Hong Kong must overhaul Chinese-language learning to give ethnic minorities a fair chance
The Equal Opportunities Commission’s theme for this year’s International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, held on March 21, is a lofty one – “All Races As One”. It may sound simplistic but requires nuanced understanding. It is not implied that differences in people should be ignored due to their race. That would be a huge mistake.
Instead, the message being conveyed is one of being culturally sensitive, which means being aware that cultural differences and similarities between people exist but without assigning them a value – positive or negative, better or worse, right or wrong.
Racial discrimination comes in many forms and shapes. From in-your-face racist hate to blink-and-miss-it microaggressions, racist behaviour runs the whole gamut. Somewhere in the spectrum sit the structural issues that put people of certain races at a disadvantage. These are perhaps the hardest to change.
In Hong Kong, an unresolved and complicated issue that leads to unequal opportunities among non-Chinese, particularly young people, is related to education, specifically learning the Chinese language.
This is a structural issue that calls for a systemic solution. It cannot be handled at the individual, school or even community level. The EOC has repeatedly called for a comprehensive curriculum, to teach Chinese as a second language, to be put in place, to give non-Chinese students an equal shot at gaining a practical level of language proficiency that enables them to have more job opportunities.
The current options for Chinese-language learning go from the most popular international qualifications, which are completely inadequate for the Hong Kong workplace, to the native Diploma of Secondary Education Chinese examination, which is extremely challenging.
While those who pass the native-level DSE exam would certainly have better Chinese-language proficiency, those who fail it or only achieve a low grade can expect their chances of getting into a local university to be directly affected. No surprise, then, that most non-Chinese students take the simpler international examinations. In effect, it is a Hobson’s choice.
In a series of informal focus group discussions carried out by the EOC last month with about 20 ethnic minority university students on their experience, motivations and attitudes towards continuing to learn Chinese, it was made abundantly clear that the period of intervention has to be at school. It is too late by the time they get to university.
Clearly, those students who had begun their Chinese-language learning in kindergartens had better proficiency overall. Almost without exception, all participants reported a drop in their levels of Chinese learning once they entered secondary school and were streamed into the international curriculum.
The only two participants who had taken the DSE exam struggled to cope, not just with the subject but also with balancing the workload of the remaining subjects. While one student was relatively successful, the other ended up with lower grades than required for a place at her university of choice for the law degree she wished to pursue.
Clearly, something is wrong. The available options are not delivering the desired outcomes. We need to review the system to truly understand where the fault lines are. This requires honesty, intention and an open mind.
The education system needs to embrace the theme of “All Races As One” as it looks at the issue of Chinese-language learning by non-Chinese students. It is necessary to acknowledge the difference in how a second- or third-language learner picks up Chinese, compared with native speaker. There is no home environment, no cultural context and no early exposure to the language for a non-Chinese speaker. There is a minimum three-year delay in the starting point.
When asked what would motivate them to continue learning Chinese at university alongside their major, the focus group participants made some sound suggestions. They asked for the language course to be non-credit, practical as against academic, and tied to their major or likely career. The undergraduates realise the disadvantage they face as they prepare to enter the job market, but feel hamstrung by their lost opportunities in primary and secondary school.
As Hong Kong emerges from the haze of the pandemic and starts to reinvent itself, I hope there is more energy and intention in doing away with the old and bringing in the new, where required. The education system for non-Chinese students could certainly do with fresh impetus.
“All Races As One” should not be a time-limited slogan but one that Hong Kong truly comes to embody in spirit and form.
The article was published in SCMP on 21 March 2023.