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Lang Policy (2011) 10:1936

DOI 10.1007/s10993-011-9193-8


Historical and comparative perspectives on the medium

of instruction in Hong Kong

Stephen Evans

Received: 15 September 2009 / Accepted: 20 January 2011 / Published online: 13 February 2011
Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Abstract The 20102011 academic year marked the beginning of a new chapter
in the long and controversial history of medium-of-instruction (MOI) policy in
Hong Kong. Under the governments fine-tuning policy, schools hitherto com-
pelled to use Chinese as the MOI have been given more scope to teach in English at
junior secondary level, thereby eliminating the unpopular, language-based bifur-
cation of schools that was introduced after the departure of the British in 1997. This
article views the new policy from two perspectives that are often overlooked in the
now voluminous literature on the MOI in Hong Kong. First, few studies have made
connections between the issues and problems that have confronted policy makers,
teachers and students in the modern era and those which faced their counterparts in
earlier periods in Hong Kongs history. Second, few studies have viewed language-
related developments in Hong Kong in relation to policies and practices in other
colonial and post-colonial societies. This article ranges across two centuries and
around the former British Empire and Commonwealth in an attempt to offer the
temporal and spatial perspectives that are currently lacking in the literature. These
perspectives offer pointers as to the likely consequences of the fine-tuning policy.

Keywords Chinese  Colonial language policy  English  Hong Kong 

Medium of instruction  Mother-tongue teaching

ACEC Advisory Committee on Education in the Colonies
CMI Chinese-medium instruction
EMI English-medium instruction
MOI Medium of instruction
SAR Special Administrative Region

S. Evans (&)
Department of English, Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hung Hom, Kowloon, Hong Kong SAR

20 S. Evans


The issue of the medium of instruction (MOI) in Hong Kong has been the focus of
considerable scholarly interest since the introduction of universal compulsory
education in the 1970s, and particularly since the implementation of a controversial
mother-tongue policy at secondary level soon after the 1997 handover. During
this period, MOI policies and practices have been studied and viewed from a
number of perspectives. Research conducted during the heyday of English-medium
schooling (1970s1990s) generally examined the difficulties students encountered
when studying content subjects in a second language (Yu and Atkinson 1988) and
the pragmatic strategies teachers adopted in the classroom to help their students
cope with an apparently unworkable language policy (Johnson and Lee 1987).
Studies conducted in the past decade have tended to question the motivations for
and justice of the mother-tongue policy (Choi 2003) or to assess various aspects of
its implementation, such as its impact on teaching and learning (Ng et al. 2001; Yip
et al. 2003; Ng 2007), attitudes and motivation (Salili and Tsui 2005; Tse et al.
2007; Poon 2008), and classroom language use (Evans 2009).
Despite the profusion of MOI-related studies in the past three decades, there are
at present two important perspectives missing from this voluminous body of work:
those of history and geography. In other words, scholars have tended to overlook the
historical origins of current issues in Hong Kong and to eschew comparisons with
other colonial and post-colonial societies. One implication of this tendency is that
the political and pedagogical problems that have confronted policy makers and
practitioners since the 1970s appear to be unique to modern Hong Kong rather than,
as the present study reveals, part of a common pattern across time and space.
The need for broader perspectives on the MOI was highlighted more than a
decade ago by Sweeting (1997: 35), who criticised applied linguists in Hong Kong
for their ahistorical, a priori approach to the study of language problems. One
consequence of what Sweeting (1997: 36) termed the vanishing sense of history
in Hong Kongs applied linguistics community is that potentially valuable insights
into current issues and problems have been ignored or spurned. Although a handful
of historical studies have appeared since he made these criticisms (e.g. Sweeting and
Vickers 2007; Evans 2008), these have generally not sought to link past and present
or to view developments in colonial Hong Kong from the perspective of MOI
policies and practices in the British Empire. In any case, Sweeting was surely
justified in taking local applied linguists to task for failing to recognise the
antecedents, even in the recent past, of many of the language-related controversies
which have preoccupied educators and administrators in the modern era. Indeed, as
Sweeting implied, if policy makers had informed their deliberations with the
knowledge and experience gained from over a century of English-medium
education in Hong Kong, it is possible that some of the now widely acknowledged
mistakes in the area of language policy in recent decades might have been avoided,
or at least mitigated.
The latest chapter in the history of the MOI in Hong Kong opened in September
2010, when the Education Bureau implemented a new fine-tuning policy which

