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Speech at the Symposium on Medium of Instruction (English Version translated from the Chinese Original)

16 March 2008 (Sunday)

Symposium on Medium of Instruction

Jointly organized by the

Chartered Institute of Linguistics Hong Kong Society and Savantas Policy Institute


Speech by the Secretary for Education, Mr Michael Suen

(The original is in Chinese.  This is a translated version)



Dear Principals, Teachers and Friends of the Education Sector,



           Good afternoon to you all.          



           First of all, I would like to thank the Chartered Institute of Linguistics Hong Kong Society and the Savantas Policy Institute for jointly organizing this symposium.  It provides a platform for people within and outside the education sector to explore the issue of the medium of instruction policy, to look into ways of strengthening the support measures to enhance the language ability of students and to nurture talents proficient in both Chinese and English.



           At the beginning of the 80s, about 90% of the secondary schools in Hong Kong adopted English as their medium of instruction.  Since the Government’s promotion of mother-tongue teaching in the 80s, the number of secondary schools choosing mother-tongue teaching has increased steadily.  At the present moment, the number of schools adopting mother-tongue teaching has already increased from 20% to 75% out of the total number of secondary schools in Hong Kong .  In other words,  currently 70% of our secondary school students are learning through the mother tongue.



           Under the mother-tongue teaching, the learning attitude and ability of students have shown considerable improvement.  The various teaching modes in the lessons, such as small group discussion and group activities, have become more interactive.  Participation in discussion in the mother tongue enhanced students’ interest and involvement.  This is conducive to all-round learning and helps to foster life-long learning.  Most importantly, students’ active participation in the lessons not only strengthens their self-confidence, but also better develops their capacity for analytical thinking, judgment and creativity.



           Results of public examinations have validated the belief that mother-tongue teaching would facilitate students’ grasp of the subject knowledge and enhance their learning interest.  The most obvious example is that the overall performance of the students from Chinese-medium schools has been improving continuously in the past few years.  Comparing the results of 2007 and those before the implementation of mother-tongue teaching, one can find that the number of students from Chinese-medium schools obtaining passes in 5 subjects or more has increased by 11 percentage points; the passing rates and credit rates of students in the core subjects have also shown marked improvements.  Among all subjects, the passing rates in History, Economics, Geography, Chemistry and Biology have recorded improvements of over 4 percentage points.



           Years of experiences in formulating public policies have told me  that some policies may bring about effects other than those intended.  Perhaps I can call these side effects.  The Government is well aware of these side effects when implementing mother-tongue teaching.  Knowing that students are having relatively less exposure to English in a Chinese-medium school environment, the Government has intentionally introduced a series of support measures so as to upkeep their English standard.



           We have been implementing measures to create a school environment which would increase students’ exposure to English and give them more opportunities to apply the language.  In a society like Hong Kong , schools are some of the places where students can be more readily exposed to English.  Therefore, for the past decade, we have put in place a number of measures to enrich schools’ English environment with the objective of boosting students’ English standard.



           To this end, we have allocated about $600 million annually to provide more than 400 native-speaking English teachers to secondary schools and about 500 native-speaking English teachers/teaching assistants to primary schools with a view to enhancing the English-rich environment and the culture of English learning and teaching in the schools.  To encourage students to read more in English, we have invested about $9 million annually to promote extensive reading across all primary and secondary levels.  We have also injected close to $900 million into the Language Fund to provide resources for secondary schools to implement school-based measures for raising the standard of English teaching and learning.



           Moreover, the Standing Committee on Language Education and Research has provided resources and organized large-scale programmes to create environments conducive to English learning outside the classroom.  The purpose is to enhance students’ learning and interest in using the language.  For instance, about $5 million a year has been set aside since 2005 for conducting English festivals, during which drama programmes and English camps, etc. are organized to increase students’ interest in learning English through these lively activities.



           For teachers, the Language Fund has allocated about $300 million for setting up a Task Force of Teaching Consultants to provide on-site support to strengthen professional leadership and teaching capability among language teachers in primary and secondary schools.



