Trilingual and Biliterate Language Education Policy in Hong Kong: Past, Present and Future

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Hong Kong’s ‘trilingual and biliterate’ language policy (TaB, 三語兩文), is almost as old as the Special Administrative Region (SAR) itself. Through free education and language support measures in school, students are expected to be conversant in English and Putonghua in addition to Cantonese, and be able to read and understand written Chinese and English. After being implemented for over two decades, however, there are signs that most students’ language standards in Chinese and English fall short of the TaB target, as measured by the public examination results of successive generations of secondary school leavers. Designed with essentially Cantonese-dominant Hongkongers in mind, the TaB policy consists of many measures, with the ‘medium of instruction streaming policy’ introduced since September 1998 being the most controversial. Driven by the twin principles of monolingual English-medium instruction (EMI) and ‘no language mixing allowed’, secondary schools are divided into two streams. Stringent requirements must be met before a school could claim to be an EMI school. According to this ‘late immersion’ model for students aged 11–12 at secondary level, every year about 30 percent of the primary school leavers are allocated to an EMI school. Following Li (2017), this paper will first discuss why the TaB target is such a tall order for Cantonese-dominant students by reviewing the relevant literature along five inter-related dimensions: contrastive linguistics, psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics, cognitive neuroscience, and instructional strategies and bilingual pedagogies. I will then examine the SAR government’s language support measures to assess their effectiveness and explore possible alternatives. The paper will end with a number of recommendations, which together constitute an LPP (language policy and planning) roadmap for improving the chance with which the TaB policy is likely to produce more positive outcomes.
(i) to re-prioritize the investment and extent of language support by strengthening the quality of language input at the key stages of learning from age 3–9, which in curriculum terms correspond with K1–P3;
(ii) to use Cantonese as the medium of instruction (MOI) for teaching all subjects except English and Putonghua as separate subjects at preschool (K1–K3, age 3–6);
(iii) to explore the possibility of implementing total immersion in Putonghua for three years at lower primary level (P1–P3, age 6–9);
(iv) to abandon the ‘maximum exposure, no mixing’ dogma in secondary education and to encourage basic and action research in bilingual pedagogies and instructional strategies informed by Content-and-language integrated learning (CLIL);
(v) to attract academically bright and linguistically gifted students to receive professional training and be prepared and committed for a career in language teaching; and
(vi) to encourage civil servants of various government offices, schoolteachers, and university staff to initiate a ‘speak English/Putonghua where we can’ campaign.

For these policy measures to be successfully implemented and bear fruit, apart from careful planning, there ought to be strong leadership from within the government and the education sector, plus mechanisms for coordinating concerted actions on the part of various groups of stakeholders, notably teachers, school principals, educationalists, and experts of language teaching and learning in academia.
Original languageEnglish
JournalAsian-Pacific Journal of Second and Foreign Language Education
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 30 May 2022


  • Language-in-education policy
  • biliteracy and trilingualism
  • medium of instruction
  • early immersion
  • bilingual teaching strategies
  • Content-and-Language Integrated Learning (CLIL)
  • Language across the curriculum (LAC)

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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