Historical and comparative perspectives 21

relaxed restrictions on English-medium teaching in secondary schools hitherto

compelled to use Chinese as the MOI and thus abolished the much-deprecated,
language-based classification of schools into Chinese-medium (CMI) and English-
medium (EMI) that had existed since September 1998. This latest policy shift means
that broader perspectives on MOI policies and practices are particularly timely.
Using textual and statistical data derived from primary and secondary sources,
this article ranges across two centuries and around the former British Empire and
Commonwealth in an attempt to provide the broad perspectives that have
traditionally been lacking in discussions of language in Hong Kong education. By
establishing connections between past developments and current concerns, it seeks
to illuminate our understanding of the central issues and problems that have faced
policy makers, teachers and students in Hong Kong since the 1970s. Highlighting
parallels between past and present also offers pointers as to the likely outcome of
the fine-tuning policy in the years ahead.

The MOI in the era of mass education

The MOI landscape in post-colonial Hong Kong

Just as other former British colonies marked independence by making important

pronouncements on MOI policy, so Hong Kongs transition from Crown Colony to
Special Administrative Region (SAR) in 1997 was accompanied by the adoption of
a controversial mother-tongue policy which compelled most English-medium
secondary schools to switch to Chinese-medium instruction at junior secondary
level (years 79) (Education Department 1997). This meant that for around three-
quarters of local students the 9 years of free compulsory education provided by the
government would be conducted in Chinese, with English taught throughout as a
language subject. Only 114 schools were permitted to retain their English-medium
status, having satisfied the authorities that their mainly Cantonese-speaking staff and
students were capable of teaching and learning effectively in a second language.
As might be expected, the adoption of a Chinese-oriented MOI policy proved to
be highly controversial (Poon 2010), and is indeed regarded as one of the SAR
governments most serious public-policy blunders (Tsui 2007). Many parents and
students felt that the creation of what was inevitably perceived to be an elite
English stream and an apparently inferior Chinese stream was high-handed,
discriminatory and socially divisive. Given that proficiency in English is a
prerequisite for entering higher education and for pursuing a career in the
professional world, students assigned to the English stream were perceived to have
an unfair advantage in life, while those allocated to the Chinese stream were denied
access to valuable linguistic capital and therefore the prospect of educational and
occupational advancement. Parental fears on this score have been confirmed by
recent studies which indicate that EMI-school graduates have enjoyed a significant
advantage over their CMI counterparts in gaining admission to university (Tsang
2008) and progressing in their degree studies (Lin and Morrison 2010).

22 S. Evans

Seven years after its implementation, the policy was reviewed and (notwith-
standing its unpopularity) reaffirmed by the Education Commission (2005: 19), who
cautioned against a return to the pre-1998 scenario when many secondary schools
claimed to adopt EMI teaching but actually practised otherwise. The review
included an annex summarising the findings of MOI-related research conducted
since the policys introduction, which indicated that mother-tongue teaching is
bearing fruit (ibid.: 8). Despite these findings, the authorities conducted further
reviews and in May 2009 the Education Bureau unveiled the fine-tuning policy,
which allows schools hitherto classified as CMI to teach content subjects in English
if 85% of the students in a particular class are in the top 40% of their age group
academically. The new policy also permits such schools to devote up to a quarter of
the lesson time in officially Chinese-medium subjects to extended learning
activities in English (Education Bureau 2010). The main aim of the new measures
was to end the strict, MOI-based segregation of schools (and thereby remove the
stigma associated with CMI) and to offer schools greater autonomy in determining
their own language policy, albeit with less scope than had existed during the
colonial era.

The expansion of English-medium education in late colonial Hong Kong

The implementation of mother-tongue teaching after the handover represented a

fundamental shift in the educational landscape in Hong Kong because in the last
three decades of colonial rule most secondary students had attended schools whose
de jure (if not de facto) MOI was English. As illustrated in Figure 1, during this
period the English stream was transformed from a system intended for the elite into
one catering for the masses. It is instructive to examine the consequences of this
transformation because, as we shall see, they have certain parallels in earlier periods
of Hong Kongs history and also offer pointers as to the likely fate of the new
fine-tuning policy.


