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.