Some weeks ago there was as row between students and staff at Baptist University (where I used to work; if that is an interest consider it declared) over a Putonghua requirement.

This quickly became a political football, Putonghua being the language sanctioned by Beijing and consequently much loved by local apologists for despotism.

There was, according to reports, an extended confrontation between some students and some staff of the language centre, not over the requirement as such, but over a test which you could take, thereby escaping the Putonghua course and doing something else instead… if you passed.

Predictably the hostile comments concentrated not on the substance of the dispute but on the protest methodology. Some staff apparently felt intimidated. Some students swore. I am assured by connoisseurs of Cantonese obscenities that the “swearing” was pretty thin stuff.

As far as the substance of the matter was concerned I was puzzled by one thing. The students wanted to know the marking scheme of the test. The Language Centre apparently would not produce it. When I was still working at BU we were required to produce a marking scheme and share it with students so I would have thought this would be public as a matter of course.

Anyway this case is still working its way through the disciplinary machinery so we should perhaps not explore the merits of the two sides.

I would like instead to ponder a broader question: what do local universities think they are doing teaching languages?

Baptist University students protesting the suspension of the students. Photo: In-Media.

I ask this because when I went to university there were, of course, language requirements. But these had to be met before you got in. The academic dinosaur which was kind enough to accept me still required historians to offer Latin and one modern language.

These were assessed as part of the entrance exam, whether you had the relevant GCE or not. But once you arrived, that was it. Historians had one paper in the first term which required you to read part of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History and the whole of De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America in their original languages. These papers were taught by historians, not linguists.

The requirement for scientists was different. They were spared Latin but required to offer German. How this arrangement had survived two world wars in which Germany was the enemy, the second of which was at that time quite recent, is a mystery, at least to me. It seems when the course was founded there was a lot of scientific literature in German.

But again, this was a language to be learned before you arrived. Of course you could do degrees in French and some other modern languages. But these were devoted to literature, culture and other worthy topics. Knowledge of the language concerned was assumed.

Even the classicists were expected to have mastered the relevant languages at school, including ancient Greek. One of my crew colleagues in the rowing fraternity actually composed an ode in ancient Greek to honour one of our rare triumphs. I could not understand a word of it so it may not have been a very good ode. But it gives you an idea of the standard required.

The view at the time seems to have been that a university education was very expensive in money and time. It should be devoted only to things which could not be done anywhere else. As most children manage to master a language between the ages of two and six, this is clearly not an achievement which requires a great deal of brain power and experience.

Baptist University. Photo: GovHK.

Hong Kong universities have, I suppose, one good excuse for teaching English. Local employers commonly complain about the English standards of graduates. Indeed it sometimes seems as if fluent English is the only thing many employers expect of degree holders.

Having accepted the need to provide compulsory English, a university will then find that the people teaching Chinese want a bit of the action. They allege that the students’ Chinese is at least as bad as their English, if not worse. I always found this difficult to believe, but Chinese courses duly sprouted.

Then we have the enthusiasm for “liberal education”. This is a flexible term. It used to comprise in ancient times grammar, logic, rhetoric, music, arithmetic, geometry and astronomy. In modern academic parlance it means a system in which a student is required for a year or two to take courses all over the university, before he or she is allowed to settle on a desired subject.

“Ideally,” says its Wikipedia page, “a liberal education produces persons who are open-minded and free from provincialism, dogma, preconception, and ideology; conscious of their opinions and judgments; reflective of their actions; and aware of their place in the social and natural worlds. Liberally educated people are skeptical of their own traditions; they are trained to think for themselves rather than conform to higher authorities.”

In the real world, it protects administrators and academics from the vagaries of student choice, and provides the opportunity for universities willing to game the system to improve their apparent research output.

Baptist University. Photo: GovHK.

Research output is measured by counting the number of learned articles and dividing it by the number of staff expected to do research. The main obstacle between these staff and a higher research output is the irritating requirement that they should do the job they are paid to do: teaching students.

Well we have to amuse the students for 16-18 hours a week, in our system. But if the students are in a language class then they do not have to be entertained by someone who is expected to do research and appears in the calculation. So we find language courses taught by “instructors”, “assistant lecturers”, or even “visiting scholars”, classifications which share the attraction that they do not count for research purposes.

This is a cheap and cheerful solution to financial strains. These non-research people can be worked for much longer hours than their aristocratic colleagues and be paid less. In fact the whole thing has become so popular that other languages are offered on a “start from scratch” basis, to meet some liberal education requirements.

This has led to some difficult choices for people advising students. Students are attracted to basic language courses, especially if they have already studied the language elsewhere, because they can expect to get a good grade. On the other hand many of my colleagues thought that such subjects lacked intellectual content, and students should be encouraged to do something more challenging.

Being able to order noodles in three languages is a useful accomplishment, but not perhaps the sort of thing people should be picking up in publicly-funded universities.

Baptist University. Photo: InMedia.

This piece is already getting too long, so I conclude with two points.

First: liberal education is a fine thing but it has its drawbacks. Reading a history of the early 60s the other day I was amused to find complaints that the British system was too liberal, and neglected the demands of the practical world. The person running a factory in Germany usually had a doctorate in a relevant science or technology. His English counterpart had a BA in Comparative Literature, or something equally irrelevant. Arts subjects are cheaper, but there is a danger that a preparation for life-long learning will merely be camouflage for a preparation for life-long unemployment.

Second: the problem at the root of the language question is the disappointing outcome of language teaching in schools. The British Army’s Interpreters’ School used to teach a foreign language to interpreter standard (not simultaneous, but useful) in three months, or – in round numbers – 500 classroom hours. Hong Kong kids spend much longer than that on English and many of them emerge from this ordeal barely able to buy a stamp.

Many European countries, like Finland, Holland or Iceland, have languages known to few foreigners. Visitors invariably find that most of the natives can speak two languages and many can manage three or more. It can be done. But here in Hong Kong it seems it cannot be done by us. I wonder why.

Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.