Jake's View

Let market have last word on English skills

Despite alarmist talk, levels in HK reflect what's needed, as my Kitchen Cantonese demonstrates

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 November, 2013, 2:35am
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 November, 2013, 2:35am

The English language skills of Hong Kong's adult population have slumped to the level of South Korea, Indonesia and Japan, according to new rankings of 60 countries and territories.

SCMP, November 6

I shall lay my cards on the table. I am not a big believer in education. I think the formal school system is nothing but a giant cookie cutter machine designed to cut the right kind of job applicant cookie for the very few of those cookies who will make it to an investment bank job interview.

Formal education encourages conventional opinion at the expense of original thinking, it adapts its captives to a world in which they do not live, it keeps them in the classroom much, much too long and it is horrendously costly. I value it for bringing kids together so that they can exert some necessary peer pressure on each other but it suppresses even this as "bullying".

Let us thus be grateful that the bassimathah can never keep discipline on the school bus and some real learning and social interaction can take place there.

One aspect of formal education, which I have always found regrettable, is its emphasis on greater fluency in English than most of the people learning it will ever need, particularly when real fluency in a school-taught language, as opposed to a street-learned one, is rare.

But I have a confession to make here. I myself speak only Kitchen Cantonese, little more than enough for getting by in the wet markets, counting money, giving taxi drivers directions and basic swearing.

We may have had a little too much English and are now bringing it down again

It is a deficiency, I recognise it, and my sole excuse is that wherever I go in this town people speak to me in English. Even most taxi drivers confirm in English any directions I give them in Cantonese. I take this as it is intended, as a mark of good manners and a gesture of respect for me. Only in police uniform is a gweilo expected to speak Cantonese.

But if a foreigner who has lived many years in Hong Kong finds it perfectly easy to get by virtually everywhere on English, just how bad can the standard of English in Hong Kong be?

The fact of the matter is that learning English as a means of advancing one's career rather than of everyday conversation is like acquiring any other job skill. Before you embark on doing so, you set it in the balance. Just how much benefit in my pay package do I expect to get from this skill as opposed to how much it will cost me?

You may not have precise answers to these questions but you make the guesses all the same. You also set other job skills in the balance against English. Perhaps fluency in Putonghua may do you better. Just now it probably will. Perhaps accountancy mixed with barely good enough English is the best choice.

And you will find the test of these choices in the market. The most valuable will be the most highly paid and employers do not necessarily pay up much for English. They expect the education system to supply them with a surfeit of speakers of halting English, which is usually good enough for them. There is no huge premium on fluent English. It's more than is required.

And that's exactly the way things should be. You have just so much effort to spare for job enhancement skills and you have to budget that effort carefully to get the best you can from it. Let Shanghai crow that it now has more fluent English speakers in the job market than we do. It's my guess that the job market doesn't need them.

We have this one in proper balance in Hong Kong. We have just as much English as we need relative to other things we need. In fact, we may have had a little too much English and are now bringing it down again.

If I'm wrong, the job market will tell me and correct the balance by itself.

But the gem in our report on these new English rankings was right at the end - "France was ranked one lower than mainland China on the list, making it the worst English-learning country in Europe."

And how many Englishmen speak French? Hurrah for French common sense.