By Maggie Holmes

The Chief Executive’s 2020 Policy Address confirmed the government’s continued support for Non-Chinese Speaking (NCS) students. Its commitment is to be commended. However, I would argue that the term “Non-Chinese Speaking” is not fit for purpose and I request that the Education Bureau urgently consider new terminology. 

Government reports are littered with acronyms and abbreviations but NCS particularly rankles. The term is more than a short cut: it is doing real harm. 

Photo: GovHK.

NCS is used exclusively to describe children from non-Chinese speaking family backgrounds studying in the local school system. The children might be attending English Medium of Instruction (EMI) schools or Chinese Medium of Instruction (CMI) schools. Many are studying in an educational grey area: their school claims to be Chinese Medium of Instruction (CMI), but in reality, non-Chinese students are segregated into different classes and taught a reduced Chinese curriculum.  

So what’s the problem?

For a start, the term NCS is not accurate. The vast majority of these students do speak some Chinese. Of course, there is a wide range of language proficiencies within the group. Some children have only a rudimentary knowledge of spoken Cantonese, while others speak Chinese fluently. It is therefore entirely inappropriate and unhelpful for the Education Bureau to have a blanket term to describe such a wide range of linguistic competencies. The only setting where NCS could be used appropriately is when referring to children from non-Chinese speaking families entering K1 or students newly arrived in Hong Kong from overseas. 

Carrie Lam. Photo: GovHK.

Secondly, the term NCS  is inherently negative, referring to a lack of skills instead of the possibility for future potential.  How demoralising for a young person to be told: “You are a non-Chinese speaker.” It’s a self-limiting term, which in the Hong Kong context means: once an NCS, always an NCS. The negative impact of teacher labelling and its close relative the “self -fulfilling prophecy,” whereby students accept and live up to their labels, is well documented in educational theory.

It is extraordinary therefore that otherwise respected educational  institutions should make extensive use of this negative term. I have seen secondary school classrooms with the label NCS written above the classroom door. If these students are still NCS at secondary level, shouldn’t we take a careful look at how they are taught Chinese at primary school?  Intriguingly, it’s not uncommon to see schools organizing a “Cantonese Speech Competition for Non-Chinese Speaking Students.” One wonders how that works…? 

Perhaps most worrying are the many references to “NCS School Leavers.” Surely “NCS School Leaver” should be an oxymoron? Clearly, Hong Kong’s “Biliterate and Trilingual” language policy is failing many of its young citizens. 

Hong Kong classroom. File photo: Bethel High School website.

The casual use of the term NCS hides the diverse needs of this student group and encourages a one-size-fits-all response to their Chinese-language education. In fact, a wide range of learning tools, resources and teaching strategies are required. Children in CMI schools usually speak fluent Cantonese but may require help with reading and writing. Students in EMI schools would benefit from textbooks designed to teach spoken Cantonese from scratch, and desperately need materials which teach Chinese vocabulary and grammar in a systematic way.

Research is needed to provide evidence-based teaching strategies and educational tools which address the specific needs of students from non-Chinese speaking families learning Chinese in Hong Kong. 

Many so-called NCS students in local schools are from ethnic minority (EM) backgrounds. The abbreviations NCS and EM are scattered liberally throughout government reports and academic papers, to the point where they have become almost interchangeable. This indiscriminate use of NCS and EM subtly shifts responsibility for poor learning outcomes onto the student. It’s too easy to assume the children fail Chinese because they are NCS (read: EM/south Asian/not Chinese/low income/other).

This diverts attention away from the true cause of their difficulties: vastly inappropriate teaching strategies, lack of suitable study materials, racial and linguistic segregation in schools.  

It’s crucial that the Education Bureau take the initiative to adopt more accurate and respectful terms of reference. Academic institutions and NGOs feel compelled to use the same terminology as the bureau and without change from the top it will be hard to move forward.  

A pupil piecing traditional Chinese characters. Photo: Maggie Holmes.

NCS is so ingrained in Hong Kong’s educational lexicon that it’s hard to imagine alternatives. But they do exist. Our organisation prefers Chinese as an Additional Language (CAL). This is an inclusive term that reflects the full range of learning profiles and nods at the more widely understood term English as an Additional Language (EAL). The term Chinese as a Second Language (CSL) is sometimes used in Hong Kong and has some merits. Chinese as a Second Language does not accurately represent the experience of many students, who learn Chinese as a third or fourth language after their home language and English.

However, the huge advantage of CSL is that it provides an immediate reminder that these students should be taught using the principles of second language teaching, rather than a watered-down version of first language teaching as is currently the case. 

Language matters. I urge the Education Bureau to mind its language and adopt respectful, inclusive terminology which is linguistically and pedagogically appropriate. We need terminology which reflects the wide range of achievements of this student group and which recognises and encourages their potential for future learning. 


Maggie Holmes is co-founder of Chinese as an Additional Language, an organisation which supports students studying Chinese in Hong Kong. 


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