1931 1937 1952 1960 1965 1970 1975 1985 1997
English (secondary) English (primary)
Chinese (secondary) Chinese (primary)

Fig. 1 Primary and secondary school enrolments in Hong Kong by medium of instruction (19311997).
The data in this figure were collated from the Hong Kong Governments Administration reports (Jarman
1996), and the Education Departments Annual summaries (19551985) and Enrolment surveys (1990
1997). It was only after 1931 that government reports distinguished clearly between primary and
secondary levels. The data include enrolments in both the government and aided sectors

Historical and comparative perspectives 23

The shift from elite to mass English-medium education in the late twentieth
century was accompanied by considerable concern among policy makers about the
difficulties that many students and teachers experienced when learning and teaching
in English (Cheng et al. 1973; Yu and Atkinson 1988). In the early 1980s, for
example, a visiting panel of education experts drew attention to the present
lamentable situation concerning the use of English as the medium of instruction
(Llewellyn 1982: 26), as evidenced by a classroom visit in which they observed
the spectacle of a born-and-bred Hong Kong speaker of Cantonese going through
the ritual of instructing Cantonese-speaking pupils by means of a language in which
both teacher and taught have very little competence (ibid.: 28). This particular
teacher had perhaps chosen English to perform this laborious ritual as he/she was
being observed by important visitors and thus felt obliged to comply with school
policy. When not being inspected, this teacherlike most other teachers in the
1970s and 1980sprobably used Cantonese when instructing and interacting with
his/her students to enable them to understand the subject matter.
One consequence of the expansion of English-medium education during this
period was therefore the emergence of a disjunction between institutional policy and
classroom practice in the majority of local schools: while English remained the
language of textbooks, written work and examinations, the usual mode of classroom
instruction and interaction involved switching between and mixing Cantonese and
English. Research conducted in the English stream during the 1980s revealed a
steady decline in the amount of spoken English used in content-area classrooms and
a concomitant increase in Cantonese-based mixed code (Cantonese admixed with
English words and phrases) (Johnson 1983, 1991). Although teachers regarded
code-switching as a valuable communicative and pedagogic resource (Hirvela and
Law 1991), Hong Kongs policy-making body, the Education Commission,
identified mixed-mode instruction as the principal cause of students apparently
unsatisfactory levels of English and Chinese (Education Commission 1990). It was
the desire to proscribe mixed-mode instruction, and thereby ensure that teachers
make consistent use of English or Cantonese in the classroom, that prompted the
formulation of the controversial policy to force most nominally English-medium
schools to switch to Chinese. Several months prior to its implementation, the then
Secretary for Education stated that the authorities would monitor the reformed
English-medium schools to ensure that they did not mix English and Cantonese in
the classroom. If they are found to be teaching in a mixture of languages, he
warned, we will ask them to switch to teach in the mother tongue (Hon and
Delfino 1998: 2).

MOI policy and practice in post-colonial societies

Before we compare MOI-related developments in late colonial Hong Kong with

those in earlier periods of the territorys history, it is illuminating to relate policies
and practices in Hong Kong to those in other former British colonies. What tends to
be overlooked in the Hong Kong-based literature is that the problems associated
with English-medium education form part of a broader pattern. One of the prin-
cipal themes of research in post-colonial education systems is one of official

24 S. Evans

dissatisfaction with the quality of teaching and learning in English-medium

classrooms (Tollefson and Tsui 2004; Lin and Martin 2005; Williams 2006). The
kinds of problems discussed in the literature, particularly in relation to post-colonial
Africa (Rubagumya 1994; Kyeyune 2003; Bunyi 2005), are essentially the same as
those reported in late-twentieth-century Hong Kong. These include students lack of
participation in classroom activities and excessive reliance on rote memorisation,
and educators preference for a transmissional style of teaching. Confronted with the
task of implementing an apparently unworkable policy, teachers in many post-
colonial contexts have evolved the same strategies as their counterparts in Hong
Kong to help their students understand English-language teaching materials and to
humanise the classroom atmosphere. The most notable of these strategies is code-
switching. Although code-switching is regarded as an inevitable, necessary and
valuable strategy by classroom practitioners (Ferguson 2003), as in Hong Kong, it
tends to be viewed much less sympathetically by policy makers, who often fail to
appreciate the immense practical difficulties associated with teaching and learning
in a second language.
While there are parallels between Hong Kong and post-colonial societies in terms
of classroom practices in English-medium schools, a number of differences exist at
the level of public policy, particularly regarding the point at which EMI is
introduced in the school system. As illustrated in Figure 1, most students in late
colonial Hong Kong received a primary education in Chinese-medium schools,
where Cantonese was (and remains) the usual medium of classroom communica-
tion, before making an often difficult transition to English-medium schools for their
secondary studies. The use of Chinese as the MOI at primary level has generally
been accepted, as indeed is indicated by the dominance of the Chinese primary
stream over its English counterpart in the second half of the twentieth century. The
use of English as the MOI at tertiary level is similarly uncontroversial (Choi 2010).
In Hong Kong, debate over MOI policy has centred on the use of English at
secondary level, particularly when and how it should be phased into the curriculum.
What tends to be overlooked in Hong Kong, however, is that a number of post-
colonial nations in Africa (e.g. Nigeria, Ghana) switch to EMI at upper primary
level after using an indigenous language in the first 3 or 4 years of schooling, and in
some cases (e.g. Zambia) EMI is introduced even earlier (Ferguson 2006).
Tanzanias widely admired decision to replace English with Kiswahili (an
indigenous lingua franca) after independence is often cited as a model of
enlightened MOI policy making (Davies 1996). However, it is worth emphasising
that this policy applied only to primary level; English remained the MOI at
secondary level (Brock-Utne and Holmarsdottir 2004). The retention of EMI in
post-colonial Africa, despite considerable evidence of its ineffectiveness, stems
from the fact that the choice of MOI is generally not determined by educational
considerations but rather, as Ferguson (2006) explains, a combination of socio-
political factors, including the role of English in social advancement and the vested
interests of the ruling class, and economic and practical constraints, including the
dearth of teaching materials in indigenous languages and the influence of English-
medium higher education.

