Ethnic minority students and language in education: Issues and challenges



The post-1997 school system

Hong Kong’s education policy has undergone some significant changes in the years following the handover. Overall, the government’s stated goal is that Hong Kong should be trilingual (in Cantonese, English, and Putonghua) and biliterate (in written Chinese and English). Prior to 1997, it was more or less up to each individual school to decide their language of instruction. For most, this meant being officially English-medium, though many schools taught in a mixture of English and Cantonese.[1] However, in 1997 it was decided that it would be more beneficial to students to learn in their mother tongue (meaning, in this policy, Cantonese).

To remain English-medium, schools had to prove that their students were academically strong enough to benefit from English language teaching. About one fourth of Hong Kong schools were judged to meet this criteria; the rest had to teach in Cantonese. This has resulted in a situation where English medium schools are regarded as superior and better preparation for Hong Kong universities, which are mostly English medium. Competition for English medium schools is intense, so they have their pick of Hong Kong’s best students; thus the reputation of Chinese-medium schools as inferior has become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Hong Kong public and government-aided schools are organised into bands based on student exam results, with most English-medium schools in band 1 (the best) and the Chinese-medium schools filling out the lower bands 2 and 3.

Schools are also administered and funded in different ways. Government schools are, as the name suggests, fully operated and funded by the Hong Kong government. Government-aided schools are also funded by the government, but usually operated by religious or charitable organisations. Schools under the Direct Subsidy Scheme are privately operated and though they also receive government funding, they have more freedom in terms of curriculum design and charging school fees than the aided schools.[2] There are also private schools which do not receive government funding.

These private schools may be further classified as either ‘local’ private schools or as international schools, which are usually English-medium and high quality but very expensive. There is also a system of English-medium schools known as ‘designated’ schools which primarily serve working-class ethnic minority students. Though they teach in English and may fall under the government or Direct Subsidy Scheme school types, designated schools are usually considered distinct from the ‘mainstream’ EMI category and are not sought after in the way most other EMI schools are.


As of the 2013-2014 school year, the Education Bureau has officially stopped using the label ‘designated’ for these schools, though the schools themselves have not changed. The Education Bureau is also now providing additional funding to any school with at least ten non-Chinese students.[3] The maximum amount of this funding has increased to HKD $600,000. There is a related trend for lower-band CMI schools dealing with decreasing student enrollment (and therefore the threat of closure) to open “international” sections, which operate similarly to the designated schools and are usually taught in English.


Ethnic minorities in Hong Kong

Ethnic minorities make up about 6% of Hong Kong’s population. The largest minority groups in Hong Kong as of 2011 were Indonesians and Filipinos, with 164,260 and 153,060 individuals respectively, followed by populations originating in the USA, Thailand, India, Canada, Nepal, and Pakistan.[4] Indonesians and Filipinos do not form a significant presence in the school system, however, as many of them are in Hong Kong as domestic workers and are not allowed to bring families with them under Hong Kong law.

These numbers alone do not capture the complexity and diversity of minority groups. South Asians continue to immigrate to Hong Kong, but families from Pakistan, Nepal, and India have been present in Hong Kong since its beginnings as a territory in the 1840s. Many South Asian students in Hong Kong were born in the city; some of their families have resided in Hong Kong for generations. Today, many of these families use English and/or Cantonese as a home language in addition to or instead of languages like Urdu, Nepali, Punjabi, Hindi, or Sindhi.


Ethnic minorities in the school system

Most ethnic minority students in Hong Kong attend either a designated school or one of the lower-band government Chinese-medium (CMI) schools. Critics argue that students in the CMI schools are left to fend for themselves with no Chinese as a Second Language (CSL) curriculum or Chinese language learning support when it is needed, and with teachers who are not trained in the needs of minority/CSL students. Schools wishing to provide their students with Chinese as a second language instruction face a lack of funds and materials; many schools must rely on materials and books that they have developed themselves, resulting in an overall lack of consistency across schools.

