To learn English, get over the fear of using it

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 September, 2010, 12:00am

The standard of English among local students is simply atrocious. And not only are our English standards falling, the overall Chinese-language standards are also sliding. Many secondary-school students and even university graduates are incapable of writing a simple job application letter, either in English or Chinese.

It's unbearable that more and more local students speak Chinglish or Canto-English, rather than English. Most students don't even understand the fundamentals of English grammar. It seems that the average English standard among local undergraduates today is barely comparable to that of Form Five students of the 1970s.

There are numerous reasons behind the loss of linguistic ability and diversity. This problem is not unique to Hong Kong; it is evident the world over.

A more scientific explanation may be that because young people are heavily influenced by the electronic media and the internet, they are more inclined to lean towards analogue thinking than linear thinking. The former is more visual and experience-based, while the latter takes a more logical approach in completing a task or in problem-solving.

For example, many people nowadays prefer symbols to words when they use text messaging to communicate. Our growing dependence on easy visual communication methods means linear thinking is on the decline. Sadly, many people are losing their grip on verbal and written communication and don't know how to express themselves or deal with others in face-to-face situations.

To raise our standard of English and improve our general linguistic ability, we must tackle a number of complex and fundamental issues - education, types of communication medium and social culture. In order to learn a language well, one must read, write and speak it repeatedly because practice makes perfect.

Unfortunately, many local students feel embarrassed about speaking English in public because, very often, they are afraid of making mistakes in front of others. The shame factor is definitely a big psychological obstacle. Learning a language is very time consuming and needs a lot of practice, not only through reading and writing, but also through speaking it.

According to news reports, a recent bar fight in Tsim Sha Tsui, which left one person dead and another seriously injured, was prompted by a heated argument between two groups over poor English.

A fight reportedly broke out when members of one group made fun of a youth in the other group for speaking bad English. It's unbelievable, if that's the case.

Those who have studied overseas don't always speak or write better English, either. A case in point was an invitation by Michael Chugani, host of the ATV Newsline programme, to the two candidates in the upcoming district council by-election for Pok Fu Lam to appear on his show. The Civic Party's Paul Zimmerman accepted, while Savantas Policy Institute's honorary financial adviser Ellis Lau Ying-tung turned down the offer.

Chugani's intention was to allow public discussions between the candidates, hoping this would help elevate the status of district councils, and allow voters to make informed choices. It was meant to be a public debate, not a test of English standards. But, according to Chugani, Lau seemed to have avoided the show over fears about his English - despite his Oxford background.

It seems that academic qualifications do not necessarily correlate with language ability. Learning a language is about tenacity, exposure and immersion and, like the old saying goes, 'if you don't use it, you lose it'.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator.