Analyses | Education and human resources | 2017-05-11

Chinese as a Second Language Education: Improving prospects for Non-Chinese speakers

In March 2017, Police Constable Ifzal Zaffar became an overnight celebrity after he persuaded a suicidal man on a construction crane to come down by speaking to the man in his native language, Urdu.[1] Zaffar is of Pakistani descent, but he was raised in Hong Kong and he is fluent in Cantonese. Zaffar was able to improve his Chinese language proficiency by participating in a mentoring programme for ethnic minority (EM) police officers. Unlike Zaffar, however, many EM people are unable to become proficient enough in Chinese to integrate into local society, which negatively affects their employment opportunities.

It is often the case in Hong Kong that EM students come from families who are non-Chinese speaking (NCS)[2], and as such these students have few opportunities to practise the language in their home environment.[3] For example, in a survey of low-income South Asian parents of NCS kindergarten students, the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Oxfam Hong Kong found that 27.0% of the parents were “weak” in Cantonese and 26.6% could not speak the language at all.[4] Another survey of 476 EM respondents conducted in 2016 by the Hong Kong Council of Social Service (HKCSS) and the Hong Kong Christian Service Ethnic Minority Service (HKCS) found that while 49.8% of the respondents could speak Chinese, only 10.3% of the respondents could read Chinese and only 9.5% could write Chinese.[5]

A survey conducted by City University of Hong Kong (CityU) of 378 EM students aged 12 to 23 in 2014 found that more than 60% of the students overall and 50% of the senior secondary students surveyed had a Chinese proficiency that was only comparable to that of an average local primary student.[6] The Education Bureau (EDB) noted that there were about 17,700 NCS students attending public sector schools and schools under the Direct Subsidy Scheme (DSS) in 2015/2016.[7] The EDB often refers to NCS students when providing data on EM students, although the two groups are not exactly the same.

Do all ethnic groups face the same educational difficulties?

In an analysis of the 2011 Hong Kong census data conducted by the Hong Kong Institute of Education,[8] it was revealed that the percentage of Pakistanis and Nepalese aged 19 to 22 who are studying or have completed university was over 20 percentage points lower than the percentage for the Chinese population.[9] The analysis also found that Pakistani and Nepalese youth aged 13 to 19 tend to drop out of school before Form 5 at rates significantly higher than Chinese youth as well as youth with mixed race heritage (Chinese and other Asian). In 2008, the EDB noted that NCS students from different ethnic groups have “different learning progress rates and ethnic needs” when they learn Chinese.[10] Thus, it may be helpful to account for these differences when designing Chinese language policies so that the Chinese proficiency of NCS students can be improved in an efficient and effective way.

Are Chinese language skills essential in gaining local employment?

NCS students require Chinese language skills to maximise their employment opportunities. A 2016 survey of 1,500 job postings conducted by the NGO Hong Kong Unison found that 49% of these jobs explicitly stated that they required spoken Cantonese, 51% required written Chinese skills, and 26% required spoken Putonghua skills.[11] When listings that did not include information on their Chinese language requirements were excluded, 97% of the listings required spoken Cantonese and 99% required written Chinese.

To help NCS students learn Chinese skills that will be useful in the vocational context, the EDB created the Applied Learning in Chinese (ApL(C)) curriculum, which is a Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education Examination (HKDSE) language course.[12] Two classes are offered: “Chinese for the Service Industry” and “Practical Chinese in Hospitality.” However, Professor Puja Kapai from the University of Hong Kong believes that the ApL(C) curriculum limits NCS students to specific industries and “does not equip them with inclusive Chinese capability”.[13] Only 153 NCS students are expected to take ApL(C) in 2017.[14] Given the fact that basic Chinese is a necessary skill across a wide variety of local occupations, it is not clear if ApL(C) students with limited Chinese language abilities will be able to have successful careers outside of the service and hospitality sectors even after completing the course.

Do NCS students gain admission to local universities at the same rate as other students?

