Investigating the Language Abilities and Attitudes on Ethnic Minority Students

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Investigating the Language Abilities and Attitudes on Ethnic Minority Students

Principal investigator: Dr LI Bin (Department of Linguistics and Translation)

To examine the proficiency levels and attitudes of the main languages in use among ethnic minority students in Hong Kong, Dr LI Bin of CityU’s Department of Linguistics and Translation and her team surveyed 260 students from primary and secondary schools with English as the medium of instruction. The results are presented in the article Multilingual proficiencies and L1 attitudes of ethnic minority students in Hong Kong, published in the Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development.

According to Hong Kong’s most recent census data, the ethnic minorities amounted to about 8% of its population, among whom 20% were children aged 15 and below. Their first languages are usually ignored in Hong Kong’s education system, which emphasises promoting citizens’ abilities in three dominant languages: Cantonese, English and Mandarin. Only a few schools provide classes for minority languages such as Nepalese, Urdu, and Hindi, and ethnic minority students tend to use their native or first languages (L1s) in daily interaction rather than in schools.

Dr. Li’s study focuses on ethnic minority students who were originally from South-, Southeast- and East-Asia and are currently enrolled in local schools in Hong Kong. The researchers aimed to examine correlations between socio-cultural variables (eg, generation, age, country of origin) and these students’ proficiency levels in major languages including their L1s and local languages. They used a questionnaire and focused interviews to collect information and answers on ethno-linguistic backgrounds, proficiency in major languages, language use in daily situations, and language attitudes.

Students self-reported relatively higher proficiencies in English and their L1s, but lower in Cantonese and Mandarin. They practiced English at school and their L1s at home and in the ethnic neighbourhood. By contrast, they generally had limited close contact with the local Chinese-speaking community, and less interaction with people who spoke Mandarin. Moreover, students who were born to immigrant families that had resided in Hong Kong for generations reported much higher Cantonese proficiency, suggesting stronger influence of an acculturated attitude and closer contacts with the predominant local language from an earlier age.

Most students in the study reported using their L1s with their family, friends and neighbours. It agrees with their reported channels for L1 contact and input, such as in real-life communication, on TV and video clips on the internet. The pattern suggests unbalanced L1 input due to rare access to texts but prevailing exposure to audio-visual materials. This resulted in unbalanced language skills: well-developed oral skills with very low literacy skills.

Despite the low literacy and limited use of their L1s, these minority students were in general positive towards their L1s. Those with higher proficiencies in both local languages and their L1s found greater pride in their L1s, and also more confidence in their L1 development. They showed strong awareness of the integrative value of languages, and of the symbolic role in maintaining their ethnic identity and group membership. Meanwhile, they also noticed limited usefulness of their L1s in Hong Kong, and acknowledged the inadequacy of minority languages in the mainstream society. Specifically, older students and those who had started learning Cantonese at a later age tended to find their L1s less useful. As they grow older, they become more independent and more involved in the social life. Their use of majority languages rather than their L1s became more frequent and significant, which may change their language attitudes. On the other hand, those with higher proficiencies in Cantonese and Mandarin tended to find their L1s more useful. A mastery of multiple languages allowed greater autonomy for students to interact with both the minority communities and mainstream society, which improved their confidence and enhanced the perception of their L1s as additional assets. Overall, students with higher multilingual proficiencies enjoyed an advantage in overcoming linguistic and cultural barriers, and hence were capable of constructing a more powerful multilingual or transnational identity.

This study uncovered asymmetry yet mutual relationship in ethinic-minority students’ multilingual proficiencies. The students had relatively low literacy skills in an L1, which may be due to a limited L1 input in reading and writing. However, most students held positive attitudes towards their L1s. The findings added support to the appropriate interpretation of minority students’ multilingual skills and their linguistic needs. By exploring language issues challenging minority students in Hong Kong, it helped inform the need of raising multilingual and multicultural awareness among students, teachers and policymakers. Overall, it can serve as an empirical reference for policymakers who aim at helping the minority youth achieve full and successful participation in social life and maintain cultural-linguistic diversity in Hong Kong.

Achievements and publication

Hua, C., Li, Y. N., & Li, B. (2020). Multilingual proficiencies and L1 attitudes of ethnic minority students in Hong Kong. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development. https://doi.org/10.1080/01434632.2020.1850743