zimbardo explains how our individual perspectives of time affect our work, health and well-being.  In particular, on the basis of his decades of research, he describes how a future-oriented approach to managing time can change destiny.   If we plan the use of our “present time” with the goal that we wish to reach in the future in mind, we stand a better chance of using our time more gainfully and meaningfully.  In turn, we stand a better chance of reaching our goal.  So, the question before us is how we should structure the support measures in order to enhance the value-adding potential of the education process for non-Chinese speaking students for the purpose of improving their command of the Chinese language.


Creating a Congenial Social Environment


13.        In formulating a “present” context to support non-Chinese speaking students’ acquisition of the Chinese language, we must be purposeful so that their time and efforts will be translated into future achievements.  Learning is interactive, as confirmed by decades of social development and learning theories[2]. Non-Chinese speaking students face greater challenges in mastering the Chinese language because a Chinese-immersion environment is absent in their families.  So, the school and community contexts assume added significance.  Despite vociferous objection at the time, the Education Bureau took the bold step 10 years ago to change the then prevailing system which confined the primary school choices of non-Chinese speaking students to schools whose students were predominantly non-Chinese speaking.  We overhauled the system and gave non-Chinese speaking students the choice of all schools on par with their Chinese speaking counterparts.  In the initial years, not many embraced this courageous break from the past but some did.  The pioneers are now pursuing their senior secondary studies.  This additional choice remains today.  The Education Bureau keeps an open mind.  If there is a consensus, we are most willing to remove the additional choice of the eight schools with vast majority of students being non-Chinese speaking, so that all students (be they Chinese or non-Chinese speaking) would choose schools in a like manner.


14.        Following the removal of the label of “designated schools” last year, we now have 151 primary and secondary schools with 10 or more non-Chinese speaking students. They are provided with recurrent government funding for implementing school-based support programmes for these students.  If schools with even one non-Chinese speaking student are counted too, then the number of schools with non-Chinese speaking students will shoot to over 580.  We should be preparing students for life.  “Protecting” or confining non-Chinese speaking students in a similar ethnic group is not providing them with enough opportunities for learning the Chinese language.  Nor should this be the way to prepare them for the real adult life that they will face not too far down the road.


Role of Significant Adults


15.        My colleagues and I have thought hard on how we may make the school and the community contexts a more effective environment for non-Chinese speaking students to learn the Chinese language.  Research has time and again confirmed the crucial role of teachers. Seldom could a school’s performance exceed the aggregate professionalism of its teachers.   So, we have decided to enrich the support to schools with more professional development and sharing activities, more learning and teaching materials and more funding.  In addition, through the Language Fund, we have also introduced a pilot scheme to encourage and subsidise Chinese language teachers to acquire the skills of teaching Chinese to non-Chinese speaking students.


16.        Apart from teachers, parents also constitute an important group of significant adults.  Non-Chinese speaking parents in general have been found to be not particularly active in parent-teacher activities.  For some students, additional after-school remedial support may not be as effective as we would have hoped because the students are already fully occupied with their day-time school work and other family, social and religious activities.  Supplementary support at a time when the students are less stressed is desirable.  Therefore, we have for a number of years been running a Summer Bridging Programme for non-Chinese speaking students entering Primary 1 or progressing to Primary 2, 3 and 4. The participation rate is unstable and varies greatly.  Noting that small children can seldom make it to school during the summer break without the company of their parents, we tried out last year the inclusion of the parents in the Programme.  Parents could either learn alongside their children.  Or, they could learn something of greater relevance to them next door.  By doing so, we wish to achieve three objectives.  First, to enhance students’ participation.  Second, to encourage parents to integrate into the community generally, and into the schools of their children in particular.  In addition, parents with a greater command of Chinese and who know more about the schools of their children should be able to support better their children’s learning at school.  The try-out was successful and we intend to continue with the arrangement this year. 


Learning when Small and in Fun


17.        Language is best learned when small.  So, starting from the 2012/13 school year, we have started the pilot project of providing, both direct by the Education Bureau as well as through the University-School Support Programme, professional support services to kindergartens with non-Chinese speaking students. 


18.        Language is best learnt when small and especially in a fun way.  With support from the Language Fund, we have, since 2013, commissioned NGOs to conduct district-based programmes for non-Chinese speaking children aged 3 to 9 to learn Chinese through ball games and different forms of creative arts.  When learning in a fun and enjoyable manner, children find the Chinese language less monstrous.  Learning becomes less stressful and retention becomes more durable.  We are now exploring the extension of these district-based Chinese learning through fun activities to primary or maybe even secondary non-Chinese speaking students.


Education Policy & Measures being Developmental


19.        We all have done a lot.  However, a lot remains to be done. There is never sufficiency in education.  Learning does not happen at the stroke of a magic wand.  It is an impalpable chemical bonding of atoms of knowledge and skills bit-by-bit and day-by-day.  Students are diverse. Parents are diverse.  Schools are diverse.  Teachers are diverse.  But to create an effective learning environment, none can operate in isolation. They need to come together.  So, education policy and measures must necessarily be developmental because it is people-oriented, as much as it is process- and outcome-oriented.



What Next?


20.        To ensure effectiveness of the measures adopted and piloted, monitoring and evaluation is a must.  Hong Kong is a caring community.  There are quite a number of well-intentioned individuals and organisations ready to partner with us.  We welcome partnership.  Nevertheless, before jumping into any concrete research projects, we consider it prudent to think through the interrelationships among various variables, as well as how the processes of data enumeration and analysis may be structured.  This is a crucial preparatory step that determines research validity and data reliability.  To inform policy, research must be rigorously designed.   We have invited research and language experts to formulate a research framework to facilitate the evaluation of the effectiveness of various support measures. 


21.        Our urge to do better is the motor of progress.  “Good, better, best, never let it rest; until your good is better, and your better, best”.  Looking ahead, our endeavor to nurture a rich, multi-faceted and future-oriented social context must continue.  It should be a context supported by diverse and professionally sound measures that aim to raise learning outcomes.  Government alone cannot make the context efficacious.  All need to chip in.  In particular, the parents should embrace the challenge of sending their children to mainstream kindergartens and schools.  Above all, we must inculcate in the students a “can-do” spirit.  They must be encouraged to have high expectations of themselves and take ownership of their future.


22.        I wish you all a nice weekend.  Thank you.



[1] The link to this RSAnimate programme is


[2] Of most direct impact to education are Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s theories on how interaction fosters cognitive development especially language acquisition.  Therefore, thoughtful consideration of all relevant circumstances, including the presence of significant others and the nature of the interaction, would be key to enabling a stimulating and meaningful interaction between the environment and the cognitive faculty of the learner.

Last revision date: 03 May 2014
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