【明報專訊】Even before the first day of kindergarten, most children in Hong Kong already know their ABCs. While some continue to progress at an exponential rate, as children should with language, to the point where they feel almost as at ease in this foreign language, others gradually find themselves falling far behind their peers. The reasons for such a difference may be an excellent thesis topic worth exploring but to those who are struggling with the language, the question remains what they can do to catch up.
◆Building students' confidence
Needless to say, schools play a fundamental role in helping students acquire the language. From basic structures to more complex patterns, from everyday vocabulary that communicates simple information to words that allow the user to express subtle nuances of thought, formal education helps learners acquire the language systematically. However, the often textbook-bound, assessment-obsessed, grammar-focused and drill-based English curriculum is only adequate to train students for tests but highly insufficient to prepare students to be competent and confident users of English in real life. That is why students in Hong Kong tend to do far better in the more passive and receptive skills of reading and listening, rather than in the productive skills of speaking and writing. Given that English is such an important language for travel, study, work and living, it is vital that schools should work towards building students' confidence in using English by providing authentic experiences and contexts in which students feel encouraged to freely learn and try out new vocabulary, structures, colloquialisms and idioms through projects, literature and engagement with real English texts.
◆The time-honoured advice
That said, students who wish to improve their English need not despair because there is still much they can do despite the factors that are beyond their control. After all, Generation Z students have more avenues than what we used to have for learning English.
When it comes to learning English effectively, the time-honoured advice still holds true: "read more, write more, speak more and listen more". English is not an academic subject but essentially a communication tool. Hong Kong offers many opportunities for young people to practise English for a genuine purpose. Voluntary programmes like the Hong Kong Young Ambassador Scheme connect proud young representatives of this vibrant city with foreign visitors, many of whom are proficient speakers of English. That was how the legendary Jack Ma picked up his English. At the young age of twelve, Jack Ma rode his bike for 40 minutes every day to Hangzhou's West Lake to practise English with foreign tourists.
Likewise, writing a daily journal can be much more enjoyable and therefore effective than struggling over a 500-word essay on a topic that is only written for an English composition class. Many students are scared of writing because they do not know what to write. Paradoxical as it may sound, the only way to break through this mental block is, simply, write. Just put pen to paper and write about feelings, emotions or daily observations. You do not know what to write until you have written it.
Reading informs writing and reading does not need to involve lengthy works of literature. Short stories, comics, popular teen literature and "bite-size" articles easily available online from news websites such as BBC and CNN all have their place in engaging the reader and thus developing the habit of reading.
Finally, local students in Hong Kong, if they so wish, could get almost as much exposure to the language as a native speaker of English would, say in the UK or the US. Everywhere they look, if they care to look, signs, advertisements, food labels, restaurant menus, movie subtitles are often written in both Chinese and English. A student could spend the whole day in one of those mega-bookstores and read any book or magazine in English that piques their interest from page to page without feeling the pressure to buy. Episodes of BBC programmes, 6 Minute English, The Forum, The Big Idea and TED Talks, to name but a few, can be enjoyed anytime anywhere. Many of them even provide transcripts and subtitles. It has never been this easy for students to immerse themselves in the world of English.
◆A lifetime undertaking
As with any skill we wish to master, learning a language well could be a lifetime undertaking. It's all about putting in the time, working on our weaknesses and making the language part of our daily life. One day, we will find ourselves using English without being conscious of what language we are using to communicate. That's when we know we have achieved a good level because English, a second language, has become second nature.
■by Dennis Yuen, Principal of St. Paul's College