           We have put in considerable efforts in enhancing the professionalism of our language teachers, e.g. all language teachers have to meet the academic qualifications and language proficiency requirements and teachers using English as the medium of instruction have to attend professional training programmes regularly, etc.  To encourage teachers to upgrade their knowledge and teaching pedagogy, the Language Fund has allocated more than $500 million to set up the Professional Development Incentive Grant Scheme to subsidize serving language teachers taking relevant courses.  Besides, the Language Fund has provided $70 million to support primary English teachers attending overseas immersion programmes that would help to improve their English proficiency and widen their perspectives in teaching the language.



           Schools have also taken corresponding measures to raise the standard of English teaching and foster an English-rich environment.  I know that many schools have created English-rich environments outside the classroom through various means, such as English morning assemblies, English chat-rooms with small-group activities such as oral practices during lunchtime led by native-speaking English teachers,  encouraging teachers to communicate with students in English on the school campus, etc.



           From the above, it can be seen that for the past ten years, a lot of resources have been invested in supporting the learning of English, and there are individual schools that can effectively upgrade the English language abilities of their students whilst adopting mother tongue as the medium of instruction.  I visited a secondary school in Fanling two days ago.  I found that the school has not only made good use of the advantages brought about by mother- tongue teaching, but has also adopted a variety of measures to enhance the English language proficiency of their students.  Apart from teaching the general English curriculum and incorporating elements of English language arts into it, the school also teaches her students how to read English newspaper and cultivate their interest in newspaper reading starting from Secondary 1.  The school also provides each of their students with an “English Passport”, recording the different English activities the students have participated in.  The arrangements have not only given the students the necessary incentive, but have also given them the opportunities to use English.  The school has indeed done pretty well in promoting the learning of English.  On another occasion, I attended an activity on nurturing the entrepreneurship spirit in students.  The master of ceremony was a student from a Chinese-medium school.  He demonstrated a high standard of spoken English, with good pronunciation, and was also able to handle the situation in English.



           These cases are very encouraging.  Nevertheless, can all schools provide the same English-rich environment?  Is the overall English language standard of our students satisfactory?  I think it is undeniable that we are still quite some way from this target.  There is still plenty of room for improvement and we still need to think of more creative solutions.  Our vision is that all schools can provide the most appropriate education for their students according to their needs and progress, and in so doing promote the quality of teaching and produce students who are proficient in both English and Chinese.  For the rest of my speech, I would like to share with you my views on how we could help our students learn English well in a step-by-step manner.



           All social policies have to cater for the uniqueness of the society; and education policy is no exception.  In formulating an education policy, we have to consider the uniqueness of our society with a view to developing talents that meet the needs of society.  Hong Kong is an international commercial city with the Mainland as our hinterland.  International commercial activities are conducted mainly in English.  As a result, almost all documents on commercial contracts, laws, banking, insurances, etc. are mainly in English.  Our students, being ethnic Chinese living in Hong Kong , surely have to be proficient in Chinese.  However, they need to be good at English as well, to be biliterate and trilingual so as to be in line with the rapid development of our country and to meet the unique needs of Hong Kong .  They should be proficient in both English and Chinese so as to capitalize on the opportunities brought about by “ One Country Two Systems” and contribute to the development of our country.



           What I mean is that Hong Kong is an international city within the territory of China .  Under “One Country Two Systems”, we should make use of the opportunities endowed to Hong Kong and act as a bridge between the international society and our country, and to contribute to the progress and prosperity of our country.  To capitalize on our competitive edges in serving our country, we must first of all equip ourselves, and see to it that the majority of our people possess a good standard of English.



           As we all know, to master a language effectively, one needs to adopt the practice of “Four Mores”, i.e. read more, write more, listen more and speak more.  Although English is an official language in Hong Kong , compared with twenty years ago, people have less chance to get in touch with English or use it in their everyday life.



