The Language Situation In Hong Kong Education Essay

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In terms of the language situation in Hong Kong, English is widely used in the business and professional sectors, in order to retain its international position and for it to be promoted as an important asset for personal career advancement. Cantonese is the dominant language throughout every aspect of Hong Kong people's life. It is often treated in their eyes as the "mother tongue". Pierson (1994) described Cantonese as standing for solidarity and is an acceptable form for communication between family and peers, and, also, it has a wider use, as it is seen as the means for outward communication. Due to the emergence and popularity of Putonghua, it is argued that Hong Kong people should acquire the same ethno-linguistic vitality and the next centre language would be shifted to Putonghua (Pennington, 1998). Although the use of Chinese characters, and the norms of the correctness in writing, share similarities with Cantonese, for most Hong Kong residents, the learning of Putonghua still has a strong sense of mastering a "second language".

3.2 Political change

It is commonly believed that in recent years the change of sovereignty is the main reason for the spread of Putonghua education in Hong Kong. In fact, Kwo (1989) suggested that Putonghua would become important after 1997, since the leadership of mainland China all speak that language. This was also suggested by Boyle (1998), who pointed out that Putonghua would emerge as the dominant language of power in China, as when officials in Hong Kong need to communicate with the Chinese authorities on formal occasions, they have to speak or at least comprehend their language. Owing to the use of Putonghua, Hong Kong people's sense of cultural identity with Mainland China would also be further consolidated.

3.3 Economic Development

It is believed that one of the essential reasons for economic integration with China, is that it would enhance Putonghua's instrumental value (Whelpton, 1999a, p.81). Not only business elites, but many working class people try to improve their competence and language skills in order to compete in the labour market, by regularily attending Putonghua classes (Li, 1999, p.71).With China's Open Door Policy, and its successful accession to the World Trade Organization, there has been a rapid economic development and growing trade transactions between mainland China and Hong Kong, too. Since the vast China market provides numerous business opportunities, it would definitely be of advantage if the business entrepreneurs could speak Putonghua.

3.4 Education¿½¿½s Historical Background

In 1980, the Education Department set up a Putonghua Subject Committee to develop a teaching syllabus for Secondary 1 to 3 year students. The syllabus was trialled between 1984 and 1987 and then formally adopted as an elective subject in 1988. In 1989, the Hong Kong Examination Authority introduces the ¿½¿½Test of Proficiency¿½¿½ in Putonghua for the general public (Tse et al., 1995, p.91)

In 1998-2000, the research conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong showed that among Secondary 3 students, there is a slight improvement in writing and speaking Putonghua. Then in 1998, Putonghua became a compulsory subject in school. Hong Kong people have recognized the importance of Putonghua and show more interest and desire to learn Putonghua. In 2002, SCOLAR conducted research to compare the use of Putonghua and Cantonese as the teaching medium. The result suggested that the use of Putonghua helps students to learn Chinese writing but there were no obvious gains in terms of general comprehension. Putonghua was introduced as an examination subject in the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination (HKCEE) by the Hong Kong Examination Authority in 2000. From the year 2000 to 2002, the figures have shown an increase in the number of secondary school candidates who have taken part in the HKCEE Putonghua Examination. In the year of 2003-2004, 444 (90.7%) secondary schools offered Putonghua as a subject in various approaches, ranging from teaching it as a module, or using it as MOI, in Chinese classes, or use it as MOI for all subjects except English (Davison and Lai, 2007, p122). In 2007, when SCOLAR (Standing Committee on Language Education and Research) carried out a programme in four stages, for promoting the adoption of Putonghua as MOI in Chinese classes. 151 schools applied for this programme and 40 schools have been allocated to participate in the first phase (Ming Pao Daily, 2008). A further development has occurred, under the influence of Putonghua, "teacher" has become an attractive profession, especially for newly arrived emigrants from the mainland. Starting from 2008, due to the national standard demographic decline and competition in enrolling students, many schools have begun to adopt Putonghua as its MOI in an effort to recruit more students so as to avoid its possible closure, due to the effect of the low birth rate effects.

From the above historical development in the education sector, the promotion of Putonghua may have achieved some beneficial results. However, the process of implementing Putonghua as MOI is rather problematic, as perceptions held by teachers, schools and students do not appear optimistic.

3.5 Arguments about Putonghua Teaching

Putonghua, as commonly considered, is very different from Cantonese, in oral and aural aspects. These differences mean that it is not easy for local Hong Kong teachers to teach Putonghua, particularly if they have not studied it at school themselves. On the one hand, the lack of qualified Putonghua teachers is a serious problem in implementing Putonghua MOI in Chinese classes. As there is a limited number of qualified teachers, enormous pressure is increasingly put on the shoulders of the present number. As one teacher explains, "we had to improve our competitive edge in teaching. We decided to use Putonghua as MOI in Chinese classes, in the aim of attracting more parents to send their children to our school" (Gao, Leung, John, 2010, p.90). In addition to that problem, since many teachers, traditionally, use Cantonese in teaching, they have encountered difficulties in switching to Putonghua as MOI. In the first place, the working load in school is too heavy for them to deal with, and secondly, in order to guarantee their teaching quality by being able to promote Putonghua as the MOI, they need to improve their language proficiency as well. In addition, in most cases, teachers in Hong Kong are required to teach at least two subjects which mean that Putonghua teacher would also need to be competent in Cantonese or English. To solve the insufficient ability of teachers in this respect, the Putonghua Education and Assessment Centre has been set up, in the Faculty of Education in the University of Hong Kong, to provide teacher education and general courses, aiming to enhance their proficiency level of Putonghua (Bob, Winnie, 1997). However, there are problems, as the in-service training for preparing for the target-oriented curriculum is identified by participants as too brief and too theoretical (Morris et al., 1996).

