Pupils face daunting test of English

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 April, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 April, 2005, 12:00am

Ten students who have made it to the final of the Hong Kong English Public Speaking Contest face the daunting task tomorrow of exchanging views with three of the city's most prominent public figures. They will have to deliver a five-minute speech on the topic 'differences and diversity' followed by a two-minute question-and-answer session with former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang, former chief justice Sir Ti-liang Yang, and the executive director of the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups, Rosanna Wong Yick-ming. The event, organised by the federation and the English-Speaking Union, will take place at the Hong Kong Academy of Medicine, Jockey Club Building, in Aberdeen. The winner will represent Hong Kong in the union's international public speaking competition in London next month. On the eve of the final, the judges share their experiences of learning English and how they mastered the art of public speaking.

'Speaking aloud gave me confidence'


There is no need to pay English oral experts a ransom to be fluent in the language. In Dr Wong's case, active participation in school activities was the key to her success as a public speaker.

'It gave me an opportunity to speak my mind in front of different audiences and build up my confidence,' she said. When studying sociology and social work at the University of Hong Kong she always volunteered to be master of ceremonies or organiser for all sorts of events, including musicals, seminars and international conferences.

'At the beginning, I got very depressed every time after making mistakes. But my exposure helped me overcome my fear,' she said. Her experience also taught her to be prepared for hiccups every time she spoke.

Dr Wong learned that when making an impromptu speech, she had to focus on her points and give examples to illustrate the opinion she was making.

Her confidence was received a further boost after she was given an ambassadorial scholarship from the Rotary Foundation. Dr Wong said her mother, who used to teach in St Stephen's Girls' College while she was studying there, played a very important role in polishing her English-speaking skills.

'She loved to listen to my speeches and gave me comments every time. I liked to hear feedback, whether it was positive or negative. For example, if people told me I was speaking too fast, I would be especially conscious of my speed next time.'

She is also grateful for her English teacher at St Stephen's for making her read aloud in the classroom. 'In those days, we did not have many public-speaking opportunities at school. But this teacher liked to ask us to stand up and read the text out loud. This enhanced my understanding as well as pronunciation of the language.

'My advice for youngsters is to speak from your heart and speak about something that you are passionate about.' Polly Hui

'Learning was easier in Shanghai'


Hong Kong students enjoy excellent facilities for learning English, but they do not have the environment to master the language, the former chief justice-turned English teacher says.

'We have many facilities and resources for students, but Hong Kong does not provide the language environment for them to speak English. Students in Hong Kong do not have to use English outside classroom at all,' he said.

Sir Ti-liang grew up in Shanghai, where he says he enjoyed a better language environment. 'Back then there were many foreigners in Shanghai, just like Hong Kong. My parents spoke a bit of English to me, and we often had guests who were foreigners ... I also read English newspapers and books, listened to the radio. When you can use the language more, then you can be more confident.'

Comparing Hong Kong and Singapore, he said the latter provided a better language environment for students to use English in daily life. 'There are many different races in Singapore, for example Indians, Indonesians, Malaysians and so on. They need to speak English in order to communicate with each other. The accent of Singaporean English might be a bit strange, but their grammar is perfectly correct.

'But we have mainly Chinese in Hong Kong, and it is unnatural for Chinese students to speak in English among themselves outside schools. We do not have the language environment in Hong Kong.' Despite repeated government denials, Sir Ti-liang believes English standards have declined. 'I have friends who are employers of multinational companies, and they told me some university graduates cannot even write memos well and have difficulties when answering telephone calls in English.

'Students must make an effort to learn if they want to learn English well. Parents should also encourage them more and cannot just leave the job entirely to teachers.' Agnes Lam

'I used to keep my diary in English'


Despite growing up in a strict Chinese-speaking family and having never been educated abroad, the former chief secretary achieved distinctions in English language. She gives credit to her school.

'I went to Sacred Heart Canossian College. All the teachers, except those teaching Chinese language and literature, talked to us in English,' Mrs Chan recalls. 'I had a lot of non-Chinese speaking classmates. I was forced to speak English most of the time.'

She also made a lot of English-speaking friends at the University of Hong Kong, where she studied English literature. 'I had a lot of Malaysian and Singaporean friends. In those days, they sent a lot of students to study [at the university]. And naturally our common language was English. I had a lot more opportunity to speak English. Making friends with English speakers definitely helped.'

Mrs Chan said Cantonese was the language adopted at home when she was little. But it did not mean she shut the door to learning English after school. 'In my days there were fewer distractions, unlike now you have the internet and computer games. Television wasn't around in those days, and my family was very strict. I seldom went out with friends.

'During summer holidays I stayed at home most of the time to do my work. I spent a lot of time reading, from novels to magazines. I used to keep my diary in English.'

But learning English simply through reading and writing was not enough. 'Even you read a lot, if you don't have the experience [in speaking English] you don't have the confidence,' said Mrs Chan. 'Speaking English was about confidence. Whether it's a small or large group, the more you speak, the better the confidence you have.'

Listening was also vital. 'You have to have very good ears. I listened to a lot of English music and broadcasts. I listened to people talk. You have to put in an effort.' Vivienne Chow