If I had the luxury of spending 15 years learning Japanese

Today’s Hong Kong Economic Journal carries a news story about the unsatisfactory English performance of some members of the business workforce. Granted this is only an anecdotal report rather than the result of a reliable comprehensive study, it still begs the question: What level of proficiency can we reasonably expect from a workforce that has studied English as a foreign language for at least 15 years (3 years of KG; 6 years of primary schooling; 6 years of secondary schooling).

If I had the luxury of spending 15 years learning Japanese, I would expect my Japanese to be very good, if not near-native.

Incidentally, one indirect finding in Mable Chan‘s study (Acquisition of ‘be’ by Cantonese ESL learners in Hong Kong and its pedagogical implications; 2013; Bern: Peter Lang), is the lack of effect of instruction on proficiency. This means that despite receiving hundreds of English lessons from their teachers as students move up the primary and secondary grades, students don’t improve their English as much as they should. Although Mable’s subjects were not a representative sample of HK students, this finding of hers is borne out by my over 20 years of observing English lessons in primary and secondary schools in Hong Kong. That is, overall, students of upper grade levels, compared with their lower grade-level counterparts, do not show a command of English that is commensurate with the additional years they have spent learning English.

Why are we faced with this scenario?

We can easily put it down to students’ low motivation, the declining importance of English in HK (which I doubt), or teachers’ teaching method. But In academic research, we need to be wary of jumping to conclusions. Nevertheless, Mable’s question is worth contemplating: “What does the observation that learners with varying amounts of time spent on learning English have the same proficiency level mean?” (p. 153)



Response from Billy Yau:

Do you think it has anything to do with overemphasis on exam drilling? I have been struggling to stirke a balance between exam practices and meaningful language learning. I want to integrate both but it’s easier said than done. Paul, would you give me any suggestions?

Reply to Billy:

Billy, this is not an easy issue to discuss. It also has something to do with teachers’ belief. I myself am a pedagogy fanatic. I believe that good teaching will lead to good exam results. But for teachers to do good teaching, they need a lot of time for lesson planning and reflection. Unfortunately, given teachers’ huge workload, lesson planning and reflection is often relegated to the bottom of teachers’ to-do list. I hope there are more language teachers like you, teachers who care about good teaching, even if they can’t do it all the time.


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