Medium of instruction issues in trilingual Hong Kong primary schools

Introduction

Three major languages coexist in Hong Kong: Cantonese, English, and Putonghua. According to the 2016 Population by-census (Table 12.1), the percentage of the population aged 5 and over who reported speaking Cantonese has been slightly decreasing from 90.8% in 2006 to 88.9% in 2016 (Census and Statistics Department, 2017). However, Cantonese still remains the predominant language — the socially preferred and most commonly used language in Hong Kong. As shown in Table 12.1, 88.9% of the population aged 5 and over reported that they spoke Cantonese as their usual spoken language in 2016, while another 5.7% claimed that they could speak Cantonese as another language. In other words, 94.6% of the population aged 5 and over reported being able to speak Cantonese (Census and Statistics Department, 2017, p. 31). Meanwhile, 4.3% of the population aged 5 and over reported that they spoke English, while only 1.9% reported speaking Putonghua as their usual spoken language, but nearly 50% of the population reported being able to speak it (Census and Statistics Department, 2017). In addition to these three languages, small percentages of census respondents reported speaking a number of other languages. Table 12.1 provides the details and illustrates how the use of specific languages has developed or altered between 2006 and 2016.

Geographically, Hong Kong is located on the south coast of China, bordering the mainland city of Shenzhen in Guangdong province to its north. Historically, Hong Kong was a British colony for 155 years until its ‘handover’ back to the Chinese government in 1997. During the colonial period, English was the sole official language in the realms of legislature, administration, the judiciary, education, and formal registers (Luke & Richards, 1982; So, 1989, 1996; Poon, 2000, 2010) until 1974 when Chinese became the coofficial language after massive public pressure from the Chinese Language Movement during 1968 and 1971 (So, 1996; Poon, 2000). English has been maintained as a co-official language alongside Chinese since the change of sovereignty in June 1997. Article 9 of The Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China states that

IMnguage/dialect

Proportion of population aged 5 and over, in per cent

As the usual spoken language

As another spoken language/ dialect

Total

2006

2011

2016

2006

2011

2016

2006

2011

2016

Cantonese

90.8

89.5

88.9

5.7

6.3

5.7

96.5

95.8

94.6

English

2.8

3.5

4.3

41.9

42.6

48.9

44.7

46.1

53.2

Putonghua

0.9

1.4

1.9

39.2

46.5

46.7

40.2

47.8

48.6

Hakka

1.1

0.9

0.6

3.6

3.8

3.5

4.7

4.7

4.2

Fukien

1.2

1.1

1.0

2.1

2.3

2.6

3.4

3.5

3.6

Chiu Chau

0.8

0.7

0.5

3.2

3.1

2.9

3.9

3.8

3.4

Indonesian (Bahasa Indonesia)

0.1

0.3

0.3

1.5

2.2

2.4

1.7

2.4

2.7

Filipino (Tagalog)

0.1

0.2

0.4

1.3

1.4

2.3

1.4

1.7

2.7

Japanese

0.2

0.2

0.1

1.1

1.4

1.7

1.2

1.5

1.8

Shanghainese

0.3

0.3

0.2

0.9

0.9

0.9

1.2

1.1

1.1

Note: Figures exclude mute persons.

‘In addition to the Chinese language, English may also be used as an official language by the executive authorities, legislature and judiciary of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region’ (The Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau, 2017, p. 3). Putonghua, the national language of Mainland China, was not as significant as it is today before the handover of sovereignty in 1997. Since 1997, however, Putonghua has been promoted through the new Biliterate and Trilingual (МТС—тШ.Ш) language policy (Poon, 2004). It is worth noting that the term ‘Chinese’ can be ambiguous. In the context of Hong Kong, where the great majority of the population are first language speakers of Cantonese, Chinese is recognized as written Modern Standard Chinese (MSC) and spoken Cantonese. But, of course, there are many Chinese languages, one of which is Putonghua, the national language in Mainland China. Putonghua is the spoken form of MSC. Putonghua and Cantonese are significantly different in lexis, syntax, pronunciation, phonology, and grammar (Bauer, 1988; Zhan, 2002; Sze, 2005; Poon, 2010).

Hong Kong schools are divided into two main streams: The EMI schools, which use English as the medium of instruction (Mol), and the CMI schools, which use Cantonese as the Mol. Cantonese has been used as the Mol in most primary schools, except for a few historical missionary schools which use English as the Mol. However, under the Biliterate and Trilingual policy and with the promotion of Putonghua after 1997, Putonghua has become a subject to be taught and has also been adopted by some schools as the medium of instruction in teaching the Chinese language. As a result, the situation concerning the implementation of the Biliterate and Trilingual language policy has become complex as there are no clear guidelines on how trilingual education should be implemented effectively in primary schools (Wang & Kirkpatrick, 2013).

In this chapter, we will report the major findings of research into the implementation of trilingual education in Hong Kong primary schools. Our study was carried out in two stages which will be explained below. The aim of our study was to gain a better understanding of trilingual education in Hong Kong primary' schools, to identify what worked and what did not. In this, we hope the study will contribute to multilingual education in general.

 
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