Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Why can’t Chinese graduates speak good English? Blame the teaching methods

South China Morning Post
CommentInsight & Opinion

Philip Yeung

Philip Yeung says English-language proficiency will only improve when teachers look past rote memorisation and encourage students to learn how to learn

The Chinese have a love-hate relationship with English. It is the “language of opportunity” – the passport to a coveted overseas education, a well-paid job or foreign citizenship. Zhang Lu, the photogenic English-speaking interpreter for top leaders, is mobbed everywhere she goes, while state interpreters of other languages remain obscure.

But despite its prestige, English is taught unimaginatively on the mainland. Students there say the only significant learning occurs in the first three years of junior secondary, the final three years of high school having been hijacked by endless drills for college entrance exams.

English is mandatory in the first two years in a Chinese university. But the language is taught bookishly, short on functional skills. College graduation calls for CET (College English Test) level 4 or 6 standards. But employers complain that few graduates are prepared even for the simple tasks of writing or responding to an English email or answering business phone calls, much less conducting trade negotiations with foreign clients. There is talk of dropping English from the required curriculum in some jurisdictions.

What has gone wrong? First, there is a singular lack of method. The basic approach is backward – memorising individual vocabulary words and incomprehensible grammar rules. Any effective approach must address two questions: first, how is it that you can understand every word in an English sentence and yet fail to understand its overall meaning? Second, after attaining basic proficiency, why is further progress in English elusive, however hard you study? This is true of many Chinese scholars who return home after decades in the US.

As long as English teaching is hitched to rote learning, Chinese students are denied the chance to “learn how to learn,” or sensitivity training in “pattern recognition”, especially necessary in developing writing skills. It has been said that native speakers, unlike non-natives, learn by “subconscious” acquisition, but I know that students can be taught “subconscious” learning once they acquire pattern recognition.

Each year, nearly half a million Chinese students go abroad. China may be the world’s second-largest economy, but Indian nationals vastly outnumber the Chinese in leading Fortune 500 companies or American universities. China lacks the soft power of English communication. This challenge should not be left to cram schools or tutorial centres, as being exam-savvy doesn’t translate into functionality. English teaching must be reimagined to prepare our people for global citizenship and leadership.

Philip Yeung is a former speechwriter to the president of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.


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New Hong Kong government, same old lousy attitude towards English

CommentInsight & Opinion
Yonden Lhatoo asks whether the new administration, in the footsteps of the ones before, is violating the city’s official language law by sidelining English usage

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss, the song goes. Her detractors have always said that about Hong Kong’s fourth chief executive, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who took the reins last week from the unpopular Leung Chun-ying.

To be fair, she’s already distancing herself from some of her predecessor’s policies, as per that new style of governance she has repeatedly promised, but the signs are not very encouraging when it comes to an old problem – the neglect of the English language.

Quite the contrary, this looks like a new government with the same old lousy attitude towards the lingua franca of the world. All three previous chief executives, with varying degrees of apathy, did not do much about this city’s English standards. Et tu, Mrs Lam?

Just take a look at her new Facebook page, launched last week to, ostensibly, reach out to the public through social media, in keeping with her campaign slogan, “We Connect”. There’s a bit of a disconnect with those of us who can’t read Chinese.

She does not post messages in English, so you’ll have to rely on the default translation tool that Facebook provides if you’re trying to figure out what she’s sharing.

This gibberish is how it translates her description of her question-and-answer session with lawmakers on Wednesday: “When I came to the Legislative Council, I came back to the Legislative Council, and I came back to the Legislative Council, and I was in a bit of a bit of excitement, because I really wanted to talk to members of the Legislative Council. Attention to all sides. After an hour and a half-hour question, my immediate feeling is that I have never been so calm!” Um … sure, whatever.

To her credit, after we reached out to Lam about her Facebook page, she ordered her staff to look into it and we were told they would start posting “important content” in English as well “in future”.

But it’s not just her Facebook page. Her media briefings are also Cantonese-only affairs, no matter how important the occasion, with a token answer in English when someone gets in a question.

Pretty much the only minister in Lam’s governing team who consistently makes an effort to repeat statements in English for the benefit of a non-Chinese audience is Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung. There would have been two if Ko Wing-man had chosen to stay on as health minister.

Under the Official Languages Ordinance, both Chinese and English are “the official languages of Hong Kong for the purposes of communication between the government or any public officer and members of the public”. The law even goes a step further to declare that “official languages possess equal status” and “enjoy equality of use”. Yeah, right.

I’ve heard old hands in the civil service with some context of the language law and past practice suggest that the government is probably breaching the ordinance with Chinese-only press releases, media briefings and minsters’ regular blogs.

The counter to all of it is the old chauvinistic comeback that this is China at the end of the day, not a British colony, and it’s only natural that there is more emphasis on Putonghua than English as the second language after Cantonese.

Way to build a “world city”. But if that is indeed shaping into the mainstream attitude, has anyone thought of actually amending the law to reflect it? Let’s at least be honest and dispense with the pretences and lip service.

