Newsletter No. 88

CUHK Newsletter 2 No. 88 4th May 1996 The 'Forum' isfor thefree expression of opinions on specific topics — topics proposed by the CUHK Newsletter or by readers. Faculty and staff are welcome to suggest topics, contribute their comments, or respond to views expressed herein. Faculty Differences Over Language Requirements? Inthis issue, threteachersf omthredifferent faculties talk about their observations f the language proficiency of their studentsand their views onwhat needs to bedone. TheELTU Director alsotells uswhat has so far been doneby his unit Natural Languages Not a Top Priority for Engineering Students Engineering students do not communicate well in words and they have good reasons for it. In the first place, natural languages are but their second language. Engineering students are by and large preoccupied with two kinds of academic tasks — solving classroom problems and manipulating hardware and software in the laboratories. Under- standably, their primary academic concern is to score high grades, and to do so, they know as well as their teachers that they have to be good at numbers, symbols, C, C++, command languages, instruction sets, and the like. Those talented in quantitative skills are admired and envied, and so are those who are good at wares hard or soft——thougha little less so as they may not fetch as high grades in examinations as the former. Those good at words are also admired, but little envied. Since everybody wants to be admired and envied too, their priorities are therefore obvious. We have to sympathize with our students who are already toiling under great work pressure. To demand their going beyond bread-and-butter work is too much for most of them. They know as well as their teachers what is and what is not their bread- and-butter. Language skills? Yes, but.... What I am trying to get at is this 一 that many students in our faculty do not excel in languages and they do so by choice, consciously or unconsciously. I t is a willing price they pay for maximizing academic scores in the face of time constraints. To be a good engineer is to be shrewdly rational about tradeoffs in aconstrained universe. So much we teach them, so much they have learnt, and applied to their own time- constrained universes. Many students of other faculties have language problems because of various deficiencies, but not our students. They are in fact smart enough to become language masters, if only they so choose. Se how they learn languages with the weirdest syntax to talk to machines! You would be impressed by the way they have struggled with and prevailed over dumb and stubborn machines that refuse to understand them. As they manage well to communicate with intolerant computers in unnatural languages, they would be able to communicate with tolerant human beings in natural languages too. This again is obvious. And yes — we as teachers also know what does and does not count. Not only that, we practise the implied priorities in our dealings with students. Of course we appreciate good verbal and writing skills, but we are used to extracting meaning from jumbles. Our students know that as long as they get the answers right, inaccurate English does not matter. Bad presentation may hurt alittle, but not much. Our tolerant attitude towards sloppy language usage is in fact quite well publicized. Just check out the many notices put up around our HSH Engineering Building. PE ratios of language skills are not good enough for engineers. We must sympathize with our students who do not have the time to learn all that they would need to keep everybody's mouth shut. As their professional mentors, we already have a very hard time finding slots for many very important engineering courses. If they do want to improve their languages, well, we sincerely hope that they may find their own time to do so. Respectable engineers do not talk to people who do not understand them anyway. Perhaps only sales engineers do. But they are not a respectable breed, are they? Language problems? What language problems? Ng Wai-yin Associate Professor Department of Information Engineering Language Skills Important for BA Students Thursday, 11th January 1996. It is the first day of class for 21 undergraduate students enrolled in 'Current Business Issues' in the Student Oriented Teaching programme. Within the first 10 minutes, the students realize that English is the language of instruction for this course, which means they have to make presentations and hold discussions in English. The lecturer is from Singapore and speaks only the Fujian dialect. They also know that having aChinese name does not mean that the lecturer can speak Cantonese. After the initial surprise and anxiety of having to use English 'full time' with me, they accept the challenge and the opportunity to practise and improve their English. I tell them that they have much to gain by building up their English speaking and writing skills. These skills will give them an edge when competing for jobs with other qualified candidates, such as those from mainland China and those from America and Britain who want the experience of working in Asia. My views and observations of the standard of English of CUHK students come from my teaching experience over the last seven years as well as discussions with managers and human resource practitioners in Hong Kong. It was the managers and business practitioners who alerted us to the declining English proficiency of graduates from local tertiary institutions. They want graduates with good communication skills and these include written and spoken English. Multinational companies and local companies with international business interests express worry over the drop in the number of job candidates with adequate English or Putonghua skills. There is a need to share the business community's expectations with our students. Multi-lingualism (Putonghua and English) is a definite asset for any career, especially one in regional and international business. Students therefore need to be well-equipped with the necessary language skills. I n the Classroom In each undergraduate class, there is often a handful of students who are very proficient in English. These students are generally very participative in class discussions. The rest of the students may be good at reading the language but their writing, especially their grammar, needs to be polished. Spelling mistakes do appear when they forget to run the spell-check program. Using English spontaneously can be a stressful experience for students. Many are reluctant to speak out and do so only when their views are solicited. When making presentations, they read verbatim notes prepared beforehand. Each time they are called on to give an opinion, a nervous and terrified expression is seen on their faces. There are also times when I discover, to my pleasant surprise, the more-than- adequate English standard of some normally passive students. But it only happens when I ask for their views. What if I never had the chance to find out who they are and help them become more confident in using English? As ateacher, it is frustrating to miss the opportunity to help develop students' po- Average Standard of English Majors Also Dropping Is the English standard of CUHK undergraduates slipping? My answer is a qualified YES. From my daily contact with students, I find that their average standard has indeed been dropping over the years. The number of students who cannot express themselves properly or articulate their thoughts clearly in English appears to be on the rise. Here I'm talking about the average English standard across the student population, not the English standard of individual students. Some of them are comparable to native speakers in proficiency andfluency. But many others are 'below par'. Is the English standard of CUHK English majors dropping? My answer is also a qualified YES. While a sizeable number of English majors have a very good standard of both spoken and written English, and do appreciate Western culture, the average standard is not what it used to be. More and more students join the English Department without any background in English literature or an adequate knowledge of Western culture. The students' English standard in general leaves a lot to be desired. How then can students' English pro- ficiency be improved? First, staff across faculties should realize that they have a 'communal' responsibility to help students recognize the importance of effective communication in Chinese as well as in English. Being an international language, English is especially important if graduates want to transcend their immediate environment and take their place in the international arena. To help them achieve this goal, teaching staff should be more active in the language referral process: advising students to take relevant English Language Teaching (ELT) courses or referring them to the ELT Unit or the Independent Learning Centre (ILC) for 'diagnosis' and 'treatment'. These students should be given priority when enrolling for specific courses. Secondly, CUHK students should be made to recognize that it is their responsibility to attain a reasonably good level of English proficiency. 'God help those who help themselves.' They must have a strong will to improve before others can come to their help. Thirdly, more opportunities should be provided for students to improve their language skills. Innovative designs for English courses should be encouraged to provide a greater variety of course-types to suit different kinds of learners at different levels of proficiency. There should also be greater flexibility in programme admin-