Learning in Hong Kong—in English or Cantonese?

English: Hong Kong colonial coat of arms ‪中文(香...

English: Hong Kong colonial coat of arms ‪中文(香港)‬: 香港盾徽 ‪中文(简体)‬: 香港盾徽 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

by Liz Ma

I am writing a paper on education system in Hong Kong and Chinese immigrants. I want to know how exclusive (or not inclusive enough) the education system is, especially the medium of instruction, i.e., Cantonese and English. Here, I recognize as Chinese immigrants those who migrated from China, in particular, those who migrated after 1997.

Hong Kong used to be under British rule, thus the official language of the public sector and government departments was English, instead of Cantonese or Chinese. The foreign language was highly engaged in the general public’s life. The language environment gives rise to two problematic issues. The first is that parents debate hard on whether they should send their children to EMI (English Medium of Instruction) or CMI (Chinese Medium of Instruction – here I mean Cantonese).

Back in the days of British rule, being accepted to EMI schools was a prerequisite for “the winning group”. The reasons behind parental preference, if not the child’s own choice in most of the cases, are multiple. However, the most powerful pull and push factor is that English was the official language in Hong Kong and outside the border. Positions in the government (still running the pension system) and foreign invested companies (highly paid jobs) were the easiest way to achieve promising career prospect. To get those keen competitive positions, the least requirement was high English proficiency. If you were able to master the language, you enjoyed a higher chance of promotion, and being appointed as an overseas manager.

Flag of Hong Kong (1959–97) ‪中文(简体)‬: 香港殖民地时期旗帜

Flag of Hong Kong (1959–97) ‪中文(简体)‬: 香港殖民地时期旗帜 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Similar to the Chinese boom in many countries nowadays, English is a very preferable foreign language in Hong Kong. Not to mention how attractive going abroad is, most students holding a foreign degree (the United States and the United Kingdom are the top two choices for studying abroad) get a very sound job when they return. Some top government officials can speak very fluent English, Anson Chan was one of the well known ones. Therefore, we can see how people look towards English speakers (even if they are Asian rooted). People believe learning English means knowing how to achieve a successful life. In Hong Kong, Cantonese makes you normal, while English helps you to stand out of the crowd, to become elite.

We can see a discrimination created by government in silence, because of how the system operates, how discrimination is rooted and generated and confirmed by parents and then among students. EMI schools are desirable. It is true that most of the top ranking secondary schools are EMIs. The top university in Hong Kong puts more emphasis on scores on English subjects rather than Chinese subjects during their admission and interview process.

As for Chinese immigrants, most secondary schools do not provide support to them when they first come to Hong Kong. As I mentioned above, English is viewed as more important when compared with Chinese. Chinese immigrants in classroom therefore become the inferior group, and in term of attention from teachers, naturally less than their classmates. It might also because of teachers’ poor level of Chinese. It is a fact that Chinese has never been a must to learn. The situation has changed gradually in recent years, I believe.

I am still doing research on the subject, but it seems the first issue takes up the main part. Information now in my hands contributes, more useful for building up the first issue.

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