I don’t hear much talk these days from Lam, a devout Catholic, about “God” telling her to do things, but if they are still conversing, I wish the good Lord would speak to her in English.

Yonden Lhatoo is the chief news editor at the Post

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冷靜觀之 再談「普教中」
























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Whether traditional or simplified, Chinese characters are for communication

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Raymond Young

Raymond Young says fears of mainlandisation should not stop us teaching simplified characters in Hong Kong schools, because our children will need to communicate with people from the mainland

As a locally educated Chinese person, I consider the simplification of Chinese characters to be an affront to the aesthetics of the Chinese language. It is a massive dumbing-down for the sake of simplicity, somewhat like adopting the word “telly” as the official term for “television”. The simplified script looks foreign to us, and some of the words are a far cry from their elegant original forms used in our beloved traditional Chinese calligraphy and poetry.

Contrary to popular belief, the use of simplified characters was not initiated by the Communist government but by the Kuomintang back in the 1930s, for the purpose of promoting literacy in China. However, the jury is still out as to whether people do learn to read faster in simplified characters, as illiteracy is still not eradicated in China, but Hong Kong and Taiwan have achieved full literacy using the traditional form. Nowadays, with computer inputting technology, the ease and speed of writing in simplified characters has also ceased to be a benefit.

We may not be enamoured of simplified Chinese characters, but know them we must. The “localists” who claim to champion local values, and the likes of Civic Party member Claudia Mo Man-ching, are objecting to students learning simplified characters on the grounds that they are not commonly used in Hong Kong. The more serious accusation is that it is a conscious step towards “mainlandisation”.
We may not be enamoured of simplified Chinese characters, but know them we must

The latter concern is clearly groundless as the government’s proposition is not to replace traditional characters with simplified ones, but to help students acquire a reading knowledge of simplified characters. If we shared the localists’ fear of mainlandisation, we should perhaps stop teaching our students Putonghua too. The language is after all not “commonly used” here. Language is key to understanding a culture. If we and our next generation cannot read with ease all the written materials published on the mainland, how can we have an informed view of what is going on there?

Hong Kong has always prospered on being an efficient service provider to the world, so what harm can be done by equipping our younger generation to service our biggest client – mainland China – better? Preserving our “local” values, whatever they are, should not be at the expense of our ability to communicate with the 1.3 billion people on the mainland. When China was closed to the world, we used to look down on mainland people as parochial. We even had a term for them – “Ah Charn” – or mainland bumpkins. But now that they have seen the world, and have developed economic and political clout on the international scene, the tables are turned. We are now sometimes referred to as “Kong Charn” – arrogant Hong Kong people who know little about what is happening in the rest of China. I think this term should also include those Hong Kong people who make little effort to learn Putonghua or simplified characters.

The rest of the world is indeed catching up fast in terms of understanding China. Chinese is now becoming a popular second language in schools around the world, and in most cases it is taught through simplified characters. So if the localists had their way, we would not only have difficulty communicating with mainland Chinese, but also communicating with the rest of the world in Chinese. Some time ago, when localists here were protesting against “locust tourists” from the mainland, I was travelling in Korea, and I saw banners in the heart of Seoul with big Chinese words welcoming Chinese tourists – in simplified characters, of course.

Raymond Young is a retired civil servant and currently a columnist and novelist

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Character assassination? Hong Kong’s furore over simplified Chinese

South China Morning Post
News›Hong Kong›Education & Community

Cannix Yau

Defenders of the city’s unique linguistic identity have panned a plan to teach simplified Chinese in schools. But could it help our children get ahead?

Hongkongers’ sensitivity about their language has been pricked again by a mooted plan to teach simplified Chinese in schools.

At the start of last month, it emerged that the Education Bureau’s latest consultation document said local pupils should learn to read simplified characters.

Traditional characters are the norm. The simplified form is used on the mainland, but deemed inferior to the traditional form by some, and sometimes mocked as “crippled” or “mutilated characters”. Intellectuals, educators, parents and localists have all aired views, and public sentiment on the matter was evidenced last week when TVB started using simplified characters during Putonghua newscasts on its J5 channel – sparking 10,000 complaints.

The debate has heightened potency, raging against the backdrop of the Mong Kok riot and the resulting prominence of localism evidenced in last weekend’s New Territories East by-election.

The state-run People’s Daily urged people not to politicise the issue and pin derogatory labels on simplified characters, while Legco president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing said people didn’t need teaching simplified characters and could learn them on their own.

Some say the policy is part of a hidden government agenda to do away with traditional characters along with Cantonese and further ‘mainlandisation’.

Education chief Eddie Ng Hak-kim denied any political intent behind the move, accusing some of distorting the facts and sowing discord. The bureau pointed out that learning simplified Chinese was not an item for consultation now as it had already been stated as a goal in the Chinese Language Education Key Learning Area Curriculum Guide in 2002.

The policy most likely went unnoticed then because attention was on other major education reforms, such as the benchmark assessments for teachers, according to Hong Kong Aided Primary School Heads Association honorary chairman Lam Sheung-wan.

