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  • Nov 1, 2014
  • Updated: 2:03am
Mr. Shangkong
PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 December, 2013, 4:28am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 December, 2013, 11:29am

Fluency in Chinglish doesn't count as World City yardstick

HK may have the vibe, but it lacks the verbs - at least in the right place - and that's why English slide must be fixed if it is to be a true global centre


George Chen is the financial editor and columnist at the South China Morning Post. George has covered China's financial industry and economic reforms since 2002. George is the author of Foreign Banks in China. He muses about the interplay between Shanghai and Hong Kong in Mr. Shangkong columns every Monday in print and online. Follow George on Twitter: @george_chen

Before I start to tell you two stories, let me ask you a question: In general, do you feel English-language skills of Hong Kong people are increasing or declining since the 1997 handover?

The question popped up in my mind when I came across two real-life experiences in Hong Kong, whose official slogan is "Asia's World City", indicating how global Hong Kong can be. And one of the global elements is certainly how easy it is for foreigners, mostly English-speaking residents or visitors, to communicate with the society.

The first story was my personal experience. Recently I did some holiday shopping in Causeway Bay and I noticed there were many flags alongside several streets in the shopping district that all carried two big words and a shop's logo - "Now opened".

Now opened? How weird it sounds, I asked myself. English is not my first language but I remember my primary school teacher told me the difference between these example sentences - such as "the package is opened" and "the shop is open" in the case of the usage of the word open as verb or adjective.

Typically, when a new shop tries to declare to its neighbourhood and customers that it is ready for business, it will say "now open" or sometimes "now opening" in its advertising posters. But "Now opened"? Just a new kind of Hong Kong-Chinese-English?

I mentioned my "now open" experience to a retired Hong Kong teacher who taught English and history for decades. To my surprise, Virginia Ho, the local retired teacher, quickly began to share her personal experience with me - also about the fast-increasing English problems she spotted in the city.

Ho recently went to a branch of Hang Seng Bank, a local subsidiary of British bank HSBC, and she noticed the bank put up a notice in English near its automated teller machines. The notice said in English: "In avoidance of congestion, could customers please queue up?"

Does this sound as weird as "Now opened" to you, my readers? At least Ho found it didn't read as natural English.

"I thought better English should be: 'to avoid congestion, customers please queue up'. So I went into the bank and found a staff member to tell him about the matter, Ho said.

"He replied: 'Oh, I have returned from Australia. I think it (the notice) has no grammatical mistake. If I can understand, I believe others will understand too'," Ho said.

Apparently the Hang Seng Bank employee's comments didn't satisfy the teacher, so she wrote a formal complaint to the bank and there has been no feedback after several weeks.

Last month, a ranking of 60 countries and territories found the English-language skills of Hong Kong's adults had slumped to the level of South Korea, Indonesia, and Japan. Experts put the blame partly on the switch from teaching mainly in English to mainly in Chinese since the handover.

If you don't trust those academic studies or rankings, then tell me how you personally feel about the English level in the Asia's World City? I look forward to your emails - in proper English, or in proper Chinese - but definitely not in what some people call Chinglish or perhaps Honglish.


George Chen is the Post's financial services editor. Mr. Shangkong appears every Monday in the print version of the SCMP. Like it? Visit facebook.com/mrshangkong


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This article is now closed to comments