Hong Kong students enrolling in the Joint Universities Placement and Admissions Scheme (JUPAS) and applying for four-year undergraduate programmes offered by University Grants Committee (UGC)-funded universities normally must attain at least a Level 3 on the HKDSE Examination for Chinese Language, along with a Level 3 on the HKDSE Examination in English and a Level 2 in Liberal Studies and Mathematics, in order to be considered for admission.[15]

UGC-funded institutions also accept alternative Chinese Language qualifications such as ApL (C), the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) and the General Certificate of Examination (GCE).[16] However, this only applies to NCS students who have learned Chinese Language for less than six years while receiving primary and secondary education, or NCS students who have learned Chinese Language for six years or more but have been taught a simpler Chinese Language curriculum not applicable to the majority of students in local schools. These requirements attempt to strike a balance between giving UGC-funded universities the option of admitting NCS students under relaxed standards while discouraging Chinese-speaking students from taking easier Chinese examinations in lieu of the HKDSE Chinese examination.

In 2016, the EDB reported that 1,046 NCS students who were attending public sector and DSS schools offering the local curriculum took the HKDSE Examination.[17] Three hundred and twenty of these students, or 30.6%, met the general entrance requirements of the UGC-funded four-year undergraduate programmes. Two hundred and twenty-four NCS students (21.4% of all NCS students who took the HKDSE) received admission offers to post-secondary programmes through JUPAS. A total of 265 local NCS students were admitted to UGC-funded undergraduate programs in the 2016/17 academic year, including JUPAS as well as non-JUPAS applicants.[18]

As Table 3 shows, NCS students are not being admitted to UGC-funded post-secondary programmes at the same rate as the population at large. In 2016, 66,872 HKDSE candidates sat the exam, with 23,318 receiving offers from post-secondary programmes through JUPAS.[19] The JUPAS offer rate for all HKDSE candidates is 34.9%.[20] Thus, the offer rate for all HKDSE candidates is 13.5 percentage points higher than the rate for NCS HKDSE candidates, even though alternative Chinese Language qualifications are now accepted by universities. A number of factors could have contributed to this disparity, some of which may arise out of indirect language barriers. For example, NCS students could have difficulties in finding English-speaking tutors for HKDSE non-language subjects if additional assistance is needed, which might affect their exam performance and their chances of university admission.

How does the Learning Framework aim to resolve these issues?

To improve Chinese as a second language (CSL) education in Hong Kong, the EDB implemented the “Chinese Language Curriculum Second Language Learning Framework” (the Learning Framework) in 2014/2015.[21] Teachers are now provided with a systematic set of objectives and outcomes that describe the learning progress of NCS students at different learning stages. In order to facilitate schools’ implementation of the Learning Framework, the EDB allocated HK$200 million a year to be distributed to all schools admitting 10 or more NCS students, so that they can adopt appropriate teaching strategies. In the 2015/16 school year, 197 schools were provided funding ranging from HK$800,000 to $1,500,000.[22] Schools admitting nine or fewer NCS students may apply for $50,000 at most in annual funding.

Teachers can make reference to the Learning Framework to set progressive learning targets for NCS students while adjusting the curriculum through the “small-step” learning approach. Schools are allowed to decide which learning support strategies to employ for their NCS students. However, the Learning Framework prohibits the adoption of an across-the-board Chinese Language curriculum with lower and easier standards for NCS students.

Does the Learning Framework apply to kindergarten education?

According to Professor Takao Hensch from the Harvard Medical School and Professor Janet Werker from the University of British Columbia, early childhood can be a critical period for language acquisition.[23] Yet although kindergarten education will be funded by the Government in the 2017/18 school year, and the EDB has invited kindergartens to apply for grants to provide school-based support services catering for NCS students, the Learning Framework itself does not apply to kindergarten education.[24] Oxfam Hong Kong notes that most kindergartens cannot afford to provide NCS students with additional Chinese learning support.[25] As a result many NCS students begin their primary education at a disadvantage.

