Hong Kong Students

How much English will my students already know?
Your students' competence in English and their willingness to learn will vary tremendously depending on which school you are assigned to.

If you are assigned to a prestigious Band One school you may find that even your youngest students are performing competently at upper-intermediate or even advanced level. However, this will not necessarily mean that they are particularly keen on English. Maths and the sciences are often considered by students to be more prestigious subjects, and so you may find it difficult to foster enthusiasm for English among your brighter students - although girls seem to enjoy English more than boys do.

Cantonese, which is the mother tongue of about 90% of Hong Kong residents, is usually referred to as a ‘dialect’ of Chinese. In fact, it is as different from Mandarin/ Putonghua, China’s official language, as English is from German. As Chinese is a non-alphabetic language, students find phonics surprisingly challenging. As the language has no cognates with English and does not even have many loan words, students have little in their own language to help them to learn English vocabulary. However, the biggest challenge for Chinese speakers who are learning English is grammar. Cantonese, like all other Chinese dialects, is an isolating, non-agglutinative language. It has no suffixes or prefixes, no system of changing word-endings to mark plurals, declension or tenses, and nothing that resembles English phrasal verbs – so all of these grammar items present a challenge for Chinese students.

Cantonese has no /sh/, /zh/, /z/, or /v/ sounds, very few consonant blends and fewer dipthongs than English, so pronunciation and distinguishing between similar sounding words can also be hard work for students. Most terminal consonants in Cantonese words are semi-silent or resemble glottal stops, a pattern which is maintained when Cantonese speakers speak English. Also, as Cantonese is tonal, it does not make use of stress and intonation to support meaning at sentence level in quite the same way as English. Even the Chinese concept of what constitutes a word is different from that in English; the Chinese language has no word for “word” distinct from the word for “character” even though Chinese monosyllabic characters usually have to be combined into pairs to form what English speakers would think of as a single word.

Because English is so different from Chinese, if you are in a Band One school you will probably find that whereas your junior students cope very easily with the simpler tasks you assign to them, senior students find it hard to make the transition to writing extensive formal prose which is expected of them in the Advanced level exam. As there is such a leap between what is expected of students in Form Five and what is expected of them in Form Six, it is easy to be misled into thinking that students in Form Six are less fluent than their counterparts in Form Five.

In lower band and non-banded schools you will find a totally different situation. Often students in these schools will be aware that they stand no chance of passing formal exams in the subject and will not see English as having any relevance to their own future needs, so they will be indifferent or hostile to the idea of learning. In the very worst cases, NETs have had to cope with classes in which most students do not know the alphabet, find it hard to cope with even very elementary English and have little interest in anything in English except for swear words. Obviously in these cases the need to establish authority, build trust with students and tailor the curriculum to meet their needs is paramount and probably easier said than done. Support is available for teachers in these difficult situations, but when your students have very little English the most important thing is to build relationships with your local colleagues.

What is life like for teenagers in Hong Kong?
Hong Kong has an extremely wide disparity in income between the richest and the poorest sections of the community, so that while the top 20% of the population enjoy a standard of living that easily rivals that of middle class Europeans and North Americans, the bottom 20% of the population live in near third-world conditions. It is little wonder, therefore, that many people in Hong Kong highly value education as a means towards attaining success in exams and ultimately securing social advancement.

Like the rest of the world, Hong Kong has been affected by a severe economic downturn since 2008. Although still at very low rates by western standards, unemployment is rising, and property prices have seen a marked decline. Teenagers are keenly aware of these issues.

Parents often have to work long hours so some students have little contact with their parents and do not receive the guidance and support that they need. The children of migrants from the mainland are often particularly isolated from their parents; there are many cases of children living with one parent while the other parent has to stay on the mainland waiting for an exit permit.

About half of the population of Hong Kong lives in public housing, most of which is extremely crowded and in a poor state of repair. It is not unusual for a family of six to have to share a 400 sq. foot flat. This overcrowding has an adverse effect on students' studies as in such crowded conditions it is often impossible for students to find a quiet place at home where they can do their schoolwork. Some public housing estates are particularly targeted by triads and there are some areas of Hong Kong where drug abuse and prostitution are widespread. Obviously, living in close proximity to crime adversely affects young people's education.

Hong Kong is a culturally complex society where the traditional Chinese religions - Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism - coexist with increasingly popular Christianity and there are also sizeable Muslim and Sikh communities, but the most pervasive value system in modern Hong Kong is secular materialism. The complexity of Hong Kong's cultures and Hong Kong's confusing status as a Special Autonomous Region have left many teenagers feeling confused about their values and uncertain as to where their loyalties should lie. In Hong Kong it is not unusual for people to shift between cultural loyalties depending on the circumstances. You may find for example that your students hold the opinion that problems such as drug addiction or sexually transmitted diseases are 'western' problems that could be prevented in Hong Kong if people were to adhere more closely to traditional Chinese values, but you are just as likely to hear Hong Kongers criticizing the supposed 'backwardness' of mainland China. Many people in Hong Kong hold simplistic views about Chinese cultural and racial superiority but at the same time aspire to an American lifestyle.

Popular Culture in Hong Kong
Popular culture in Hong Kong is fast moving, dominated by brief fads, eclectic, highly gender-based and at times may seem infantile to an outsider. Trends come and go very quickly. Teenage girls and even young adult women often have an affection for stuffed toys and cartoon characters that would surprise their peers in the west. Teenage boys and even many male adults seem to be fascinated by comic books, which are often violent or sexually explicit.

Many boys are enthusiastic followers of NBA basketball, while British league football seems to have attracted a large female audience. Many people seem to have a morbid curiosity about the personal lives of film-stars and pop singers. Chinese- language network television in Hong Kong is dominated by tabloid style magazine programmes, soap operas and, especially, period costume dramas, while children's programmes on Chinese channels are mostly dubbed cartoons and latex monster versus superhero dramas imported from Japan.