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English proficiency tests not such a good idea

In November 2000, a university task force proposed to launch an English proficiency “passport” to give a portfolio of a student’s achievements in English. It was reported that such a passport would assist employers to select university graduates in job interviews. Some argued that an English assessment should be imposed upon graduation. The University Grants Committee has approved funding for a $500,000 feasibility study to seek ways of assessing language abilities of local graduates.

In fact, in the past few years, media have pointed out the slipping English standard of local university students, which in turn threatens Hong Kong’s status as an international city. Local university students are often criticised for being lower achievers than students in Singapore, especially in English.

I suggest that the government and educators should think twice before enacting such requirements.

First, consider the effectiveness of an English assessment test. Its ability to raise local university students’ English standard to equal that of Singapore’s is highly questionable.

Singapore maintains English as an active official language, despite the fact that 77 percent of the population is ethnic Chinese. However, in Hong Kong, English is only a second language and it is written more than spoken. More importantly, after the handover, the government rammed mother-tongue education down the schools’ throats. The result was that 300 secondary schools stopped teaching courses in English.

Second, it seems that the government and universities are again kowtowing to the business sector. In fact, the existence of interviewing workshops and business writing courses point to the universities’ tendency to make students more competitive in the marketplace rather than polish their critical thinking. Decision makers should bear in mind that the most important aim of a university education is to cultivate independent thinking rather than practical skills demanded by the global marketplace. Universities should also put more resources into improving the quality of education — reducing class sizes, for example.

Third, university students have an ever increasing workload. When students cannot manage their major studies well in their short time at a university, they cannot take on another burden. If the government insists, my prediction is that students would not do well in both language studies and major studies.

To tackle the issue of English proficiency, the government should possibly start with educational reforms at the primary and secondary school levels. While the government will not make English the official language, it can make reference to how the Singaporean government has planted the seeds of high English proficiency in their educational philosophy.

In local primary and secondary schools, most English teachers use mundane teaching methods and mainly instruct students on examination strategies. The Education Department should be aware of the fact that learning cannot be effective in such a monotonous environment. Also, students are not adequately exposed to the true essence of the language or native usage. In Singapore, instead of mechanical grammar exercises, teachers play word games and read English newspapers with students. Local English teachers should endeavour to experiment with creative and practical approaches.

Carrie Chan
Managing Editor

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