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Tuesday, February 25, 2020, 10:40
Teaching Chinese to ethnic minority requires commitment
By Manoj Dhar
Tuesday, February 25, 2020, 10:40 By Manoj Dhar

The findings of a recent survey by the University of Hong Kong and Oxfam threw up alarming statistics. Apparently, 3 in 5 teachers are not confident about teaching Chinese to ethnic minority students; 93 percent of primary school principals said they had difficulty in employing staff with relevant skills to teach Chinese as a second language; only about 38 percent of teachers said they were confident in teaching the Chinese-language subject to non-Chinese-speaking (NCS) students to reach a level close to that of native speakers; more than 85 percent also said they had “greater difficulties” in ensuring NCS pupils kept up with and achieved the goals of the mainstream curriculum.

The findings, yet again, emphasize the well-documented challenges faced by Hong Kong’s marginalized NCS students. That educators and educational institutions are owning up to their inability to provide equal learning opportunities to these children is a positive development. But does it really help these hapless children?
The issue at hand is not new. And the current narrative hinges on educators’ tendency to frequently blame their failure on the ethnic background of NCS students. This discriminatory societal mindset in an economy as developed as Hong Kong doesn’t really help the cause of extending equal opportunities to a deeply disadvantaged group of fellow residents.
That HKU scholars and Oxfam researchers who conducted the survey have requested the government further increase funding for teaching Chinese effectively to NCS students is difficult to understand.

Only committed and compassionate educators can make a difference. Only they can inspire and engage a child irrespective of racial or socioeconomic factors

Difficult because, since the 2014-15 school year, the Education Bureau has significantly increased funding to schools to about HK$200 million (US$26 million) per year. In fact, each school admitting 10 or more NCS students is provided with additional funding ranging from HK$800,000 to HK$1.5 million per annum depending on the number of NCS students admitted. From a policy point of view, the government has already taken the right steps and must indeed be commended for providing this handsome support. One can be sure that the beneficiary schools and educators are extremely thankful to the Education Board.
So, while in terms of policy support, Hong Kong’s schools and educators are not lacking in resources, they seem to have utterly lost their way when it comes to implementation and translating the government support into measurable improvements in the Chinese-language ability of their NCS students. In order to address this lacuna, the government could perhaps undertake its own surveys to track the appropriate utilization of the HK$200 million annual subsidy earmarked for recipient schools.
Teaching, being the noblest of professions, entrusts educators with the responsibility and moral obligation to impart education to all, regardless of race, ethnicity and social background. As educators and educational institutions have expressed their inability to do so on record, would they then, on moral, ethical and professional grounds, consider taking a cut in their salaries and funding? In my opinion, this tendency to ask for more and more money from a government that is already munificent demeans the profession and trivializes the root cause of the problem.
The HKU and Oxfam survey findings quote a stakeholder as saying that more NCS children should attend local kindergartens as most principals interviewed said that pupils who did not do so encountered the greatest difficulty in adapting to the mainstream curriculum. Again, it is oft-reported and well-documented that while many NCS parents would certainly like that to happen, they are turned away from many mainstream Chinese kindergartens for reasons that have nothing to do with academics or education. The onus on being welcoming and inclusive is on educational institutions and educators receiving considerable government funding aimed at providing equal educational opportunities to all. Yet, hapless NCS children get their first taste of societal discrimination while no older than age 4 or 5 as a result of the disingenuous attitudes of some of these institutions and educators.
One way to overcome this could be devising policies so that those studying to gain teaching qualifications get a chance to teach NCS children Chinese. Close interaction while still a trainee teacher can help overcome many racial prejudices. And, as bona fide educators later, this experience can enable them to help disadvantaged NCS integrate better with Hong Kong society. It is about educators and educational institutions taking pride in their professional commitments regardless of race and ethnicity. To cite lack of funding when, evidently, funding is not a problem, or even worse, aiming to dilute their failure as educators by saying NCS children are unable to learn Chinese is irresponsible and grossly unfair. Any Hong Kong resident, whether NCS or ethnic Chinese, would unhesitatingly admit that Chinese is a very complicated language to master. All the more reason that Hong Kong needs teachers qualified to teach Chinese ably.
On a related note, there is also the oft-reported lament of how Hong Kong’s English standards are deteriorating and that the English-language standards of most university graduates are very poor. Interestingly, for this academic challenge, one does not hear of repeated demands for extra and special funding to schools or educators who blame their students as inept. Then why single out Hong Kong’s NCS children when it comes to teaching Chinese?
Only committed and compassionate educators can make a difference. Only they can inspire and engage a child irrespective of racial or socioeconomic factors.
As American writer and political activist Eldridge Cleaver put it astutely: “You’re either part of the solution or part of the problem.”

The author is the co-founder and CEO of Integrated Brilliant Education, a charity providing educational support, with special emphasis on Chinese-language learning to underprivileged ethnic minority students.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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