Low motivation for a high-stakes subject – English. Why?!

In my last post, I contended: “I know a simple reason why some people in HK do not succeed in learning English: Our social values, our education system, and sometimes the way we teach English, have joined hands to strangle students’ motivation to learn English.” Let me now elaborate.

Our social values: Education is simply investment; learning is for financial rewards in the future. Learn English now, and be paid back in the future.

Our education system: English is everything. If your English is good enough, you go to a Band One English-medium secondary school. If you don’t pass your A Level English, forget about university.

Now, compare this with people who learn Japanese, French, Korean, etc. in their spare time. They learn the foreign language of their choice because they are interested in that language and, very likely, also the country where the language is spoken. Even when they learn the foreign language for occupational reasons, it is a language of their own choosing.

Usagi is a fine example. When she was in Form 6, she started to learn Japanese on her own. She didn’t have to, but she did, because she was fascinated with Japanese culture. She was not learning Japanese because she had to pass exams in Japanese. She learnt Japanese because she wanted to be able to use the language for communication. She grabbed every opportunity to get in touch with the Japanese language. Later, she took courses in Japanese, but again, not to pass exams, but to strengthen her command of Japanese. When she was fully engaged in something else, she felt no pressure to stick with the courses, and would stop going to classes for some time, while continuing to learn the language on her own. She would rejoin the courses later, when she could afford the time. She visited Japan whenever she could, to perfect her Japanese. When she finished university, Usagi’s Japanese was good enough (by the way, she did not major in Japanese in university) for her to work with a Japanese firm. Today, Usagi is a highly proficient user of Japanese. In fact, she is a teacher of Japanese.

In comparison, English is a high-stakes subject in Hong Kong. If your English is not good enough, you can forget about university, or going into the prestigious professions. Yet, paradoxically, despite this omnipresent need, not many students are highly motivated to learn English. The diligent ones treat English as another channel for displaying their academic prowess. The average ones will put up with the subject and go through the motions. The less able ones simply hate English.

Why is this happening?

In some low-band secondary schools, students would literally stop learning English from Secondary One. The longer they stay in secondary school, the less motivation they have to learn English. The English curriculum becomes harder and harder as they move up the secondary grades. At the same time, they keep getting fail grades in tests and exams. They don’t need to wait until S.3 to conclude permanently that they are hopeless with English. And since English is of paramount importance, they also conclude that they are failures with schooling. Why are we having this paradox? Why is it that English is the all-important subject, and yet some students couldn’t wait to see the back of it? Has this got something to do with the purely pragmatic values which we inject into the learning of English? Has this conundrum evolved from our exclusively utilitarian mentality about education?

And, does Usagi’s experience in learning Japanese provide us with some food for thought?

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