Society & Politics

Ethnic minority children struggle to learn Chinese

Inadequate provisions for teaching Chinese as a second language to South Asian students strip them of access to higher education

Inside a boisterous classroom, Ms Karen Lau paces the floor frantically as her students clamour for help with their homework in unison.

Working as a Chinese-language teacher at Christian Action SHINE Centre, a support service centre for local ethnic minorities sponsored by the Home Affairs Department, Ms Lau instructs a class of 12 non-Chinese speaking students from South Asia, whose Chinese proficiency levels range from primary one to form two.

Local teachers often have difficulty teaching Chinese to these students because of their insufficient knowledge of South Asian languages. At the same time, non-native students find studying Chinese difficult due to a lack of exposure to the language.

"Before teaching Chinese to South Asian students, I had to learn their languages first in order to know any linguistic differences and thus be able to help them with their Chinese assignments," said Ms Lau. This is especially true as some of them may find it difficult to pronounce certain syllables, for example, that do not exist in their languages.

She added that it was important that teachers understood the linguistic background of their students, including various phonological and linguistic systems.

The city's language education policy, which sets Chinese as both the medium of instruction and a core subject in the primary and secondary curriculums, has long posed a cultural and educational barrier to most ethnic minority children.

According to figures published by the Census and Statistics Department in 2011, ethnic minority children aged 15 or under accounted for 4.9 percent of the non-native population who were full-time students at local educational institutions, while only 1.9 percent of those aged 15 or over were enrolled in higher education.

Dr Gao Fang is a research assistant professor of the Department of Education Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University.

"There is currently no government scheme for teaching Chinese as a second language, and the implementation of previous language policies has catered only to the dominant culture, with South Asians and their languages being given second-class treatment," he said.

Many European countries have adopted policies to help immigrant children from different linguistic backgrounds cope with their language needs. The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, or CEFR was established by the Council of Europe two decades ago, which has and still serves as a guideline on the method of teaching and assessment of all languages in Europe.

In Australia, an English-speaking country with a large ethnic minority population, a programme called "English as a Second Language Companion" has been introduced in the state of Victoria aimed at helping ethnic minority pupils.

Similarly, in Ireland, English is taught as a second language in primary schools to help pupils whose first language is neither English nor Irish integrate into mainstream schools.

In Hong Kong, there are currently 19 primary and nine secondary schools designated for ethnic minorities, with each offering a school-based Chinese-language curriculum to their students.

However, as Dr Gao pointed out, the lack of standardisation and consistency among Chinese language curriculums offered by different designated schools for student assessment remains an issue. This has seen many ethnic minority students fail to meet the Chinese requirement of local universities.
She suggested that a centralised school-based Chinese as a second language (CSL) curriculum, rather than an increase in the allocation of resources to designated schools long advocated by the public, be established by the government to eliminate the discrepancy in the Chinese proficiency of ethnic minority students.

Regarding the lack of a comprehensive CSL scheme, many scholars have attributed it to the insufficient training provided by the government for local teachers in teaching Chinese to ethnic minority students.

Ms Crystal Wong, a Chinese teacher at a designated school, pointed out that although the Education Bureau provided guidance on how to achieve the learning outcome set for the NCS students. teachers were left to their own devices when it came to preparing teaching materials for their students based on their overall Chinese level.

Currently, only two local universities – University of Hong Kong and Hong Kong Polytechnic University – offer master's programmes in CSL education, and yet most Chinese teachers in the city are graduates of Hong Kong Institute of Education or Chinese University.

Dr Gao concluded that local teachers needed to familiarise themselves more with ethnic minority issues, and be provided with assistance and organisational support in setting classroom tasks and evaluation methods in order to raise the overall academic level of South Asian students.

 

Reported by Natalie Leung

Edited by Brian Yap

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