           I remember in my secondary school days, the songs broadcast on the radio were mainly English songs, whereas nowadays Cantonese songs prevail.  In the past, the TV drama series on the English channels were broadcast purely in English, but people today can listen to Cantonese voice-over via the Nicam system.  During that period of time, the movies watched by our young people were mostly English movies, but today, the local Chinese movies occupy the biggest share of the market.  In order to satisfy the market needs, some English children movies are even dubbed into Chinese.



           When I graduated and joined the Government, English was the medium of communication used in documents, memoranda, internal meetings of the Government, meetings of the Legislative Council and even on various official social occasions.  Nowadays, to deal with our daily routines, English is still being used in most of the official documents, but very often, we discuss mainly in our mother tongue.  I am fortunate enough to be given considerable opportunities in using English just because one of my Deputy Secretaries happens to be a native English speaker, meaning that at the very least our weekly progress review meetings have to be conducted in English.  This demonstrates that constant practice is of paramount importance in mastering a language; it drives home the importance of “Four Mores”.



           Since I took up the office of the Secretary for Education last July, I have met stakeholders of the education sector on various occasions.  Incidentally all have expressed concern over the English proficiency of students studying in schools using the mother tongue as the medium of instruction.  As I was told by some principals and teachers, mother-tongue teaching eliminated the language barrier of the students and facilitated their learning of the content knowledge of the subjects, but with this switch to mother-tongue teaching, students’ chance of being exposed to English had inevitably decreased.  Hence, their motivation and confidence in learning English had been affected.



           As a maker of public policy, I take the concern of the stakeholders as a warm reminder.  I find it necessary to review the mother-tongue teaching policy with my colleagues in the Bureau.



           After a series of discussions and analyses in these months, we have come to the conclusion that our mother-tongue teaching is beneficial to teaching and learning.  We must uphold this and should not give up.  On the other hand, we have to give serious consideration to stakeholders’ call to improve the English proficiency of our students taught in the mother tongue.



           Last November, we publicly announced via the media that the right time had come for us to review our mother-tongue teaching policy.  Instantly, heated debates appeared in the education sector.  In the past three months, gleaned from the views expressed in the press and at meetings, there seems to be a consensus within the education sector that mother-tongue teaching policy should be upheld on the one hand and English proficiency should be enhanced on the other.



           The main views of the stakeholders can be summarized into four points as follows:



1.            They all agree that to educate students to be proficient in Chinese and English is an important part of basic education and Hong Kong needs talents who are proficient in the two languages;

2.            Some opine that promoting mother-tongue education is not equivalent to barring the use of English in teaching, especially in a situation like Hong Kong where both Chinese and English are official languages.  As long as students have the ability to learn in English, teachers have the capability to teach in English and the learning needs of the subject are being taken care of, it should be acceptable to allow some teaching in the English-medium;

3.            They generally think that in every school, there are students of different language abilities, and having a strict demarcation of English-medium (EMI) and Chinese-medium (CMI) schools fails to meet the needs of individual students.  They suggest allowing schools, depending on the learning abilities and needs of their students, to exercise certain degrees of flexibility in adopting an appropriate medium of instruction (MOI) for their students; and

4.            They generally think that the division of schools into CMI and EMI has brought labelling effects and exerted undue pressure on teachers and students of CMI schools.  The motivation of students in learning English has been dampened.  And some think that the label is not reflecting the real situation of individual schools.



           In the past ten years, we have witnessed considerable achievements in implementing mother-tongue teaching.  However, there is still a long way to go to realize the goal of nurturing our students to be proficient in Chinese and English.  We understand that in enhancing the English standard of students, teachers of English have been put under pressures and students have to face many difficulties given the fact that the chances of getting into contact with English are indeed limited.  At present, tertiary education is predominately conducted in English. Secondary 4 has therefore become a critical stage for students who have been learning in Chinese from Secondary 1 to 3 as they have to make use of the few years from Secondary 4 to 6 to acquire a large volume of vocabulary and subject-specific language structures in English to enable them to pass the required examinations and have a smooth transition to tertiary education.  Needless to say these students face immense pressure as they try to catch up with English-medium learning over a short period of time.



