HK Needs To Focus on Speaking to Improve English Levels
Going into shops or restaurants can be difficult for me since I can’t speak Cantonese. When entering there is usually an uneasiness from the shopkeeper since they don’t know English well. I try my best to point at pictures, use gestures or use Google translate when there are problems. I don’t expect them to know English since I am not in one of the expatriate enclaves of Central, Discovery Bay, Sai Kung or Kennedy Town. There is great concern about the level of English throughout Hong Kong.
Today the Legislative Council Panel on Education will hold a discussion about helping secondary students learn Chinese and English. In the discussion paper , they mention how English has been improving based on the Territory-wide System Assessment (TSA). Results show an improvement from 75.9% in 2004 to 80.3% in 2014 amongst P3 students and from 70.5% in 2005. Results for P6’s and Secondary 3 students also showed improvement based on the test.
The use of these tests has been controversial over the past few weeks with parents calling on them to be abolished because kids are being drilled and given too much homework to prepare for them. It is understandable why they want to get rid of them, but there needs to be a way to find out how students are doing and where the problems in the school system are. The TSA results do show growth and improvement over the years, but assessments only measure what is being assessed. The primary focus of these tests is in reading, writing, and grammar. Speaking is secondary when it needs to be as important as the other parts. For the speaking part of the TSA, they only take a sample of the student population and interview them based on questions which are not real life situations. P3 students are given a picture and asked to describe it. They are also given a short paragraph and then asked questions about it. They are not engaged in a proper conversation as normal people. It is completely unrealistic and abnormal.
Language is a muscle which needs a lot of practice to become stronger and better. If there is no practice; it goes away. The need to speak English on Hong Kong streets may not be as important as it once was with the increase in the number of Mainland Chinese tourists and the decline in the number of English-speaking tourists. It is still important in business and amongst professionals like doctors, architects, lawyers and others.
The government can step in and help the young English learners is providing them with opportunities to practice. Part of today’s discussion is studying the possibility of employing more Native English Teachers (NET) in larger schools. Right now there are 459 primary schools and 406 secondary schools who use one NET in their school. Their job is to give students a chance to practice their English with a native speaker. They also try and suggest better ways of helping the students learn in a more real world setting through activities. Some of these schools have one NET for hundreds of kids which means they only get a limited time to practice their English. If they expand the NET program for larger schools, it will mean more chances for students to practice and improve their speaking.
As a NET Teacher, I understand my bias in welcoming this possibility but also I have seen how students react to me in the hallways of my school. I make a point of talking to every student in my small school of 25o kids. I talk to them about their day, their week, their interests and I get to know them well. The conversations are meaningful and real. The English level in my school has improved as the students spend more time talking to me. My school is small so talking to every student is easy. It is hard to imagine doing the same at one of the larger schools. It is why there needs to be more chances for Hong Kong’s students.