Professor Arthur K C Li Secretary for Education and Manpower Speech for Seminar on Native English-speaking Teachers (NET)
11 October 2002
Chris, Mr Tham, ladies and gentlemen, colleagues,,
First and foremost, I'd like to welcome all of you most heartedly on behalf of the Government as well as myself for all our NETs for being here in Hong Kong and especially our School English Teachers (SETs) because I think you are embarking on a very exciting adventure together.
The Hong Kong SAR Government has always regarded language as very, very important. If we want to be a cosmopolitan city and if we want to really do well, there is no doubt that our population, our young people must master English. It is the language of commerce, science, medicine, and many, many other things. About a quarter of the world population actually communicate entirely in English. So we feel that it is our responsibility as a Government to support English language education in Hong Kong.
We don't just keep on saying that we support it. We actually put in money where our mouth is. Despite the deficit, we have put in an average of $560 million each year in support of the NET Scheme. So you are very, very important people to us because we don't believe that the NET coming to Hong Kong is merely just to teach English. You are here to enhance the educational culture in school, to help us create an environment for our students that is conducive to language learning. And then we also have our SET - a local English teacher - to work with you so that we can together build a whole environment this is going to be a happy environment for our students to learn a very difficult language if I may say so.
I, myself, although I am married to my own NET, whom I've brought along, and I can tell you she corrects my English everyday. English is a terrible language to learn for someone who is not a native speaker. It's really difficult because it's basically an imprecise language. Unlike Latin, which is very precise. And perhaps that's the beauty of it, because of its imprecision.
Why I say English is a not precise language, like Latin, is for the same reason. Now take a simple word like "oversight", and the Government has always been accused of this sort of thing. Actually when you talk about "oversight", you mean "the lack of it". But "oversight" also means "observation", exactly opposite thing for the same word. Like the word "fast", or "fast" as some of the NETs are from America. It means "stuck together firmly", but it also means "moving at a very rapid rate".
So it is very, very difficult for us who are non-English speakers to appreciate these nuances. Like "appropriate", the opposite of that is "inappropriate". Put an "i", "n" in front of it, then it becomes the opposite.
But not so when you come to "valuable". "Invaluable" is the same as "valuable", isn't it? And "flammable" is the same as "inflammable". I don't know whether one burns more, one burns less. "Passive", "impassive". Put an "im" is still the same thing.
So it is difficult for us to appreciate, like when you have the word "shameless". That means "shameful", it's not "shame" "less", it is "shameful". There are of course many phrases like "a cow in calf", what you really mean is "a calf in a cow". And when you are going to see somebody in the morning, and they are not available. You say, "he is not up yet" but what you mean is "he is not down yet".
So with all these anomalies, ladies and gentleman, I appreciate you have a very, very tough task ahead of you, trying to tell our students what you really mean. I am delighted that we, also now in our scheme, have secondary school teachers who can hopefully show you our own culture and act as a bridge between you from a different culture, different language to us so that you can build up a really, really strong and happy environment, an environment conducive to language learning for all of us in Hong Kong. If you are successful with this experiment, which I certainly hope you will be, you will be helping to build Hong Kong into a truly cosmopolitan city. So your task ahead is mapped up for you and I thank you and I wish you the best of luck. Thank you very much.