Concerning the implementation of Putonghua in schools, although most of the teachers claim to use Putonghua as MOI, they do not really use it as the medium for assessment in the teaching of Chinese, for the sake of maintaining and improving their students' oral assessment scores. In addition, there is a contradiction, as the TSA (Territory-wide System Assessment) uses Cantonese for examinations, while the government tries to promote the use of Putonghua in Chinese classes (Gao, Leung, John, 2010, p.92). Therefore, many scholars are concerned that the Putonghua promotion would have little benefit, since the curriculum for teaching and assessment does not reflect the real goal of implementing Putonghua education, as it has not been consistently and fully used in school education. Therefore, scholars are also not sure whether the use of Putonghua as MOI can be sustainable.

On the basis of past experience in Hong Kong, the development of Putonghua in the schools' curriculum has exerted negative effects on the low status subjects, as they have been more or less replaced by the addition of new Putonghua subjects. Putonghua has gradually been taught from Primary 1 through Secondary 5. What the situation now is that if more time is allotted to teaching Putonghua, other subjects are bound to have to make room for it. To solve this problem, one method, taken by schools, is to reduce the total teaching time for lower status subjects, which are mainly seen as soft targets, because they are not important examination subjects. According to Curriculum Development Council (1993a), one method for giving support to certain cultural subjects would be for social studies, health education and primary science are to be integrated into a single subject. However, this may appear successful at a superficial level but has met with failure in the real situation. For example In the case of social studies, the subject is integrated into other subjects, but as an extra and optional class which suffers a lower status than the component subject (Morris, 1996, p.30). Thus, few teachers and students pay much attention to these kinds of optional classes. That is to say, the time allocated to language subjects (i.e. Putonghua, Cantonese, English) may balance the time with other compulsory subjects, but increasingly, time has to be sacrificed for the low-status and cultural subjects during the process. The three language situation may be moved forward in Hong Kong by the introduction of the new methods, but at the present time the aim to develop students' all-round abilities in these languages is undermined to a great extent.

From a pedagogical perspective, some scholars argue that learning Putonghua would facilitate students' reading comprehension in Chinese. According to Tse, Lam, Loh and Lam (2007), a study was conducted to examine how Putonghua or Cantonese had influenced the Chinese reading attainment of 4,335 primary school students in Hong Kong. It was hypothesized that the reading attainment of the students who have migrated from China to Hong Kong would be superior to that of the vernacular Hong Kong students. However, the result showed that children born in mainland China had indeed superior reading attainment, but children speaking Cantonese turned out to have the highest reading scores. This study proved that Putonghua as a home language has not played a significantly crucial role, than has Cantonese, in helping students to read in Chinese.

Except for the reading comprehension discussion, many teachers and students support the use of Putonghua, mainly because they believe that its use in class could help improving their writing in Chinese. As one teacher says "When we teach students to write Chinese essays, they should use proper written Chinese, but they use colloquial Cantonese. They use dialect as if it were their written language" (Gao, Leung, John, 2010, p.93). However, with the adoption of Putonghua, here the spoken term is in consistency with the written form. Thus, the use of Putonghua could reduce the influence of Cantonese as the vernacular on the students' written Chinese.

However, some people argue that the use of colloquial Cantonese does not necessarily indicate low language standards. Instead, Cantonese could be a better MOI than Putonghua, since the writing in classical Chinese is more closely related to Cantonese rather than the simplified Chinese character. In addition, lacking a supportive environment, Hong Kong students feel that they are not ready for learning Chinese through Putonghua. A study shows that some students do not like to participate in speaking activities if they are not allowed to use Cantonese (Gao, Leung, John, 2010), for although many of the students do not possess negative attitudes towards Putonghua, to be able to speak fluent Putonghua does not make them feel more intelligent or better educated. As in one study, most students in secondary schools agree that they would like to learn Putonghua, because it can help them to communicate with people in mainland China and If Putonghua is used widely in society, Hong Kong would become more prosperous (Lai, 2010, p.121). However, despite the agreement, scarcely any students said that Putonghua is or will be a significant language in Hong Kong (Lai, 2010, p.121).

3.6 Conclusion

Admittedly, it is necessary to adopt Putonghua education in order to adapt to the change in political, economic, social and educational change. However, at the present stage, there is not much evidence to prove that Hong Kong is transforming from a diglossic society to triglossic society. As regards to teachers and students' perceptions, they are proud of teaching and learning Chinese and recognize its growing importance in Hong Kong. However, large numbers of them still hold reserved attitudes of whether Putonghua should be promoted as MOI in Chinese classes. In addition, schools in Hong Kong have not come up with an all-round practice for balancing the teaching time in language subjects, component subjects and cultural subjects. They suggest that more research should be undertaken to refine the issue as to whether Putonghua could be an effective MOI in Chinese classes. Since 98% of the Hong Kong people speak Cantonese as their first language, Putonghua will only be learnt as a third language mainly for instrumental value. It is hopeful that the younger generation of Hong Kong will become trilingual in the future since Putonghua has already been introduced as a core subject in primary and secondary schools, but there is little sign that indicates, at the moment, that Putonghua will replace English and Cantonese as the main powerful language in Hong Kong.