The first stage of our study comprised a wide-ranging survey on trilingual education in Hong Kong primary schools in order to answer the following questions:

  • (1) What are the approaches to trilingual education in Hong Kong primary schools?
  • (2) Which approaches are more effective in fostering trilingualism?

A survey questionnaire was sent to the principals of all the 474 primary' schools in Hong Kong in late February 2014. These included all the 34 government schools, all the 420 aided schools and all the 20 Direct Subsidy Scheme (DSS) schools. Government schools are operated directly by the Government. Aided schools are generally run by religious or charitable organizations, but are fully subsidized by the Government. DSS schools can charge school fees, and receive government subsidy based on enrolment (Information Services Department, 2018).

One hundred and fifty-five Hong Kong primary school principals (a return rate of 32.7%) returned the questionnaire survey. The findings suggest that the implementation of trilingual education varies significantly from school to school, as does the effectiveness of trilingual education. Not surprisingly, given that there are no official guidelines for the implementation of trilingual education, primary schools have adopted their own Mol policies. They use different languages to teach different subjects in different ways. In order to gain a clearer picture of how the trilingual education model is implemented in specific schools, the second stage of our study involved follow-up case studies in three of the previously surveyed 155 schools. The second stage of the study took place in the school year 2014—2015. Qualitative and quantitative methodologies were adopted including a bilingual questionnaire survey of 405 Primary 4 (P4) — Primary 6 (P6) students in the three schools, interviews with three school principals, 30 subject teachers and/or subject panels, and 31 parents, three focus group interviews with 27 students, 30 class observations, classroom discourse analysis of 30 recorded lessons, and analysis of 30 teachers’ reflection forms.

The three schools are all quite different in character. School A is a coeducational school founded in 1967 and located on Hong Kong Island. It was originally a CMI school in which all subjects, apart from English, were taught in Cantonese. From 2008 onwards, however, Putonghua has been used as the Mol for teaching the Chinese Language subject. The school is unusual in that it has a large number of international students from many parts of the world. As a way of helping these students become biliterate and trilingual the school introduced its own Internationalized Curriculum (I.C.) in the academic year 2011—2012. School В is also a co-educational school but is the first ‘through-train’ mode whole day primary school in Tung Chung, the New Territories. So called ‘through train’ schools are primary schools that have linked with secondary schools to which their students go. At its establishment in 2000, Putonghua was used as the Mol for teaching the Chinese Language subject. In 2008, however, after realizing the ineffectiveness of using Putonghua in the teaching of the Chinese Language subject, the school decided to use Cantonese as the Mol for the Chinese Language subject. School C is a single-sex boys’ school and has been in operation since 1930. The language policy in the school has changed several times over the years. Currently, Putonghua is the Mol for the Chinese Language subject for the first four years of primary school (PI—P4), and Cantonese is used for the final two years (P5—P6).

Major findings and discussion of the questionnaire survey in the first stage

Code switching in Hong Kong primary schools

As noted earlier, Hong Kong is a predominately Cantonese-speaking society. Before the return to Chinese jurisdiction in 1997, while the primary' schools were mostly CMI, the great majority of the secondary' schools were EMI. This is explained by the fact that, with the exception of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, universities in Hong Kong were all EMI. Parents therefore wanted their children to attend EMI secondary schools. However, many of these so-called EMI schools actually used mixed code, teaching in Cantonese and English (Pan, 2000; Lai & Byram, 2003; Poon, 2010; Poon, Lau, & Chu, 2013). This mixed language use by most Hong Kong school teachers has been termed a bilingual instructional genre (Lin, 1990; Pennington, 1995a, 1995b): The content of lessons is introduced in English and then illustrated through examples, definitions, and further elaboration in Cantonese, followed by a reaffirmation, conclusion, or transition to a new topic given in English (Pennington, 1998). The use of mixed code was frowned upon by the education authorities and The Education Commission Report Number Four (ECR 4, 1990) criticized the increasing use of mixed code in secondary schools.