Historical and comparative perspectives 25

Post-colonial states that resolved to promote mother-tongue teaching as a part of

the nation-building project have sometimes found it difficult to maintain such a
policy given the current status of English as the global lingua franca. Malaysias
experience in this regard is significant. Having gradually replaced English with
Malay throughout the education system in the 1960s and 1970s, the government
reinstated EMI in higher education in the 1990s andmore controversially
abruptly introduced EMI in mathematics and science subjects in 2002 (Gill 2005;
Chan and Tan 2006) to enhance Malaysias economic competiveness internation-
ally. However, this initiative has now been abandoned in the face of insuperable
pedagogical problems and thus the MOI will revert to Malay in 2012 (Hashim
The evidence therefore suggests that, even before the handover, Hong Kongs
education system placed greater emphasis on mother-tongue instruction than many
post-colonial societies in Africa and Asia. Since the handover, and notwithstanding
fine-tuning, it has surpassed even exemplary Tanzania in its determination to
promote such teaching. Perhaps the main reason for this emphasis on CMI in Hong
Kong is that Cantonese is the mother tongue of the vast majority of students and
teachers, which makes it a natural medium of classroom communication, and that
written Chinese is the repository of an ancient and venerable culture, which makes it
a reputable language of education. In contrast, the emphasis on English in sub-
Saharan Africa can be attributed (inter alia) to its role as a lingua franca in
multilingual states and its prestige vis-a-vis indigenous African vernaculars.

The MOI in the era of elite education

The expansion of English-medium education in early colonial Hong Kong

The expansion of English-medium education in late-twentieth-century Hong Kong

was not the outcome of a determined, top-down policy to promote the acquisition
and use of English in the colony; indeed, as we shall see, these trends ran counter to
the governments position on the MOI from the mid-1930s onwards. Contrary to
Boltons (2000: 271) contention that the colonial administration attempted as early
as the mid-1970s to introduce a policy of vernacular language education,
government involvement in mother-tongue education in fact commenced in the
early years of colonial rule, when the new regime began to offer modest grants to
the islands village schools. During the 1850s, the government became the main
provider of vernacular education, while in the next two decades all but one of the
government schools were exclusively Chinese-medium (Figure 2). In his report for
1870, the Inspector of Schools, Frederick Stewart, described the government
vernacular schools as Chinese schools, pure and simple. Chinese books alone are
used and the mode of instruction is such as would be found in any native village
school in China (Hong Kong Government 1871, March 13: 116). The only
exception was the Central School, whose Anglo-Chinese curriculum provided equal
space for English and Chinese studies (Evans 2008).

26 S. Evans


1855 1870 1885 1900 1915 1930
English Chinese

Fig. 2 Enrolments in government schools by medium of instruction (18551930). The data in this figure,
which relate only to the government schools, were collated from the Administration reports (Jarman

