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Why are Hongkongers afraid to speak English? Because the education system doesn’t ask them to

The following letter was published in the South China Morning Post.

I refer to the article by Luisa Tam on Hong Kong students lagging behind cities such as Beijing and Shanghai in English proficiency (“Why are Hongkongers so afraid to speak English?”, March 5).

One of the reasons given by Ms Tam for Hong Kong students being less able to speak in English is the lack of confidence. I would say the main reason is the lack of practice and motivation, which stems from the education system.

The system depends on testing and getting into “good schools” at primary, secondary and post-secondary levels. All tests and exams are predicated on this path. Good marks allow pupils to move through the system. What is on the territory-wide tests (TSA, Pre-Secondary One, DSE) determines what is taught in the school system.

When it comes to English, the things most tested are grammar, writing, reading comprehension and listening comprehension. What do students spend most of their time on? Grammar, writing, reading, and listening comprehension.

There is little time spent on speaking except for the few weeks before the TSA (Territory-wide System Assessment), and if a student has an interview for secondary school admission where they may be asked a question or two in English.

To get into any post-secondary school, the only measure is test marks, not an interview or some other system where the pupil would need to talk.

Changing this would encourage teachers to carve out more time for speaking in their lessons. The amount of time spent on dictation or grammar points could be reduced to allow for more speaking. Homework could be reduced or made simpler for the pupils to do on their own, with little or no help from the teacher.

Class time could be used – as it should be used – for practising the language, not just explaining how the homework is done and how to prepare for the next test or exam.

In learning any language, speaking always comes first. It is time for the system in Hong Kong to revert to this.

Published in Hot Takes