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Teacher Ting, the Chinese teacher from the PMI secondary school in Tai Wai, says the lack of specific training programmes for teachers to teach Chinese in Putonghua might affect the effectiveness of PMI education.

“There are short-term Putonghua courses you can take to learn the language, but to teach in it is another issue,” he says. “It has taken me five years to get used to teaching Chinese in Putonghua.”

Despite the rapid increase in PMI schools, government support has been limited. It was only in 2008 that the government’s advisory body, the Standing Committee on Language Education and Research (SCOLAR), launched a subsidy scheme to assist local primary and secondary schools that intend to carry out PMI education. SCOLAR has set aside HK$200 million for a four-year scheme to provide vocational training for Chinese teachers and to develop relevant teaching materials.

The scheme has attracted a total of 132 primary schools and 28 secondary schools. However, the figure falls short of an initial target to see one secondary school participating for every three primary schools. Uptake from secondary schools has been disappointing.

Although financial assistance is now available, Tse Shek-kam, director of the Centre of Advancement of Chinese Language Education and Research at the University of Hong Kong, criticises many PMI schools for not being up to standard. “They are just doing it because people are asking for it,” Tse says.

According to Tse, PMI education is only beneficial to students when it is implemented appropriately. He believes students who are in Primary Three or below should not have PMI education because they have not had time to establish a solid Cantonese foundation.

“Knowing how to speak the language is only the first step. There is something more to it; we should not take Cantonese for granted,” says Tse, who opposes the idea that the mother tongue can be mastered naturally.

Instead of taking an all-or-nothing approach, Tse suggests schools should adopt an integrated teaching method when carrying out PMI education. “A transitional period allows students to be better prepared for a new language,” Tse says. He also believes PMI education should only be carried out after students have acquired a certain level of knowledge of Putonghua.