Use it or lose it
I am speaking to the bank cashier in English, requesting a transaction, and she cocks her head in confusion. Guilty of speed talking, I slow down. Perhaps seeing that I look Chinese, am Chinese, she switches to Cantonese, and I follow her lead and show off my newly learned Cantonese. She switches to Putonghua. No problem. I swiftly change too.
'Your Putonghua is much better than my English,' she says in Putonghua. Like many young people in Hong Kong, she learned English in school, but, like any language, it is rusty due to lack of use. At work, she speaks Cantonese and, when she goes home, she will speak Cantonese.
Why should she care, and why should any of us care? Because English is important and it gives people a competitive edge in this global economy. The young people on the mainland get this and so should their Hong Kong counterparts. Sadly, many don't.
There has been much debate over the value of English, with cynics saying it should rightfully take a back seat to Putonghua, which is a necessary language to compete in the classroom and in the workplace. I wholeheartedly agree. Cantonese is important, Putonghua is important, but English is, too. In fact, it is what has made Hong Kong unique. The city's bilingualism has made it a magnet for international finance and business.
Chinese poet and scholar Yu Guangzhong recently said English was 'infecting Putonghua' in Hong Kong. English is the most obvious scapegoat when Putonghua levels are pretty average. In the end, it will be Hong Kong's young people who will suffer with the decline of English levels: when the post-university job hunting season arrives, those who question the importance of English will find themselves neck and neck with mainland youngsters who are enthralled with English. The competition increases; the number of jobs doesn't.
That decline is very real: friends in their 50s and 60s, born and raised in Hong Kong, often speak and write better English than youngsters.
Marketing, advertising and often government press releases; all are written in poor English. Friends who teach at even Hong Kong's top universities are incredulous at the quality of written assignments they receive.
Yet, mainland Chinese students are hungry to learn English. At the universities I've visited across the border, students are zealous about practising their English. There are English-speaking contests, and salons, cafes and bookstores are packed with bilingual books.
If Hong Kong is to compete on a global level and maintain its uniqueness as a station into mainland China, and a springboard to other cities in this region, then English is important. Mainland Chinese will certainly be using the language to compete.
In the meantime, my friends back at home in New York understand the value of language, which, in this case, is Putonghua. They are snapping up Putonghua-speaking nannies and sending their children to Chinese school at the weekend.
It is time for the hemming and hawing over the importance of English to stop. Hong Kong needs to keep up and not fall behind, and it starts with ditching the ego, the short-term vision and the circular debate.
Amy Wu is an American-born Chinese writer and commentator now living in Hong Kong