As shown in Figure 2, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the
government English stream began to flow increasingly rapidly, while the Chinese
stream became a trickle and in some years ran completely dry. The rise of English-
medium schooling during this period stemmed in part from the colonial regimes
adoption of an Anglicist policy designed to advance British interests and influence
in the region (Evans 2008). The decision to promote English was made in 1878 at an
Education Conference, which resolved that the primary object to be borne in view
by the Government should be the teaching of English (Hong Kong Government
1878, March 9: 90).
However, the mere adoption of a policy to promote English cannot by itself
explain the expansion of the government English stream before the Second World
War. As school attendance was optional during this period (and, indeed, would
remain so until the 1970s), the government had no means of imposing its pro-
English policy. The vitality of the English stream was therefore contingent on
students readiness to attend the Central School (subsequently renamed Queens
College) and the Anglo-Chinese district schools. The demand for English was noted
by a visiting British educationalist in the mid-1930s: there is an insistent demand
on the part of Chinese parents for their children to be taught English. A Government
school in the City of Victoria which has hitherto taught English would soon be
empty if it ceased to do so (Burney 1935: 12).
While English teaching was the focus of attention and funding in the government
sector, it would be inaccurate to portray the colonys education system as wholly
Anglicist in orientation. As in other British colonies, schools in Hong Kong fell into
three categories irrespective of level or MOI: those directly controlled by the
government, those operated by the missions (with government grants-in-aid), and
those run by private agencies. As illustrated in Figure 3, most children who went to
school in early-twentieth-century Hong Kongbetween a third and a half of all
children (Burney 1935)attended Chinese-medium elementary schools run by
private agencies or (in a minority of cases) the missions. It is worth noting that in
1930 more students were learning English in the private sector (6,748) than in the
government schools (4,172). The work of the private sector has tended to be

Historical and comparative perspectives 27






1915 1918 1921 1924 1927 1930
English grant schools Chinese grant schools
English private schools Chinese private schools

Fig. 3 Enrolments in grant and private schools by medium of instruction (19151930). The data in this
figure were collated from the Administration reports (Jarman 1996). The introduction of a grant-in-aid
scheme in 1879 resulted in a significant increase in enrolments in Chinese-medium mission schools in
the late nineteenth century. This period also witnessed an expansion of vernacular education in the private
sector. The Committee on Education (1902: 497) estimated that 2,457 pupils were attending Chinese private
schools compared with 1,926 in the Chinese grant schools. It was only after the passage of the Education
Ordinance (1913) that government records included MOI-based enrolment data about the private sector

neglected by researchers, but there is evidence that private schools played an

important role in the diffusion of English in the British Empire. In India, the spread
of English appears to have been driven largely by native-run private schools
(Nurullah and Naik 1951), while in Kenya native Africans established private
English schools in order to make available a prestigious form of education that the
colonial authorities were reluctant to provide (Ranger 1965).
The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries thus witnessed a significant
expansion of English-medium education in Hong Kong, albeit for the elite in
colonial society. This era tends to be regarded as a Golden Age in the territorys
educational history, during which the offspring of the urban elite mastered with ease
the content and medium of a traditional English education. The reports of the
Education Commission (1882), the Committee on Education (1902) and Burney
(1935) (inter alia) suggest otherwise. As in the modern era, this sense of
dissatisfaction with English standards was founded on the perceptions of influential
figures within the colonial establishment.
Much of this discontent centred on Queens College, which was inevitable given
its status as the colonys premier school. Frustration over language standards
prompted the government to introduce independent examinations at the College in
the mid-1890s. In their reports, the examiners complained about Queens students
grammar and pronunciation: many boys wrote in a language so peculiarly their
own as to be quite unintelligible (Hong Kong Government 1898, March 19: 255);
the enunciation was so defective, that, though we were able to understand the boy,
so long as we followed his reading with our eyes on the book, without this aid what
he read conveyed no meaning to us (Hong Kong Government 1901, April 27: 883).
One consequence of their apparently limited English skills was that many students
resorted to rote learning when preparing for examinations: The faults arising from
attempts at learning by heart are evident in the omission of important steps in an

28 S. Evans

argument, and in the impossible order in which sentences are arranged. The majority
of these boys do not understand what they try to write (Hong Kong Government
1898, March 19: 256).
The Committee on Education (1902, April 11: 499500) observed that English
levels in the colonys English schools were not commensurate with the time
devoted to the study, and highlighted the folly of an MOI policy which required
the exclusive use of English in content subjects:
How it could ever have been thought possible to explain arithmetic or
geography in English to boys who know no English is not clear. As a matter of
fact the masters have ignored this condition systematically, throwing
themselves on the reasonableness of the Inspector of Schools. In Queens
College and the Anglo-Chinese District Schools, Chinese has always been the
actual medium of instruction. (ibid.: 500)
Twenty years before, Stewart acknowledged that code-switching was standard
practice at the government flagship: It has been the rule that every sentence read
should be explained in Chinese; that has been the invariable practice (Education
Commission 1882: 13). This raises the rather startling possibility that mixed-mode
instruction, the apparent source of the language malaise in the late twentieth
century, may have been the norm in the English stream for much of the colonial
period, rather than a comparatively recent aberration. In fact, the past decade may
have been the high water mark in the history of English-medium schooling in Hong
Kong as content teachers in the reformed English stream have evidently made a
determined effortin the face of great difficultiesto use English in the classroom
(Evans 2009).

