End our language barrier

End our language barrier


End our language barrier_L
Photo: Nora Tam/SCMP
A couple of weeks ago I joined other Unicef Young Envoys on a visit to an after-school class tailored for ethnic minority children in Tin Shui Wai.

We intended to observe how they study Chinese at school, but we learned much more about how these young children think about their future.

An eight-year-old was eager to show me her ability to read aloud the text she was being taught. In her textbook were mnemonics - to help her pronounce the characters - but there were few signs of her writing them. Indeed, she did not know how to write many of the words she read. "I want to learn Chinese, so that I can teach others - including my mother - to speak Chinese one day," she told me enthusiastically.

The girl's mother, who is very proud of her high-achieving daughter, is keen to give her the best Chinese education that she can offer. But many parents don't realise that the school curriculum only equips students with Chinese proficiency that is equivalent to that of the local Primary Two level when they graduate from secondary school.

I found it difficult to explain the truth, for it would be too harsh to crush the young girl's hopes.

The policy of a school-based curriculum teaching Chinese as a second language has failed to ensure that ethnic-minority children are learning Chinese properly. Most lessons focus more on oral and listening proficiency, and few on reading and writing. Teachers and parents can do little to influence the design of the curriculum.

It is up to the government to standardise school syllabuses, and close the gap between ethnic-minority and local students. This is the only way to ensure that when children from ethnic minority families leave school, they will not be lagging too far behind in Chinese proficiency.

Our chief executive pledged to set up a government-endorsed, Chinese-as-a-second-language curriculum in his manifesto. As he is about to deliver his second policy address, we must wait to see whether he will keep his promise.

Yet the girl I met, and many other ethnic-minority children, cannot wait. This language barrier harms the future of generations of children. We cannot afford to spoil one more child's future.

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