Equal Opportunities Commission


Chairperson’s Articles

Fixing the problem of Chinese language acquisition


We have all perhaps quoted this line sometime in our lifetime: Education is power.

Young people, who are most affected by this, apparently have no doubts about the transformative power of education. According to a World Economic Forum (WEF) report, “Nothing binds them together more than their shared belief that education can change their own lives and that of their families, for the better. They demand opportunity and an education which allows them to build their skills and contribute to their own societies.”

While this may be the belief, unfortunately the transition from school to a job for many around the world is arduous and less than ideal. According to the same WEF report, it may be “a ladder to nowhere”. Usually a skills gap between education and workplace needs is at fault.

This brings me to the education system and the necessity to revamp it to meet the needs of the changing times. Some skills can be imparted in a formal education setting and others need to be acquired outside the classroom. Educators and educational establishments must look at the end goal of equipping their students with the necessary skills, both within schools and outside, to help them reach their desired goal, which is a job that fulfills their potential and their dreams. Internships, practical training and exposure to diverse career opportunities need to be built into the system so as to create job-ready candidates, who not only possess the technical knowledge but also the soft skills and mindset required for a particular workplace.

A skill we need to improve is language. Let us shine a light on Chinese-language skills, an increasingly critical requirement to thrive in Hong Kong’s job market, which is creating many barriers for our non-Chinese young people. Even though our city’s non-Chinese young people are getting into postsecondary education in larger numbers than a few years ago, one acquirable skill that is keeping them from accessing many career opportunities is Chinese-language proficiency. There must be a gap in the current schooling system if the majority of non-Chinese students are graduating from schools without the requisite Chinese-language proficiency, particularly in reading and writing. What they have to show at the end of 12 years of schooling falls short of the actual needs of the workplace in Hong Kong. Language is a teachable skill, not a personality trait. This gap needs to be plugged.

Fixing the Chinese-language learning issue plaguing non-Chinese children and young people is a long-standing issue that has a domino effect on job-seeking and long-term prosperity. While the government has invested huge sums to support Chinese-language learning in schools over the years, it may be time to review whether these measures are working or whether the system needs a bigger fix. In the past five years, despite additional funding, less than 10 percent of non-Chinese students were enrolled in mainstream Chinese courses in secondary school, and most of them eventually took the overseas Chinese examination to fulfill the language requirement for graduation instead of the local examination. Unsurprisingly, this results in a big gap between their Chinese proficiency levels and local workplace requirements, a realization that comes too late.

The effect of this is felt in the field of employment where opportunities shrink. By all indicators, the situation is only going to get more drastic with not just Cantonese but Putonghua too becoming a requirement. There would be no need to ask for special accommodations in higher education and employment to address language barriers if the issue of language acquisition can be fixed where it should be, that is, in the schools. The Equal Opportunities Commission has made several recommendations in “Closing the Gap: Report of the Working Group on Education for Ethnic Minorities” in 2019, including having a comprehensive Chinese-as-a-second-language curriculum, specialized training for second-language teachers and Chinese language examination options structured into a qualification ladder.

Finally, as we celebrated International Youth Day this month on Aug 12 — which aims to encourage young people to proactively participate in social affairs, and to call on local governments to pay attention to the role of young people in society — let us listen more carefully to the voices of our young people. Participation in policymaking is not just good to have but a necessary inclusion in order to have the desired impact. “Nothing about us without us” is an important dictum to bear in mind.

At a time when Hong Kong is facing a looming personnel crunch with an aging population and declining birthrates and is in a competition with neighbors to attract talent, it is critical for us to develop the talent pool we have in the form of our non-Chinese young people. They are ready to serve Hong Kong, a city they call home. All they need are the tools to make that a reality. Let us not fail them.

The article was published in China Daily on 17 August 2023