           Even for one who starts work after graduating from secondary school, there is still the pressure.  I was told by an overseas visitor that he once went into a shop selling cellulous phones.  But the salesman just had difficulty in explaining to him clearly in English the functions of the phones.  At the end this salesman failed to get the business and the visitor was very disappointed with the service of our retail business.  Incidents like this may ultimately affect HK’s image as an international city.  Therefore, even for students who do not plan to proceed to tertiary education, they have to maximize the time when they are in Secondary 4 and 5 to quickly raise their English standards to the level of meeting future job requirements.



           Our policy objective of nurturing students who are proficient in both Chinese and English has gained wide support from school sponsors, schools, teachers and parents.  They all agree on the benefits of learning in the mother tongue, and understand that the Government for the past many years has put in a lot of resources in supporting and enhancing the teaching and learning of English.  However, we cannot deny that there is still plenty of room for improvement in general in the English standard of students.



           The Government is in support of mother-tongue teaching, and is actively putting this into practice.  This stance is not to be doubted.  Nevertheless, at the same time we have to attend to our goal of “students being proficient in Chinese and English” so as to keep in pace with the development of society, the expectations of schools and parents and the needs of students.  Let me stress that the Government will uphold the principle of mother-tongue teaching; strengthening students’ learning of English does not compromise this principle.



           I would like to take this opportunity to put forward our preliminary thoughts so you will be able to understand the policy of mother-tongue teaching better.  We think that we can allow schools, under certain conditions and according to the ability of their students, to have some flexibility in the medium of instruction to maximize students’ chances of exposure to English and to raise their motivation and interest in learning English, in order to fulfil our goal of enabling students to attain proficiency in Chinese and English.



           Our objective is that no matter whether students learn in the mother tongue or English, they will possess good bilingual language abilities.  We are therefore adamant that the following five criteria should be closely observed when introducing adjustment measures to the MOI policy:



1.            Students should attain proficiency in Chinese and English at the secondary level of education so as to get better prepared for higher education  or for their jobs in the workplace;

2.            In working the MOI arrangements for their students, schools should take into consideration the ability of students in learning in English, the capability of teachers in teaching in English, the appropriateness of school’s resource allocation as well as the need for students to acquire subject knowledge;

3.            Appropriate monitoring mechanisms should be devised to ensure that schools’ MOI choices are in the interest of the learning needs of students.  Schools should get Education Bureau’s approval for their MOI arrangements and should be transparent with those arrangements;

4.            The present delineation between CMI and EMI schools should be rectified as such demarcation can be misleading and has created labelling effects adversely affecting the development of students; and

5.            The choice of medium of instruction should take into account the new senior secondary academic structure.



           The Government and the school sector have to work hand in hand to fulfil the goal of developing our students into talents proficient in Chinese and English, to upkeep the competitive edge of HK as an international metropolis and to serve our mother country in this particular regard.  We have to acknowledge the inadequacies of our present situation, face up to the difficulties and look for improvements together.



           Today’s seminar has provided a good opportunity for us to exchange opinions.  I hope that everybody will adopt an open attitude towards our dual goal: ‘learning in the mother-tongue and attaining proficiency in Chinese and English’, and give their comments on how this goal can be achieved.  It is our vision to enhance the quality of education in all aspects to enable every student to become proficient in both Chinese and English.  In this ideal situation, concerns over the labelling effect for CMI and EMI schools, the review mechanism for schools using EMI, and the extent to which CMI students could compete for universities would fall away.



           In fact, if we take a step back to look at the situation, Hong Kong is not unique in requiring students to learn a second language at school.  There are many countries in Europe which, for their small size, are having a similar situation like that of Hong Kong .  They adopt English as their second language to facilitate their foreign trade as well as communication.  The system of adopting English as a second language has not caused any dispute.  So let’s adopt a proactive and positive attitude, joining hands to study how we can enhance students’ capability in learning English as a second language, and at the same time ensure that our students can learn different subjects effectively.  Let us join hands to nurture talents who are proficient in Chinese and English, who can contribute to our country and to Hong Kong .



           Thank you.

Last revision date: 16 March 2008
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