• Sat
  • Dec 20, 2014
  • Updated: 11:15pm
CommentInsight & Opinion

Myth of the bilingual Hongkonger

Richard Sheung sees complementary roles for English, Cantonese skills

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 June, 2014, 1:34pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 June, 2014, 3:19am

It is not without irony that English, or its avoidance and abuse, has been the cause of controversy recently.

First, the president of the Law Society, Ambrose Lam San-keung, flatly refused to oblige a reporter with a sound bite in English at a press conference. He was criticised for his lack of consideration, with some even calling into question his English language skills.

Then, there was lawmaker Christopher Chung Shu-kun, giving the American chief executive of the MTR Corporation a dressing-down in his broken English at the Legislative Council.

Chung's outburst, as much as Lam's silence, apparently touched a raw nerve with Hongkongers. Can both episodes be revealing of our love-hate relationship with English, and the gaps between our self-identity and reality?

Many of us were hurt, outraged even, because we thought we could and should do better. As an aspiring world city, we take unabashed pride in our colonial heritage and bilingual cosmopolitanism. If not every Hongkonger, then certainly those who are in positions of authority ought to be capable bilingual communicators.

Nonetheless, precisely because English has been a colonial language, an international education, though always at considerable public expense, was primarily for the benefit of expatriate children - never meant for anyone who wanted it. English was taught reasonably well only at the best local schools, and the most gifted students who have benefited have gone on to serve Hong Kong well.

In large part, however, the international face of Hong Kong has been built on the "bilingualism" of its colonial administrators and their top Chinese aides, each speaking mainly in their mother tongue.

It is easy to decry the avoidance or abuse of English, blaming misguided nativism, or "falling standards" since the British left. But the use of English as the first official language actually requires competencies that might be fine for its native speakers but not easily found among the Chinese, even in colonial Hong Kong.

The city is more known for being a homogeneous Cantonese speech community than any thoroughly anglicised one. English is not a language of choice for most locals in oral communication, except maybe to show off occasionally.

The interpretation service, available in Legco, should have helped to make Chung more easily understood. Indeed, simultaneous interpretation services can be usefully tapped for public events. It may make more sense for Hong Kong to be bilingual to the world through competent translation than continue with the myth of everyone being happily bilingual when, in reality, there is widespread reluctance to use our adopted language.

But the Hong Kong "international face" as we know it will wither if English continues to be either avoided or abused. The "bilingual" requirement of all senior appointments effectively disqualifies all but the locally educated with a good but not entirely confident command of English, although it is the first working language in government, academia and the professions.

Isn't it about time the rules were relaxed to make our city more inclusive and welcoming to international talent, who may be hired to fill senior positions? Together we can complement each other, linguistically and culturally, and remodel Hong Kong as the cosmopolitan city that it can be - free of the shadow of British colonialism.

Richard Sheung was a translator with the Hong Kong government before the handover. He teaches in the Department of Chinese, Translation and Linguistics at City University of Hong Kong


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No English, no future.
Such is the result of "one-country, two-system", neither here nor there, as most HKers are
poor in both Chinese and English, including most qualified school teachers.
Mr. Sheung is a guy that obviously knows what he is talking about. It's not going to happen that Hong Kong is going to be a place where "everybody" speaks good English and Cantonese. Most people have relatively few occasions where they need English so over time as people are further removed from the experience of English in school increases their English deteriorates. People cite Singapore as a model of bilingualism, but those are people that don't know any kind of Chinese. Those of us that do know better. If you run into Singaporians that know English well, chances are they not good in ANY Chinese language. If you run into people that are good in Hokkien, Cantonese or Mandarin, chances are good their English is below average. It's typically going to be one or the other. So where do they seem to do bilingualism right? My vote is Malaysia. You'll find a lot of people that speak 5 languages - Hokkien, Mandarin, Cantonese, English and Malay. I can vouch for 4 of the 5 being quite good. To mean this means that government language policies should be loose and not perscriptive. As with many other things the more the government intrusion the worse the outcome.
Everywhere in HK that involves a written contract states that Chinese is for reference only and that if there is any dispute between the Chinese or English versions of the contract, then the English version shall prevail. There's your use of the English language.
This article reminds me of a letter I recently wrote to the Post, which they declined to publish. Text as follows
Congratulations to the MTR
No, not on your 35th birthday, but on finally producing what would appear to be a completely English language-free advertisement in your stations. You have clearly been striving for this for some years now, so well done. Now all readers of Chinese can share in the celebration of your anniversary without the tiresome clutter of non-Chinese text. Gone at last are the miniscule partial English subtitles we have strained our eyes to read in recent years. Congratulations, too, to the Hong Kong government, your majority shareholder, on its bold relegation of English to where it belongs i.e. to international cities across the world rather than good old parochial Hong Kong.
Asia’s world city???
有冇攪錯 (you must be kidding)
Comparing Ambrose Law's performance and Christopher Chung's is a bit of an apples and oranges comparison. Beyond the basic fact of Law's attempting to avoid answering in English a politically sensitive question with an equally controversial answer, Chung was simply attempting to score political points with sideshow antics (that he slaughtered with poor English (and Cantonese).) Law avoiding answering English, conversely, might have been more intended to avoid providing an easily packaged English-language soundbite regarding a barely defensible position, or one (the un-codified 'patriot principle') that the Law Society knows is indefensible from both a common law rule of law perspective as well as politically. There is no problem with Law's English, the problem probably lies elsewhere.
Absolutely not Malaysian, but I have run into plenty of Malaysian in Hong Kong, Taiwan and of course Malaysian. I have met many, many of them that could speak 5 languages and the four I cited were really good. The people I have met mostly are businessman and travel, so perhaps this statement may not apply as well to other Malaysians. It is also fairly to assume that some otf their language abilities are acquired post schooling as they spend time interacting with a variety of people in society. Some can't even read Chinese, but they really are good. Malaysia just seems to be a very unique place where a large number of languages are in active use and one language doesn't kill the others, as often happens.
Saying that most HKers are "poor in Chinese" is patently absurd. This ignores the fact that Mandarin and Cantonese are two separate languages, far less similar to each other than, say, Italian and Spanish (which no one is claiming are one language).
I think what you mean is that HKers are not so good at reading Mandarin, which is what Cantonese-speaking locals are forced to do. In terms of listening and speaking, they do just fine in Cantonese, which is NOT a 'dialect' of 'Chinese' (=Mandarin).
Hong Kong’s education system always has only paid lip service when comes to teaching English hence learning it. Poor English teaching applies to most local schools. It victimizes students acquiring for a language poorly learned that lasts for one’s life. I believe we should be obliged to master one language well than two incompetently to be qualified and useful as a literate.
For those who are proficient in both English and Chinese, they are blessed to go about life in Hong Kong more easily. For the mono-language group, life still can go on if translation service is available.
I agree with the author that the function of translators is important and translation service should be availed more readily in public events in Hong Kong. I also encourage government to support more translation trainings to service Hong Kong as an international city.
Kudos to Mr. Sheung for getting this issue right! The most recent information available indicates that (at most) about 20% of Hong Kongers are Cantonese-English bilinguals. That's probably the highest it has ever been. The research on this matter has also consistently shown that use of English is relegated mainly to education and business, and not fully used in all contexts (as it is in Singapore, for example). This is not a criticism, but rather a simple fact. The vast majority of Hong Kongers have no use for, and rarely/never use the English language outside of school. Anyone who tells you otherwise is simply ignorant of the facts.
Funny how people love their language-related myths, whether it's Cantonese-English bilingualism in Hong Kong, or a 'glorious' English monolingual past in the United States.



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