MOI policy and practice in British colonial education

It is perhaps a coincidence that the Committee on Educations report was published

in the same year (1902) as the Indian Universities Commission report and the
Kynnerseley report in the Straits Settlements. It is not a coincidence, however, that
all three highlighted the unsatisfactory results of English-medium education.
The Indian Commissioners observed that many students pass through the entire
university course without acquiring anything approaching to a command of the
language (reproduced in Nurullah and Naik 1951: 526), while the Kynnerseley
report noted that Many complaints have been and are continually being made as to
the quality of this education, chiefly with regard to the alleged inadequacy of the
English (spoken and written) (reproduced in Wong and Gwee 1980: 39).
By the close of the Victorian era, the deleterious consequences of the spread of
English education in the preceding decades had become fully apparent, and this
eventually led to a reassessment of MOI policy in British colonial education. The
impetus for this development was concern in missionary circles about the direction
of education in Africa. This prompted the missions to call for the formation of a
metropolitan body to develop and co-ordinate a common policy. This resulted in the
establishment of the Colonial Offices Advisory Committee on Native Education in
British Tropical Africa in 1924. In 1929, its remit was extended to the entire

Historical and comparative perspectives 29

Empire, and it was accordingly renamed the Advisory Committee on Education in

the Colonies (ACEC) (Whitehead 1991). Although its formation instituted a new era
in British colonial education, the ACEC had no executive powers; its main function
was to collate, organise and disseminate information and advice. In keeping with the
British practice of devolving decision making to officials on the spot, colonial
administrators were at liberty to reject or modify its advice in the light of local
The ACEC was determined to avoid the mistakes that had been made in
nineteenth-century India, where the indiscriminate spread of English education had
created a class of discontented would-be clerks known as the Bengal Babus.
According to Lord Lugard (1925: 2), an influential ACEC member, the spread of
academic English education in Africa had already created a Babu-like class
imbued with theories of self-determination and half understood catch-words of the
political hustings. The ACECs solution to what it saw as the political and
pedagogical problems posed by English education was to adapt education to the
mentality, aptitudes, occupations and the traditions of the various peoples (Oldham
1925: 426). An inevitable consequence of such a policy was an increased emphasis
on vernacular languages as instructional media (Westermann 1925) and a desire to
restrict access to English-medium education (Brutt-Griffler 2002). The vernacular-
oriented policy was endorsed in 1927 by the Imperial Education Conference, which
stated that only those with the requisite interest and ability could study effectively in
The wide propagation of a smattering of English has its dangers, as experience
shows; it tends to divorce the student from the past of his race; while providing
no sure foothold for the future. It is better to make a thorough knowledge of
English accessible to those who have the desire and capacity for European
studies, but for the rest to use and encourage an indigenous language,
wherever possible the mother tongue. (Imperial Education Conference 1927:
If we leave to one side its objectionable political aim (i.e. the wish to keep native
subjects ignorant and acquiescent), it is worth noting that the ACECs desire to
encourage culturally relevant education in the mother tongue was essentially the
same as UNESCOs (1953) landmark recommendations on the MOI some years
Although the inter-war years saw a number of initiatives by the metropolitan
authorities to understand and address the problems of colonial education, it appears
that little real progress was made in the implementation of these policies before the
outbreak of the Second World War (Whitehead 1989). The ACECs failure to
translate policies into practice stemmed partly from its lack of directive powers.
Another factor militating against educational change was the economic depression
of the 1930s, which undermined the ability of the metropolitan and colonial
authorities to institute expensive reforms. In Africa, the ACECs major initiative
during this period, the promotion of rudimentary vernacular education, ran aground
on the rock of African resistance, a fact which, as Cox (1956) observed, underlined

30 S. Evans

the instrumental role played by the colonised in determining the nature of

education policy:
Our effort to apply to African educational policy lessons learnt from
experience in India and the East probably came twenty or thirty years too late.
For western schooling, however, thinly spread and rudimentary, had already
taken root. African reactions to this new and arresting phenomenon had begun
to take shape long before the wisdom of the Advisory Committee or Phelps-
Stokes. That having once happened, the fundamental, though often underrated,
factor in African education, as in colonial education generally, is less the
policy of the government than the attitude of the governed. (Cox 1956: 130)
What Coxa senior Colonial Office policy makerchose not to mention is that the
adapted curriculum was resisted and resented because, if implemented, it would
have deprived the overwhelming majority of Africans the opportunity for social and
occupational mobility in the colonial milieu (Foster 1965).