The designated school system, on the other hand, is seen as segregationist and counterproductive to the goal of social integration between ethnic minorities and ethnic Chinese. Many students and families feel that attending a designated school makes it more difficult to interact with Cantonese speakers and thus to learn Cantonese, which is seen as a key skill to succeed in Hong Kong. Likewise, ethnic minority students at ‘international’ sections of CMI schools, despite ostensibly being part of the same school, are often taught completely separately from the Chinese students, with different teachers and even buildings.


Access to tertiary education

Ethnic minority students may also have difficulties accessing tertiary education. Until recently, all students in local schools were required to pass the same standardised Cantonese exam, regardless of their native language – formerly as part of the HKCEE (Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination), since 2012, the HKDSE (Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education). In 2008 this policy was modified so that ethnic minority students could substitute a different foreign language or take the easier GCSE Chinese exam. However, the substitution of a different Chinese exam is only available to students who have not had all of their education in Hong Kong or who have been educated through a Chinese curriculum designed for non-native speakers.[5] This policy also contrasts with the university entrance criteria for international students, who are not required to have any kind of ability in Chinese. Notably, this includes students at Hong Kong international schools.

Additionally, although students are allowed to substitute a foreign language for Chinese, not all schools provide these lessons. The table below shows the alternative languages that are available:[6]

Kindergarten German, Korean 1
  French 2
Japanese 3
Primary School French 3
  Spanish, Korean 1
Japanese 2
Urdu 6
Nepali 4
Hindi 5
Secondary School Nepalese 2
  Japanese 3
Urdu 3
Hindi 1
Spanish 2
German 1
French 14

However, the government still strongly encourages ethnic minority students to study Chinese and to follow the local curriculum.[7]


Current plans and policies

In January 2014 the Chief Executive’s policy address included a provision for the development and provision of a Chinese as a Second Language curriculum.[8] Activists have long been calling for such a programme – many of them have argued that the lack of Cantonese language skills among the ethnic minority population is the primary reason for most social problems facing ethnic minorities. Cantonese has been presented as the single factor determining a person’s success or failure in Hong Kong. While the plan for a CSL curriculum is a recognition that there is room for improvement beyond simply placing minority students into Cantonese medium schools with no support or relegating them to designated schools, the way this issue is often discussed seems to promote a stereotype that most ethnic minority students in Hong Kong are unable to function at all in Cantonese. This reflects a longstanding portrayal of ethnic minority students as “linguistically and culturally deficient”.[9]

Additionally, it is not clear that improved abilities in Cantonese would actually significantly improve the socioeconomic mobility and integration of working class ethnic minority students in Hong Kong. My research suggests that even minority students with good Cantonese ability do not necessarily feel more “integrated” or consider themselves local, and that minority students’ abilities in Cantonese often go unrecognised or are considered insufficient. Rather, language appears to be a serving as a way to rationalise existing racial/ethnic hierarchies. Without addressing other factors that can create barriers for ethnic minorities, solely an improvement in Cantonese education may not be the solution that it has been hoped to be.


Written by Kara Fleming – a PhD student in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Hong Kong. Her research focuses on language ideology and identity among South Asian students in the Hong Kong education system. Contact her at

[1] Evans, S. (2000). Hong Kong’s new English language policy in education. World Englishes, 19, 185–204.

[3] Hong Kong Education Bureau. (2013). Education support measures for non-Chinese speaking students.

[4] Hong Kong Yearbook. (2012). Hong Kong: The facts. Hong Kong.

[5] Hong Kong Education Bureau. (2013). Education support measures for non-Chinese speaking students.

[8] Hong Kong Government Press Release. (2014). Policy address by the Chief Executive.

[9] Gao, F. (2012). Teacher identity, teaching vision, and Chinese language education for South Asian students in Hong Kong. Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice, 18(1), 89–99.

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