In our large-scale survey of primary schools the Chinese Language subject teachers in 23 schools (14.84%) reported that they switched between Cantonese and Putonghua in teaching the subject. For the English Language subject, teachers in 53 schools (34.19%) indicated that they might use Cantonese in teaching English, depending on teaching and learning needs. Teachers teaching the Putonghua subject in seven schools (4.52%) said that they used both Putonghua and Cantonese, but only in junior grades. Among the three language subjects, a majority of the schools (87.74%) said that they used almost 100% Putonghua in teaching the Putonghua subject, while about 50%—60% used almost 100% Cantonese in teaching the Chinese Language subject, and almost 100% English in teaching the English Language subject. We are aware that the survey data may not fully reflect the reality about the use of mixed code in primary schools, given that the official policy is to avoid the use of mixed code. We therefore wanted to investigate this further in the three case study schools, as well as stakeholders’ perceptions of using mixed code in teaching and learning when deemed necessary, and report these findings later.

The origin of students and the medium of instruction

In the study, in four of the 155 schools (one in Kowloon and three in the New Territories), students from Mainland China (and thus likely to be speakers of Putonghua) comprise more than 70% of the total (most of them are new immigrants from Mainland China), however, only two schools used Putonghua as the Mol in teaching the Chinese Language subject and then only in some grades. Putonghua was not used as the Mol for other subjects. The school with the highest percentage of Mainlanders (90%) actually used only Cantonese as the Mol in teaching the Chinese Language subject and other subjects. Putonghua, the national language of the Mainlanders, is not adopted as the Mol in teaching other subjects in these schools either. A school on Hong Kong Island which comprises 37% of students from other areas of the world used Cantonese mainly supplemented by English or vice versa in teaching other subjects. One school in Kowloon and another in the New Territories have the highest percentage of students coming from South Asia, comprising 98% and 60% respectively. They are non-Chinese speaking students and it is impossible to adopt their mother tongues as the Mol, as Cantonese, English, and Putonghua are the three languages used as Mols in Hong Kong. In these schools, Cantonese is the Mol for all subjects except for the English Language subject and the Putonghua subject. We can say that there is no apparent relationship between the origins of students and the Mols chosen by the surveyed schools.

The Direct Subsidy Scheme (DSS) schools

Hong Kong primary schools have traditionally used Cantonese as the medium of instruction and the survey confirms this situation as the majority of the surveyed schools (about 90%) are CMI schools. The majority reported that they used almost 100% Cantonese in teaching Mathematics, General Studies, Visual Arts, Music, Physical Education, and Computer/Information Technology'. A minority, however, including six DSS schools and three aided schools, said that they used almost 100% English in teaching all the subjects, except the Chinese Language and the Putonghua subjects. The DSS schools have more freedom in that they can choose their own students and set up their own admission examinations (Yung, 2006, p. 107). They are also allowed to charge fees. The fact that they can choose their students probably explains why all these schools reported that their students’ Cantonese and English language proficiency was above average, although only 16.7% reported that their students’ Putonghua was above average. These DSS schools also enjoy more flexibility in the choice of medium of instruction, as ‘they can adopt English-medium instruction on a class-by-class basis’ (Chan & Tan, 2008, p. 476). In great contrast to the government schools which reported that their students’ low level of English represented their greatest challenge, the DSS schools reported no difficulty there. They also reported no difficulty in their students’ level of Putonghua, their students’ motivation in trilingual learning or their teachers’ motivation in trilingual teaching. They listed class scheduling as their greatest problem.

The findings of this survey have provided a rough picture of the present situation of trilingual education implementation in Hong Kong primary schools. Some patterns can be identified: The majority of the schools use Cantonese as the major Mol in most subjects except the English subject and Putonghua subject; the DSS schools use more EMI; while official policy frowns upon mixed-code teaching, it reportedly occurs, but mainly in junior grades. When asked about difficulties encountered in the implementation of trilingual education, the surveyed schools reported that they found that recruiting qualified and suitable teaching staff was the biggest challenge. Around half of the schools also found that students’ low level of English has hindered the implementation of trilingual education.

In the next section we report on the second stage of the survey, the case studies, and seek to answer the following questions:

  • (1) What is the rationale behind adopting different Mols in teaching different subjects?
  • (2) What is the real picture of code-switching between different languages in authentic classrooms?
  • (3) What are teachers’, students’, and parents’ views towards trilingual education?
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