Local Schools for Non-Chinese-speaking children : Do EMI schools really exist?

Updated: Oct 19

The Education Bureau used to designate a number of primary schools in Hong Kong as more suitable for non-Chinese speaking students (NCS) than others. This designation used to be explicit, yet in an attempt at integration, it is now ‘unofficial’.


This means, they give these schools additional resources and flexibility to accommodate children who are not Chinese speaking. Often, these schools are coping with children who are neither Chinese speaking nor English speaking.


According to Chinese an Additional Language Hong Kong, the term non-Chinese speaking (NCS) student is widely used by government departments, principally EDB, to describe any student who is not 100% native Chinese speaking. As such, other NGOs and stakeholders feel obliged to use the same term. The term NCS is not accurate since many students, who are labelled ‘NCS’, actually speak Chinese very well. It's not as if we label all Chinese students without native English.


All local schools are fully subsidized by the government and so do not charge any school fees. The only charges are minimal – a little for textbooks, PTA annual fee, bus and lunch.


All schools use Cantonese as their basic Chinese language. Schools are designated as Chinese as a Medium of Instruction (CMI) or English as a Medium of Instruction (EMI). What this means in practice is that some use more Chinese or English than others but they all use both. Some have streams – what they call a Chinese stream and an English stream. Students studying the English stream will have a little less Chinese (Cantonese and/or Putonghua) and the Chinese may be adapted (ie easier) but the Chinese component of the curriculum is very much present as is Cantonese as the main language of communication between adults and students.


Another thing to remember is the style and the quality of English taught in these schools. Mostly, the English curriculum is delivered by non native English speaking teachers. In fact, their level of proficiency can be alarmingly low. It is taught as a second language with a heavy emphasis on grammar and accuracy and far, far removed from the way it is taught in English immersion schools. A Native English Teacher (NET) - if the school employs one - will meet a class roughly once a week to work on oral skills. This is so very different from learning IN English; it’s an important distinction.


For the more prestigious EMI schools, it is wrong to believe that a child without fluent Cantonese and highly proficient in written Chinese can gain admission and/or cope. It is patently obvious when EMI schools do not consistently communicate in English nor do they consistently conduct admissions/open days in English.


English in these schools is seen as enhancing the overall curriculum, but English does not replace Chinese. For example, Maryknoll Convent School (Primary Section), states that 'except Chinese, Social Studies and Biblical Knowledge which are taught in Cantonese and Putonghua taught in Putonghua, all classes are conducted in English. Though an EMI school, we have always aimed at maintaining a high standard of Chinese, so that our students have a firm base in both languages to help them proceed to secondary education.' This is English for Chinese speaking children, not for those that do not speak Chinese.


Schools and parents will prefer EMI schools (CMI schools are seen to be of poorer quality) and it would be fair to assume that students from schools where English is the medium of instruction would be fluent in the language. However, this is simply not the case. Teachers themselves are not native speakers and, depending on the school, find it difficult to express themselves to express in English, let alone accurate English. When the teacher struggles and the student struggles, they do what any sensible human would do - revert to the first language everyone shares. For any NCS children in such schools, they often fail to master both English and Chinese.


All applications are done through the EDB’s Central Allocation which starts in September.


All these schools have P1 starting at 6 years old. However, if your child is born Sept – Oct, you may ‘hold them back’ and apply for the year they’ll be turning 7.

Updated October 2020


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