Oxfam Hong Kong has urged the Government to extend the Learning Framework to kindergartens by creating a pilot scheme to proactively subsidise kindergartens that hire teachers to provide a “Chinese enhancement class” for NCS students. Oxfam has suggested that the Government could invite 10 kindergartens to participate in the scheme during the first three years, after which an evaluation can be done to assess its effectiveness and determine best teaching practices. Chief Executive (CE)-elect Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has previously remarked during her tenure as Chief Secretary (CS) of Hong Kong that the Government will provide “additional assistance for kindergartens admitting a cluster of non-Chinese speaking students”.[26] Considering the importance of kindergarten education in language acquisition, it may be prudent for Lam to revisit this topic when she takes office.

Do all schools provide similar types of learning support under the Learning Framework?

In 2015, Oxfam Hong Kong conducted a survey of all primary and secondary schools to study the initial effectiveness[27] of the Learning Framework.[28] A total of 263 schools with NCS students were interviewed. Fifty-nine point three percent of them had nine NCS students or fewer, which means that 59.3% of all schools with NCS students in the survey were ineligible for the HK$200 million allocated under the Learning Framework. Seventy-four point six percent of these schools did not apply for the HK$50,000 in additional funding, with 41.5% of these schools indicating that funding was unnecessary and 28% stating that they were unaware additional funding was available.

As shown in Table 4, the type of learning support provided was more limited in schools admitting nine or fewer NCS students. Only 28.1% of these schools used “pull-out classes”[29] and only 0.6% used “parallel classes”.[30] None offered additional Chinese classes or a school-based Chinese curriculum and 11.8% did not offer any kind of Chinese learning support. The EDB has suggested that these support mechanisms are not as important in schools with less than 10 NCS students as their NCS students would be immersed in a Chinese-speaking environment.[31] Some stakeholders believe that pull-out learning could also lead to de facto segregation of NCS students. However, Hong Kong Unison believes that submersion in mainstream classrooms without prior instruction is not conducive to second language learning, since schools with less than 10 NCS students often find it difficult to allocate manpower and resources to develop effective learning support measures for NCS students.[32]

Under the current scheme, if a school admitted nine NCS students, it could receive no more than $50,000 in funding, but a school with 10 NCS students could receive $800,000 a year. Legislative Council (LegCo) member Andrew Wan Siu-kin proposed that schools with nine or fewer NCS students should be allocated additional funding on a pro-rata basis based on the number of NCS students admitted, while Oxfam Hong Kong suggested that the EDB could proactively provide funding to these schools without relying on school administrators to apply for funding themselves. The comparatively low amount of learning support provided by schools with nine or fewer NCS students is a potential “blind spot” under the Learning Framework that could be addressed with more equitable distribution of funding.

How can the effectiveness of the Learning Framework be assessed?

The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) has argued that the EDB lacks performance targets that would enable the Learning Framework’s effectiveness to be assessed.[33] Also, the EDB has not specified what level of proficiency students must achieve in order to join mainstream classes. Therefore the EOC advised that the EDB should provide clear success indicators and benchmarks such as the number of students who have successfully bridged over to the mainstream Chinese curriculum so that the Learning Framework’s progress can be measured. Dr. Lee Siu-lun from the Chinese University of Hong Kong believes that the EDB, stakeholders and educators could collaborate to set up these indicators.[34]

The EOC also received feedback from teachers and schools who have indicated that they face “multiple difficulties in developing teaching materials for their NCS students,” even though the EDB currently provides some resources such as assessment tools and teaching reference materials. Since the relatively small number of NCS students does not provide enough monetary incentive for private publishers to develop Chinese as a second language textbooks in the Hong Kong context, the EOC has urged the EDB to develop and publish appropriate Chinese language teaching materials for NCS learners in Hong Kong.[35]

Are Chinese language teachers adequately trained to teach NCS students?