It's sad people accept declining standard, not just in the English language.
I first encountered really bad HK English when calling from Shanghai into the service desk of a large laptop manufacturer. No one spoke understandable English. Probably a salary issue. Lets just say that they have a plant in Xiamen.
I waited until I got back to the US, where with luck I could get on the phone a tech rep who spoke comprehensible English, Indian accents perfectly OK.
Bless their little hearts, this wonderful company also had a surprise for me back Stateside -- no record of my purchase in HK. Their tech reps there weren't permitted to give me any help. A total bamboo curtain separated galactic HQ in Texas from their Asia cost centre! It took me two years and dozens of hours on the phone until a competent kid in someplace like Nome Alaska rather than Texas was willing to give my poor benighted laptop a "green card' for service and tech support in the US.
So. Just look what incomprehensible Chinglish can lead to.
That being said, the Excellencies who now govern HK seem intent on doing everything that they can to bludgeon HK's unique international competitiveness and spirit -- which is at base multicultural -- back to that of a unremarkable Chinese city -- beginning with a) slashing of half the English language schools and b) protecting 2nd language English instructors from 1st language speaking competitors wherever English teaching remained and moving on to shenanigans over democratic governance promises written into the basic law.
Javed Mir
An interesting article. I think British era is over and as such their language will stand modified by those whose mother tongue is not English.
It is not true that Hong Kong people are speaking less English. First since when and compare with which period of time? In the colonial time, there were less people who need to speak in English. The Brits don’t talk to Chinese. They spoke through Chinese translators. This form of communication is institutionalized in the colony as long ago as the age of Hong Kong University which was built to train translators who would work for the government. So as King’s College.
There is more English speaking by ordinary people in Hong Kong nowadays because situations require them to do so: talking to expats in a transaction, talking business to a foreign counter part or shopping while travelling etc. It is only natural and logical the popular use of English in daily life that standard in English is averaging and can’t be measured up against those in the past trained to be translators. You can’t beat even those including Mrs Chan or Mr. Tsang’s English who were civil servants in the colonial days.
The worry if English is slipping is both a result of sloppy reasoning and a unnecessary exercise. English can’t make you if you are brainless. LKS is a good example to all those think otherwise.
GC, you must have your anxiety fix with nearly 50 comments and hope enough for the rest of your life. Just move on and write/report something more useful. And, how is your Shanghainese? Mine has slipped away long long time ago.
I am a Hongkonger. The declining English of the Hongkongers is due to the fact that we do not need to speak and use English on daily basis. I considered our English is not too bad given English is not our first language. I also found some native English speakers having grammatical mistakes in their writing. So what?! Some people are just nitpiking.
There is no question that the average English level has declined over the last decade. There are a number of reasons for this such as greater immigration of lower educated Chinese migrants, as well as a greater emphasis on Mandarin over English in the local school system.
Many commenters have said that the local level is just fine, which I agree with. But, fine for what? What is the direction or ambition of Hong Kong? As Hong Kong transitioned from a manufacturing based economy to a financial centre it's competitive advantage lay in low corporate tax rate, proximity to mainland, deep water port and a workforce that spoke English.
With the rise of Shanghai and Singapore as financial centres and the erosion of HKs competitive advantages, where does it's future lay? HK should have continued it's progression to a knowledge based economy but got distracted by the cheap and easy money of mainland tourists.
Hong Kong's English is just fine as long as everyone is satisfied with being a shop assistant, tour guide, or any other service job in the tourist based economy. Look forward to another decade of increasing wealth gap.
To be honest, I don't think anyone in this story presents stellar skills in the use of English. I don't like the phrase 'queue up'. Why is ‘up’ required in this sentence? A ‘queue’ is a ‘queue’, it doesn’t require a direction. I would suggest a more correct phrase for the bank to use would be, 'to avoid congestion, customers please queue' or perhaps more accurately, 'to avoid congestion, we request customers to please queue'.
Alternatively, why don't we all just grow up a little bit, rather than pursuing this pathetic 'he said, she said' agenda?
Let me correct you :
[1] No need to use "To be honest", unless you were lying.
[2] If you want to quote somebody, use double quotes "...", not single quotes '...', like you did.
[3] "Queue up" is more on the spoken side than on the written side, but there is nothing wrong with it. You are obviously a local, or at least not familiar with spoken styles in North America.
As well, you were obviously unfamiliar with the process of evolution of languages. There are books that show the history of evolution of English as a language. I suggest that you go read them up. BTW, "read them up" is also a spoken style; you would have just used "read them" without "up", and that would sound very much like a command, rather than trying to convey a bit of friendliness.
Dear TheF, you're obviously a moron.
[1] "To be honest", is a well recognised saying and has nothing to do with the speaker/writer lying. With your brilliant command of the English language, I'm quite shocked that you don't understand this.
[2] Fair play, you got me there. Should have used double quotation marks.
[3] Some nice casual racism there, good for you! But I must ask, what has any of this got to do with North America? Oh I know, absolutely nothing.
Lastly, "read them up"? Really? Write them up, mix them up, set them up, fill them up. add them up, and countless more variations on this same theme. However, "read them up" is just wrong. If your defence is more "spoken styles in North America" garbage, then I'd suggest you read some books on English. Not books on North America's brand of English, but an actual book on English. Or better yet, try to converse with some people that speak English better than your poor self.




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