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  • Dec 26, 2014
  • Updated: 12:25pm
CommentInsight & Opinion

Hong Kong's unique situation shapes our language skills

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 November, 2013, 3:25am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 November, 2013, 6:53am

Knowledge of English and Putonghua does not automatically land you a good job in Hong Kong. But not knowing them inevitably bars you from pursuing a meaningful career path. That is why whenever a new study comes out warning about declining language standards, it grabs people's attention. But most such studies need to be put in context and taken with a grain of salt.

The latest, by an international language learning company, EF Education First, warns that the English skills of Hongkongers have slipped to the levels of South Korea, Indonesia and Japan. Interestingly, Malaysia ranks highest among Asian countries, even ahead of Singapore. Should we be alarmed?

English is one of Hong Kong's two official languages. It is also the international language of business. So as an international city, we must collectively do what we can to promote it, both for practical and official reasons. But like Putonghua, more Hong Kong people speak English than ever before, simply because that is the social and business reality here. Back in colonial days, far fewer people spoke English, but the Chinese who did, spoke it well. The post-handover expansion of education, especially in university places, means a rising number of people at least have a functional use of English. Because most don't speak it fluently, there must inevitably be a perception of declining standards.

Corporations have for years complained about the inadequate English skills of their new hires. That is indeed worrying. But market forces must be at work here too. Those who have educational and professional aspirations will work hard to master the language. Those with drive will naturally acquire the skills demanded by the job market.

Given Hong Kong's unique situation, there is an ideal that we should all master English, Cantonese and Putonghua. That is a challenge for the vast majority of people. We cannot be complacent but we should also take pride in that so many of us are at least functionally literate in two or even all three of them.


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This article is now closed to comments

The discovery of low English proficiency prompted Hong Kong University for its new students that remedial English courses must be set up. It was news in 1997 and I also wrote in response to SCMP which was my first letter to Editor ever. Nothing new since except what this editorial rightly has pointed out that there are more people who speaks English nowadays than in the Colonial time -- unfortunately not very well.
For the time lapse over a decade I have another view in this matter.
Both the accessibility of vast reading materials translated into Chinese (simplified version), and the technological translation capability (even free of charge by Google) have rendered learning English as a choice. I welcome these changes. They are freeing us the bondage to English for those who has to struggle to be proficient in it and at the same time missing perspective of what we really need to be proficient in.
When I read this very early in the morning
I thought there were at least three points I wish to comment
I don't want to re-read the editorial again
Now that JY has commented on a very important point
and I've other things to do
So I'd only repeat what I wanted to but didn't post to JvdK's column
Most of the time I don't think the market is a fair arbitrator
but in this particular instance, I agree with JvdK
who has expressed the same idea in many interesting articles


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