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  • Aug 21, 2014
  • Updated: 10:36pm
Jake's View
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 November, 2013, 2:35am
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 November, 2013, 2:35am

Let market have last word on English skills

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

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.


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This article is now closed to comments

The ranking of English proficiency has no positive correlation with economic development. The low proficiency ranking for Japan and Korea haven’t set their economy back. I doubt Singapore agrees that Malaysia is ahead economically. In fact I haven’t heard any job vacancy in Japan, Korea and Hong Kong all rated as pathetic looking that workers must be proficient in English.
I can’t rule out the rally cry by those for the pathetic cry in their postings in SCMP wasn’t mostly a mindless habitual reaction towards what English has had treated them or of self-interest besides protecting one’s acquired or native skills but more for those who are making a good living by teaching English in Hong Kong. For the rest of us, English proficiency is good to have but not a must to have for a good income. But a good head you must. Just ask our superman, LKS.
Yes and also lets do away with that complicated algebra (most of us are not going to be engineers or finance professionals), pointless Art lessons (most of us are not going to work in the Art field), History (its in the past and all you can do with it is become a teacher). Cut all these subjects and English and what do you get? Obviously less opportunities, less doors that can be opened by a young person trying to make their way in life. Yes let's let the market decide. Or put another way, let's create a system whereby those that have the wealth get to keep it and those who don't get to work for a pittance for the wealthy all of their lives. Maintain the status quo! Long live the ruling class!
Jake, you are missing the point because you are not speaking for the people who want to study and work abroad and they are very, very many. You may not speak Cantonese well, but you never learned it in school, which is a very big handicap.
English is, and will remain, the world's business lingua franca and that fact is not going to change in our lifetimes.
Forgive me for pointing this out but, Jake, you've got the wrong end of the stick about those drivers who answer you in English. I'm not putting them (or you) down - our overworked and underpaid cabbies generally deserve praise for their obliging manner - but what's really happening is that your Cantonese is so poorly accented that they suspect you're not up to being served a Cantonese response. As a Cantonese-speaking g w e i l o, the only drivers who come back at me in English are those who want to show off or practise it.
PS - had to space out that word to overcome SCMP's weird censorship engine.
I'm in the same category, Western person speaking Cantonese. The people that respond to me in English are generally in their 20s. By 30s and 40s more people figure out that practicing and improving their English is a largely irrelevant pursuit to their daily lives.
One other point, I suspect that generalized bilingualism in not really possible. I note that in Singapore many people speak English (rather exotically) but often can't speak any form of Chinese all that well. Those that can often are not that good in English. Those that can write Chinese well are even fewer. One exceptional place though is in Malaysia. I have noticed that many Malaysian Chinese speak really good Cantonese, Hokkien, Mandarin and English (all of which I speak well enough to know) as well as Malay (which I can't verify their fluency of. To me this speaks to the truth that government policies often have unintended consequences i.e. Singapore with it's busy body policies on which languages to use when gets less language ability than the linguistically laissez-faire Malaysia.
I shall save JVDK's piece in my drawer and use it anytime when it is needed.
The decry on the falling proficiency of English-language skills in Hong Kong is mostly a self-referenced group. The posts that followed the news many may just be English language teacher who would like to improve their marketability and remuneration in Hong Kong. Yes, it is the market even for language skills.
Only one Dislike? I am surprised. I guess almost no English teacher care to read JVDK’s column. Well, we may all been barking at the wrong tree?
A lot of educated Englishmen speak French.
Meaning 5% of the UK population, innit?


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