Wake-up call not needed as survey on English is lost in translation

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 May, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 May, 2005, 12:00am

'Hong Kong has for a long time enjoyed what was believed to be quite good English proficiency. Our English was viewed as better than places like mainland China and Thailand [sic]. Now that is changing. This should serve as a wake-up call for Hong Kong.'

Kristen Rogers,

General manager,

Wall Street Institute

School of English, Hong Kong

LEAVING ASIDE THE grammatical error in the excerpt above, as I cannot be absolutely certain that it was not introduced in our newsroom, it strikes me that Wall Street has always been a better place to learn finance than to acquire English literacy.

I have spent a fair bit of time in the environs of Wall Street as an investment analyst, trying to convince American clients to make more Asian investments, and I can assure you that the language most commonly heard on the street there is better known as F-speak.

Nonetheless, I congratulate the institute on having conducted a survey on English standards in Hong Kong.

The survey found, among other things, that many non-native speakers here do not take every chance to speak English to native speakers, that they read little English and that they do not think English proficiency critical to Hong Kong's productivity and competitiveness.

Spot on - the attitude of the non-native speakers that is, not the shock and horror that commentators on this survey evinced at these findings.

Let me proclaim myself. I am a non-native English speaker. My native language is Dutch and, because it is now a little rusty, I take every opportunity to brush it up when I visit the Netherlands.

So there I stand in front of the chips kiosk, waiting with others for a fresh batch to be tipped out of the fryer and knowing I have the vernacular right this time when my turn comes - 'Kleintje met'.

Back comes the response - 'Yes, Sir, small one with mayonnaise.'

Confound it! Spotted again. Why does this always happen?

So here is my message to my native countrymen: If you don't use it you'll lose it.

Just look at Singapore, a mostly Chinese society but Asian No1 in English, according to the survey, and how many Singaporeans do you know who can read Chinese script with ease? Yes, Singapore, willing floor mat to the English corporate world.

In your own country you are perfectly within your rights to prefer your own language. The obligation there to learn a few words of another is on the foreign visitor, not on you.

If I ask a question in French when in Paris I get an answer in French, however bad - and it is - my French.

Of course, you then get the Englishman who objects loudly when he hears French spoken around him at a dinner table on the grounds that he does not speak it, and therefore no one else around him may do so. He will demand English even in Paris.

Indeed, Sir, and how many languages do you speak? One alone, isn't that right? Ever thought of learning a few words of another?

I confess that I indict myself here. My Cantonese is less than rudimentary. This only goes, however, to demonstrate that the standards of English in Hong Kong are all they need to be, at least for normal business dealings. There, that should take care of this question about productivity and competitiveness.

For corporate chieftains who complain that it still does not, I have one further piece of advice. If you want better English among your employees then pay for it. This town responds marvellously to market forces.

I promise you magic if you really want it, but the fact is that you probably do not. Your employees already speak English well enough for your needs. It is your caprices you want satisfied, but not enough to make it worth your money.

Mind you, I think market forces are likely to set proficiency in Putonghua above proficiency in English these days.

And when it comes to non-native English speakers seeking opportunities to speak or read English, well, why should they?

Okay, boss, this is not a comment on the readability of the South China Morning Post but, frankly, I think it entirely understandable that Chinese people should prefer Chinese in a Chinese town.

There is something a little obsequious about setting a foreign language on a higher pedestal than your own when you are at home.

Wake-up call for Hong Kong? Let me tell you about this sort of wake-up call. When you hear it, reach one arm out from under the blanket and slap the off button on the clock. Rest easy. This is one wake-up call you need not heed.

BELLICOSE BRITAIN, confirming its warlike traditions, votes overwhelmingly for a government that has also abolished the right of habeas corpus. Ah well.