[Secretary for Education Eddie Ng Hak-kim denied any political intent behind the proposal. Photo: Sam Tsang] Secretary for Education Eddie Ng Hak-kim denied any political intent behind the proposal. Photo: Sam Tsang

The document states that after mastering traditional Chinese, pupils should be able to read simplified characters to widen their reading range and foster better communication with the mainland and overseas, while schools should promote “using Putonghua to teach Chinese language” on campus as a long-term goal.

But the bureau admitted it did not have any evidence that using Putonghua to teach Chinese language would be more effective than using Cantonese.

Last week it received a total of 22,000 public submissions and replies from 338 primary schools, 355 secondary schools and 37 special schools over the consultation, issued in December.

While acknowledging the practical functions of simplified characters, those interviewed by the Post all resoundingly rejected the idea of using them in schools, saying there was no need.

Supporters, especially the city’s international schools – which mostly teach simplified characters – maintain simplification can speed up learning and writing, as well as aiding integration with the mainland.

Local scholars stood by their conviction that traditional script is a legacy of ancient Chinese culture that needs to be preserved. They believe as long as students achieved a good grasp of traditional characters, it would be easy for them to read and recognise the simplified characters without needing extra lessons.

Some academics say traditional characters make it easier to trace meaning and the stories behind their formation.

“I beg the government not to create problems where there are none,” said Chinese language expert Professor Ho Man-koon, of Caritas Institute of Higher Education. “Teachers do not need to specifically teach simplified characters. Students can naturally learn them by guessing and making logical inferences.”

The heads’ association’s Lam agreed. He said: “Students should learn simplified characters only after they achieve a good foundation on traditional characters, usually when they are in high school. The government should refrain from turning a guest into a host otherwise Hong Kong students will be caught in the middle. Traditional characters should serve as the basis of our Chinese language learning, not their simplified forms.”

Legislator Lam Tai-fai, representing the Chinese Manufacturers’ Association of Hong Kong and supervisor of Lam Tai Fai College, said the business sector was ambivalent about students learning simplified characters.

“The knowledge of simplified Chinese has nothing to do with making profits,” he said. “Since traditional Chinese is widely recognised and adopted in Hong Kong, it is better to encourage students to learn simplified Chinese [of their own accord] rather than to make it mandatory.”

Professor Brian Tse Shek-kam, director of the Centre for Advancement of Chinese Language Education and Research at the University of Hong Kong, pointed out that even South Korea realised the importance of learning traditional Chinese characters; it restored them to Korean language and literature textbooks for elementary pupils this year.

There are rising fears that simplified Chinese will gradually replace the traditional form if it becomes part of the subject curriculum. Professor Ho said he believed this was a major concern for the city’s teachers.

[Professor Ho Man-koon said the government could be making ‘problems where there are none’. Photo: Sam Tsang]

“They fear that after students achieve a good grasp of simplified characters and Putonghua, many years later simplified Chinese will fully replace traditional script in their textbooks,” he said.

“They fear simplified characters will bring an end to traditional Chinese teaching and even replace traditional script.”

Eva Chan Sik-chee, convenor of the Parents Concern Group on National Education, warned that the issue being overlooked in 2002 does not mean that there is a consensus on it now.

“The government has not really consulted the public. Many people in the education sector are not even aware of this proposal,” she said. “We are highly concerned about the overall impact of the proposals, including using Putonghua to teach Chinese as a long-term goal.

“We have a feeling that the whole consultation exercise is leaning towards the mainland culture, and made out of a political motive.”

And Lam Sheung-wan believed the government intended to please the Central government with the initiatives.

“I believe after the handover, the government has deliberately done something to please the central government. But something done deliberately can backfire and may end up offending Beijing,” he said.

“If the government wants to use one thing to suppress the other, then it is bound to trigger conflicts. Although the government says this is not compulsory, I think during this sensitive period it should not wake the sleeping dog.”

But Principal Fung Pik-yee of the Aplichau Kaifong Primary School in Ap Lei Chau, said people should not be so sensitive about the issue.

“People are taking it too seriously. I think it is harmless to learn simplified characters as they can serve as a learning tool for reading more mainland textbooks.

“I won’t discourage [my students] to learn by themselves,” she said.

“Do we really need to exaggerate things and conjure up so many conspiracy theories like mainlandisation?”

That said, Fung did not recommend teaching simplified characters in primary schools because students will be easily confused by the two types.

Professor Ho said that was always a key concern for teachers. According to public exam reports, pupils easily made typos in traditional characters because they mix them up with simplified ones.

Lam Sheung-wan said even local teachers are not conversant with the simplification methodology, questioning how they could teach students good Chinese.

He said: “Some simplified words are simply devoid of logic and totally unrelated with their traditional forms or meanings. Students will have difficulties associating the simplified characters with their traditional forms.”

On the subject of mingling cultures, Lam said: “I think there are a lot of good qualities about Hong Kong people that mainland people should learn.

“The most important thing is the qualities of people – staying true to themselves and being an upright person. These qualities are what make Hong Kong a true world-class cosmopolitan city. Without these Hong Kong is nothing more than a cosmopolitan city on the mainland.”