Stephen Evans

Language in Hong Kong higher education: Perspectives on policy and practices in a time of transition

Research conducted in the late colonial period pointed to a gulf in Hong Kong’s universities between institutional language policy, which stipulated the use of English as the medium of instruction (MOI), and lecturers’ classroom practices, which often involved the use of Cantonese to present and explain the content of English-language teaching materials.

This paper presents the findings of a multi-faceted study which sought to determine whether the policy-practice divide had widened or narrowed in the past two decades under the pressure of two potentially competing forces: globalisation and decolonisation. Whereas the former process might be expected to reinforce the already well-entrenched role of English as the official medium of learning, teaching and research, the latter has the potential to diminish the position of spoken English vis-à-vis Cantonese and Putonghua, particularly in classroom communication. Cantonese is the first language of around 90 per cent of Hong Kong’s predominantly Chinese population and a major marker of local identity. Putonghua (also known as Mandarin) is the national language of China, the main MOI in the country’s higher education sector and the usual language of most non-local undergraduates in Hong Kong, whose numbers have increased significantly since its transition from British colony to Chinese Special Administrative Region in 1997.

The study’s findings were derived from a survey of 828 first-year students, 77 semi-structured interviews and a structured observation of campus language use involving 1,052 small-group interactions. The study was conducted at Hong Kong’s largest higher education institution. The findings suggest that the policy-practice disjunction may have narrowed significantly in recent years, with most of the participants’ teachers evidently making a determined effort to instruct and interact with their students in English in lectures and seminars. The main factor contributing to the closer alignment between policy and practice is the increasing internationalisation and nationalisation of the student body. While the policy-practice gulf appears to have narrowed in the case of lecturers’ language use, the findings indicate that students in this officially English-medium institution have little need or desire to use the language among themselves in the classroom, on the campus and outside the university. The findings are used as the starting-point for a discussion about the future of language in Hong Kong higher education, particularly after 2047 when the ‘one country, two systems’ policy expires and the city is fully integrated into China.


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