MOI policy and practice in mid-colonial Hong Kong

Between the mid-1930s and the mid-1980s, official reports on the MOI in Hong
Kong reflected the colonial governments general inclination to promote mother-
tongue education. The beginnings of this shift in principle (if not policy or practice)
can be traced to a report on the colonys education system by a British Inspector of
Schools, Edmund Burney, in 1935. Burney was highly critical of the governments
emphasis on English-medium secondary education and its neglect of vernacular
primary education. Burney (1935: 25) therefore recommended that educational
policy in the Colony should be gradually re-oriented so as eventually to secure for
the pupils, first, a command of their own language sufficient for all needs of thought
and expression, and secondly, a command of English limited to the satisfaction of
vocational demands. Although Burneys recommendations are occasionally
mentioned in the literature (Evans 2000; Ho and Ho 2004), these studies generally
do not view them from the broader perspective of MOI policy in colonial education.
If we adopt such a perspective, we can see that Burneys wish for greater emphasis
on vernacular education accorded with the recommendations of the ACEC, which
Burney joined soon after his Hong Kong visit.
Burneys recommendations on the MOI in Hong Kong were thus consistent with
the principles emanating from Whitehall in the pre-war years. It was not possible to
implement Burneys proposals before the Pacific War, but when the British resumed
sovereignty over Hong Kong after the Japanese occupation, it was intended that the
Burney report would form the basis of MOI policy in the post-war period. In its first
report after the war, the Education Department (1947: 30) outlined its policies for
the new era, which included the need for greater participation by government in
the provision of primary and secondary education in the vernacular. To this end,
the authorities issued two circulars to schools proposing that the MOI in all
government-aided schools up to junior secondary level should be Chinese. The
language circulars caused a storm of controversy, and after a vigorous campaign led

Historical and comparative perspectives 31

by the colonys most prestigious schools, the government backed down, and the
policy was never implemented (Sweeting 1993).
The governments reluctance to enforce the language circulars and the
subsequent expansion of English-medium schooling suggest that the Burney-
inspired attempt to promote mother-tongue education was a failure. While this is
true at secondary level, we should not overlook the administrations success in
promoting Chinese-medium education at primary level, particularly in the 1950s
and 1960s. The governments main educational priority during this period was the
provision of school places for the children of the refugees who poured into Hong
Kong to escape from the political and economic turmoil in China after the
communist takeover in 1949. While the pre-war education system had offered scope
for elementary mother-tongue instruction, such schooling had been mainly
conducted by private agencies. In the post-war period, as Burney had recommended,
basic education was brought increasingly within the governments ambit, and (as
noted above) placed greater emphasis on mother-tongue teaching than many post-
colonial societies.
The proposal embodied in the language circulars was essentially the same as the
MOI policy implemented by the SAR government half a century later. However,
whereas the language circulars were issued at a time when only a minority of
students attended English-medium secondary schools, the mother-tongue policy was
formulated during a period in which the majority of students were attending such
schools. The transformation of the English stream in the late twentieth century was
not the result of a carefully formulated policy to promote English in the colony;
indeed, a recurrent theme of official reports during this period was the desirability of
promoting mother-tongue education (Keswick 1952; Board of Education 1973;
Education Commission 1984). Rather, the expansion of English-medium secondary
education can be attributed to the interaction of a series of endogenous and
exogenous forces which shaped the development of post-war Hong Kong society.
Policy makers in the mid-1940s would have required considerable powers of
foresight to have predicted the educational and linguistic consequences of the
political, economic and demographic forces that, in the space of half a century, were
to transform an impoverished colonial backwater into a pulsating international
centre of business and finance.
Given the role of English in Hong Kongs economic transformation, it was
understandable that parents and students would regard proficiency in the language
as a key determinant of upward mobility (Li 2002). It was hardly surprising,
therefore, that most baby boomers chose to pursue their secondary studies
through the medium of English. Although this preference was viewed with some
misgivings by the colonial government, such was the fragility of its power and
legitimacy after the civil disturbances of the mid-1960s (Scott 1989) that it was
loath to incur the wrath of local parents by restricting their childrens access to
English and therefore the prospect of socio-economic advancement. Decisions over
the MOI were therefore left to individual schools (Hong Kong Government 1974),
with consequences that were discussed in the first part of the article. It was only in
the final decade of colonial rule that this politically expedient, bottom-up policy
was replaced by a politically unpopular, top-down decision to limit access to EMI to

32 S. Evans

those deemed to be capable of learning effectively in a second language (Education