Under the Learning Framework, the EDB has organised development programmes to enhance teachers’ professional capability of teaching Chinese as a second language. Teachers can also pursue courses through the “Professional Enhancement Grant Scheme for Chinese Teachers”. However, the EDB does not have any regulation requiring schools with NCS students to maintain a certain minimum percentage of teachers equipped with formal training in CSL instruction to cater to NCS students’ needs, according to the EOC.[36] By contrast, the EOC notes that the EDB has set clear targets to make sure that schools have a certain percentage of their teachers equipped with formal training to cater to students with special educational needs (SEN). The EDB has also implemented three-tier training courses (Basic, Advanced and Thematic levels) for teachers of SEN students. The EOC has suggested that the EDB could implement a similar training structure for CSL teachers as well as a requirement for schools to have a certain percentage of teachers with CSL training. These measures would help ensure that NCS and SEN students are taught by teachers that have been trained to accommodate their educational backgrounds.

How can parents of NCS students be more involved in their child’s education?

Professor Kapai has remarked that parents of NCS students often are unable to communicate with teachers in schools that use Chinese as the medium of instruction, as many parents are unable to understand Chinese and some teachers are reluctant to speak in English.[37] Moreover, parent-teacher association meetings are often conducted in Chinese. Thus it may be helpful for schools to provide translators for NCS parents during school activities or parent-teacher meetings. To help NCS parents make informed school choices for their children, the LegCo Subcommittee on Rights of Ethnic Minorities suggested that the EDB could strengthen dissemination of school information such as the number of teachers with professional training in teaching NCS students per school.[38] The EDB could also publicise the list of schools being provided with additional funding under the Learning Framework.

Since 2013, the EDB has invited parents of NCS students to participate in the “Summer Bridging Programme” for NCS students, which aims to facilitate NCS Primary 1 entrants’ adaptation to the classroom setting with the use of Chinese.[39] If the EDB is able to expand the Programme and promote cooperation between the EDB, teachers and parents, this could help encourage and motivate NCS students who do not live in a Chinese-speaking home environment to master the Chinese language and join the mainstream curriculum.


CE-elect Carrie Lam made several promises in her manifesto to improve Chinese language education for NCS people in Hong Kong.[40] For example, Lam pledged to request the EDB to assess the effectiveness of the current policy to help ethnic minority students learn Chinese as a second language. Lam has asserted that the Government is “committed in promoting racial equality in Hong Kong,” while noting that “providing equal opportunities to ethnic minorities…calls for stronger government leadership and greater community efforts”.[41]

Promoting racial equality and social harmony in Hong Kong will require input and involvement from a variety of stakeholders beyond the EDB and the narrow confines of the Learning Framework. Parents, teachers, school officials, NGOs, and the community at large all have a role to play in furthering social inclusion for all ethnic groups and helping NCS students integrate into Hong Kong society. Moreover, the EDB could also consider collecting and making public the data relating to NCS students in various primary and secondary schools to facilitate follow-up studies by parties concerned, such as the EOC, NGOs, and academics. This is to ensure that the approach of integrated education as advocated by the EDB in the Learning Framework is effectively implemented for the benefit of NCS students.

