The Pedagogical Maze: Retrospection on CLT in Hong Kong

Authors: Dan Lu & Julie Y. F. Ng
Source: Open Journal of Modern Linguistics, Vol. 3 No. 4, 1-6.

The Communicative Language Teaching approach (CLT thereafter) has been implemented in Hong Kong for the purpose of education reform since the early 1980s. English courses in Hong Kong schools have then started to emphasize the communicative use of the language rather than merely its linguistic forms and structures. However, over the last decade, there has been criticism from some sections of society about the continuously declining English proficiency of Hong Kong students. Apparently, this phenomenon reflects that the prevalent use of CLT is not suitableto Hong Kong classroom contexts.

In contrast with the traditional approaches and methods which put much emphasis on the knowledge about the target language, CLT places the focus on the learner’s competence of using the language for communication. In brief, CLT allows students to have more class time to practice the target language through interactive activities developed from authentic materials. In fact, if properly applied, some principles of CLT are applicable to the Hong Kong context and can facilitate Hong Kong learners’ learning of English. Nevertheless, reality shows that some principles of CLT do not fit the Hong Kong context in many aspects, thereby failing to build up the learners’communicative competence on the basis of solid linguistic knowledge and resulting in the decline of their English proficiency.

One of the CLT principlesis induction-based learning. Learners are expected to simulate the process of first language acquisition, where they are encouraged to internalize the linguistic knowledge through exposure to the target language.Formal intensive instruction of grammatical rules and other linguistic knowledge is reduced in order not to let it interfere with classroom practice in communication.Commonsense knowledge and common experience tell that it is unrealistic and even impossible for most L2 learners, particularly adult learners, to re-take this path to learn a second language. This is not only because their L1 will influence their internal processing of L2, but also because some other factors will block the progress of L2 learning, such as dominant use of Cantonese in society, lack of sufficient quality linguistic input in peer communication, limited L2 class time and prevalence of instrumental motivation of L2 learning and particularly, scarce real needs in routine studies and work.

In fact, the problems and difficulties in applying CLT have also been noticed in mainland China. Anderson (1993) pointed out some blocking factors of using CLT in China in her article “Is a communicative approach practical for teaching English in China?  Pros and cons” (published in SystemVol. 21). These factors include mismatch between CLT’s goals and the students’ needs, and difficulties in evaluating students’ performance and course outcomes.

Three decades after CLT’s implementation, there are calls in society and academic fields for changing the unsatisfactory results of using this approach. Some even revisited the value of teaching English grammar systematically and emphasized the necessity of developing students’ ability of using correct linguistic forms. In all fairness, some principles of CLT are generally true and constructive to Hong Kong. The key point is that a teaching method should not be chosen because of its professional and theoretical popularity.  The key point of adapting it to Hong Kong is to Sinicize it so that it integrates with the culture-governed learning strategies of Hong Kong students as well as the realities of Hong Kong. Upon reflection about the experience of using CLT over the past decades, it is hoped that a more suitable and effective methodological change in English teaching will take place in Hong Kong.

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