Commission 1990). However, it was entirely in keeping with the colonial regimes
tradition of vacillation over MOI issues that this policy would come into effect only
after the handover.1


This article has argued that broader perspectives on the MOI in Hong Kong
illuminate our understanding of issues and problems in the modern era. The need for
such perspectives is particularly desirable at a time when the SAR government is
implementing its new fine-tuning policy. What then may we learn from the past?
Government reports before the Second World War indicate that a number of factors
militated against effective language education in Hong Kong. These may be
summarised as follows: students were allowed to enter the English-medium schools
without a firm foundation in Chinese; the emphasis on English in the lop-sided
Anglo-Chinese curriculum prevented students from developing high levels of
proficiency in their first language; English was introduced as the MOI before
students had attained the requisite cognitive and linguistic threshold levels to benefit
from their studies; the content and methods of instruction and assessment were not
adapted to the needs of non-native speakers of English; and teachers were forced to
mix and switch between English and Cantonese in order to explain the linguistically
and culturally inappropriate teaching materials. All these factors conspired to ensure
that perhaps the majority of students left the English stream with a flimsy foundation
in Chinese language and culture overlain with a thin and imperfect veneer of
English. There is evidence to suggest that these problems were not unique to Hong
Kong but in fact part of a wider imperial pattern. This seems to be a significant
finding because in the literature on language in Hong Kong education, there has (to
date) been little or no attempt to examine MOI policies and practices in relation to
developments in British colonial education.
What also appears to be significant is that the problems that confronted students,
teachers and policy makers in early and mid-colonial Hong Kong were not only
similar to those experienced by their counterparts elsewhere, but were also in some
respects similar to those faced by their counterparts in the modern era. As had been
the case a century earlier, the late twentieth century witnessed a significant
expansion in English-medium schooling; this expansion was fuelled by a strong
pragmatic demand for English; most students who entered the English stream did
not possess the requisite proficiency to learn effectively in English; the emphasis on
English in the curriculum prevented students from fully developing the literacy
skills in Chinese which they had begun to acquire at primary school; most teachers
used Cantonese in order to make the ill-adapted, overly academic curriculum
comprehensible; and many teachers lacked the necessary training and proficiency to

Poon (2000) discusses the ways in which the Education Departments (1997) MOI policy diverged from
that formulated by the Education Commission (1990). However, the main thrust of the two documents
was the same, i.e. access to EMI should be restricted to 2530% of each age cohort.

Historical and comparative perspectives 33

teach effectively in English. The result was hardly surprising: most students
graduated from the English stream not only lacking the high levels of proficiency in
English that were supposed to be the hallmark of EMI, but also without a firm
grounding in written Chinese. In other words, as in the late nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries (though to a much less serious extent), the products of the
unreformed English-medium schools were perceived to fall between two stools.
The various perspectives presented in this article offer a number of pointers as to
the possible results of the new fine-tuning policy. The most likely outcome is that
secondary schools hitherto classified as CMI will elect to offer more classes in
English in order to enhance their image in the eyes of parents. However, since
perhaps the majority of their students will find it difficult to cope with English-only
instruction, their teachers will understandably and necessarily make considerable
use of Cantonese to present and explain lesson content, to ask and answer questions,
to motivate and admonish students, and (perhaps most important) to humanise the
atmosphere in the classroom. While the use of various bilingual teaching strategies
will in many cases promote effective learning, such approaches are likely to be
deprecated by policy makers, who, under pressure from the business community to
improve English standards, will inevitably identify dual-language instruction as the
cause of unsatisfactory standards and will therefore initiate another review of
MOI policy. The outcome of such a review will not alter the fundamental problem
that confrontsand has always confrontedlanguage policy makers in Hong Kong
and most other post-colonial societies, namely, that most secondary students (or at
least their parents) wish to study through the medium of English, but are unable to
cope with, and will therefore not benefit from, instruction delivered solely in

Acknowledgments This work was supported by a PolyU Departmental Research Grant (G-U533).
I would also like to thank two anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments on an earlier draft of the


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Author Biography

Stephen Evans is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at the Hong Kong Polytechnic
University, where he teaches undergraduate and postgraduate courses in sociolinguistics, English as an
international language, ELT syllabus and materials design, and English for academic and professional
purposes. He holds a BA in Modern History from the University of Oxford, an MA in Teaching English
as a Second Language from City University of Hong Kong and a PhD in Applied Linguistics from the
University of Edinburgh. He has written a number of textbooks for students at secondary and tertiary
levels as well as journal articles on a range of subjects, including colonial language policy, medium-of-
instruction policy, English-language education, world Englishes, and English for academic and
professional purposes.