1 Rachel Blundy, Hero Hong Kong polices officer who made headlines worldwide: “I was just doing my duty”, South China Morning Post, March 18, 2017,
2 According to the EDB, for the planning of educational support measures, students whose spoken language at home is not Chinese are broadly categorised as NCS students.
3 Chinese Language Education, Hong Kong Unison,
4 Survey on the Chinese Learning Challenges South Asian Ethnic Minority Kindergarten Students from Low-income Families Face, Oxfam Hong Kong, December 2014,
5 Survey on Hong Kong Ethnic Minority, Hong Kong Council of Social Service, August 23, 2016,
6 Yvonne Lee, 60% of ethnic minorities in high school have only primary-level Chinese proficiency, CityU NewsCentre, July 14, 2014,
7 LC Paper No. CB(2)208/16-17(01), Legislative Council Subcommittee on Rights of Ethnic Minorities, Legislative Council, November 23, 2016,
8 The Hong Kong Institute of Education was renamed the Education University of Hong Kong in May 2016.
9 HKIEd Study on Educational Inequality and Child Poverty among Ethnic Minorities in Hong Kong, The Hong Kong Institute of Education, October 29, 2013,
10 Developing a supplementary guide to the Chinese language curriculum for non-Chinese speaking students, Curriculum Development Council, January 2008,
11 Chinese Language Requirements in the Hong Kong Job Market: A Survey on Job Advertisements, Hong Kong Unison, May 2016,
12 Applied Learning Chinese (for non-Chinese speaking students) (ApL(C))- Recognition and Articulation, EDB,
13 Puja Kapai, Status of Ethnic Minorities in Hong Kong 1997-2014, The University of Hong Kong, 2015,
14 Replies to initial written questions raised by Finance Committee Members in examining the Estimates of Expenditure 2017-18, Educational Bureau, April 7, 2017,
15 Entrance requirements for undergraduate programmes, HKEAA, July 7, 2016,
16 Alternative Qualifications in Chinese Language (ACL) (for NCS applicants only), JUPAS,
17 LC Paper No. CB(2)208/16-17(01), Legislative Council, November 23, 2016,
18 Replies to initial written questions raised by Finance Committee Members in examining the Estimates of Expenditure 2017-18, Educational Bureau, April 7, 2017,
19 Main Round Offer Statistics: 2016, JUPAS,
20 2016 Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education Examination Results Released, HKEAA, July 12, 2016,
21 LC Paper No. CB(4)913/13-14(05), Legislative Council, July 16, 2014,
22 LC Paper No. CB(2)208/16-17(01), Legislative Council, November 23, 2016,
23 Janet F. Werker and Takao K. Hensch, Critical Periods in Speech Perception: New Directions, Annual Review of Psychology, September 17, 2014,
24 Education Bureau Circular Memorandum No. 56/2017, Education Bureau, March 31, 2017,
25 Survey on the Chinese Learning challenges south Asian ethnic minority kindergarten students from low-income families face, Oxfam Hong Kong, December 2014,
26 Carrie Lam, Embrace cultural diversity: CS,, March 21, 2016,
27 It should be noted that it is arguably still too early to fully assess the Learning Framework’s impact as it has only been in effect for a few years.
28 Survey on the Enhanced Chinese Learning and Teaching Support for Non-Chinese Speaking Students in Primary and Secondary Schools, Oxfam Hong Kong, January 7, 2016,
29 Pull-out classes refers to Chinese classes for NCS students that are offered separately but use the same curriculum as other students.
30 Parallel classes refer to Chinese classes for NCS students that are offered separately from classes for their classmates of the same age. The curriculum for this class is specially designed for NCS students and is different from the mainstream one.
31 LC Paper No. CB(2)338/16-17(01), Legislative Council, December 8, 2016,
32 LC Paper No. CB(2)326/16-17(06), Legislative Council, December 12, 2016,
33 LC Paper No. CB(2)254/16-17(02), Legislative Council, November 23, 2016,
34 Lee Siu-lun, Chinese as a Second Language- some suggestions, Legislative Council, December 12, 2016,
35 Some organisations such as the Open Education Foundation has attempted to crowdfund “open source” Chinese textbooks for non-Chinese students, but their efforts at acquiring funding have been unsuccessful.
36 Survey on the Enhanced Chinese Learning and Teaching Support for Non-Chinese Speaking Students in Primary and Secondary Schools, Oxfam Hong Kong, January 7, 2016,
37 Puja Kapai, Status of Ethnic Minorities in Hong Kong 1997-2014, The University of Hong Kong, 2015,
38 LC Paper No. CB(2)933/16-17, Legislative Council, December 12, 2016,
39 Education Bureau Circular Memorandum No. 68/2016, Education Bureau, May 3, 2016,
40 Carrie Lam, Manifesto of Carrie Lam: Chief Executive Election 2017, February 27, 2017,
41 Carrie Lam, Embrace cultural diversity: CS,, March 21, 2016,