HK has the level of English it needs

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 October, 2011, 12:00am


Other places, such as Singapore and Shanghai, would relish seeing Hong Kong's English standards deteriorate, so that dislodging us from our world-leading position would become easier... This will happen if Hong Kong continues to downplay the importance of the English language in our attempt to provide services for a globalised world.

Po Chung, Insight, September 29

It's a complaint to which this newspaper plays host on a regular basis and every time I feel driven to make the same response. I mostly stop myself, however, on the grounds that I did it only a few months ago and must not repeat myself too often. Well, too bad. Here goes.

If English standards in Hong Kong are so poor, how comes it an expatriate who has lived here for 32 years, myself, still speaks only rudimentary Cantonese? When I give a taxi driver directions in Cantonese I mostly get a reply in English. The same thing happens in the wet market. I won't even make the attempt in an office building.

Of course it's not only Hong Kong where this happens. The French at one time encouraged the use of their language, which was a reason my lady and I went on a two week holiday in France recently. Bad idea. To brush up on your French go to Quebec. Make a mistake of vocabulary or grammar in France these days and the conversation is shifted to English.

And as to my own native language, my compatriots in cities like Amsterdam and The Hague don't even give me a chance. I've been too long abroad and my Dutch reveals it. It's English instantly.

But does this undoubted international dominance of English require significantly higher standards of English and greater efforts of education than we already have in Hong Kong?

Let's bear in mind what we already have. Anyone in this town who wants to learn English is actively encouraged to do so and need not look far outside the formal education system for English lessons, or pay much for them. Within the formal system, schools clamour to be part of the English stream and no one need pay an extra cent.

In fact the clamour is so great that school kids often suffer from being taught in a language with which they have insufficient familiarity. The emphasis on English actually does them a disservice.

But why do more people not take advantage of what they are offered to improve their English?

The simple answer is that they do not need to. The work day requirement is not for people who speak flawless English but for people who can make themselves understood in the language, mostly within a relatively narrow context of the work they do. This requires much less than fluency.

No, it may not be enough for a high-powered lawyers' conference on a difficult initial public offering with London and New York dialled in. But this is hardly a representative environment and non-native speakers of English on such calls have mostly gone abroad to acquire their fluency rather than call on Hong Kong's education system.

It takes a good deal of hard work to acquire fluency in a language unless you live in a community where only that language is spoken. If you are going to make the effort you want to be properly rewarded for it. Otherwise you're better off learning book-keeping, nursing or any trade where the pay-off is immediately obvious.

It's my belief that this is exactly how Hong Kong people assess the benefits of learning better English. They price it within a market context of reward for cost against the reward for cost of other things they could do. In other words, by leaving it to people to make their own choices, we have exactly the standard of English we need in Hong Kong

And if Mr Chung shakes his head at this, I suggest he put it to the acid test. If he wants employees who speak better English I recommend that he pay them more. I am fully confident that he will get just the response he wants. Hong Kong people have always been responsive to incentive.

But, without necessarily accusing Mr Chung of this, I think most Hong Kong employers want to have their cake and eat it too - better English but not better pay for it.

The sad thing is that so many of our legislators and bureaucrats are willing to pander to this corporate self-interest by having government put up the money for the English lessons. Once again the public purse pays for private gain. And then we get yet more income disparity and we wonder why.