Last week, Education First published the results of its English Proficiency Index - a comprehensive ranking of English ability. In addition to ranking 60 countries and territories by their English skills, it includes, for the first time, an analysis of English proficiency trends over a six-year period.
Proficiency in a language means many different skills: speaking and listening, reading and writing, formal and informal use, etc. Different tasks require different skills, and individuals vary significantly in their abilities in acquiring these skills. Without probing these complex issues in depth here, it is nonetheless interesting to scan their ranking.
Topping the list of 60 is Sweden, followed by Norway, which holds no surprise. After all, these two languages are both Germanic, as English is; they are about as close to each other as Cantonese and Putonghua. However, I did not expect Estonia (4) and Finland (7) to rank so high. These two languages are quite distant from Germanic languages in terms of their linguistic lineage.
As for the BRIC countries, India (21) is the only one in Tier 3, which Education First categorises as "moderate proficiency". As a former British colony, India is a multilingual country where English is an official language.
In the Tier 4 group of "low proficiency", China (34) has been rising fast in the ranking. In 2011, China was the world's top source of overseas students, more than half of them going to the US, Britain and Australia. This continues to be an important force driving up English proficiency, assuming the economy keeps booming.
Hong Kong (22) is in Tier 3, just below India; like India, it was a British colony and has retained English as an official language. When Hong Kong was reunified with China, the policy was for biliteracy (Chinese and English) and trilingualism (Cantonese, Putonghua and English). Comparison is frequently made here with Singapore (12), which together with Malaysia (11) are the only two Asian nations ranked in Tier 2, described as "high proficiency". However, the comparison is not totally apt, given the fundamental overhaul that has taken place since 1997, and the inevitable rise in the importance of Putonghua.
Obviously, much work needs to be done if Hong Kong is to retain its English advantage as a "world city" in Asia. South Korea (24), Japan (26) and Vietnam (28) are not far behind in Tier 3.
The answer to the language challenge is not sacrificing Cantonese and Putonghua to make room for more English. Trilingualism is clearly what Hong Kong needs - a world language, a national language, and a community language. All three must be nurtured to grow to their full potential; Cantonese remains important as a community language.
Neither can the language challenge be met by just throwing more and more money into the pot; more mediocrity is still mediocrity. The critical question here is, how to invest for the best results?
From the perspective of what we now know about how the brain learns, the answer is in the timing.
Learning a language consists of acquiring many types of skills. These include at least the following: moving your tongue and other organs to form a variety of sounds, memorising thousands of words and phrases and knowing how they are used, mastering the grammar so that the sounds, words and phrases can be strung together for saying what you want and for understanding what others say, all in real time.
For learning Chinese, there is the added challenge of the written language.
Neuroscience research over recent decades has shown convincingly that the brain begins to attend to language almost as soon as the auditory system is in place, even while in the womb. The infant is an incredible learning machine, and can sort out the important features of speech sounds of several languages before it is a year old, months before it can produce them.
During early childhood, the phonetic systems of three languages can be soaked up by the brain as easily as one. Such timing is paralleled by learning other sensory motor skills, such as a sport or a musical instrument.
Unfortunately, the difficulty for this kind of learning increases very steeply after puberty. Yet, ironically, that is when they start classes in foreign languages in most education systems in the world.
English proficiency, or proficiency in any language, depends on presenting the child early on with exposure to the language at the right time in the right setting. There are other relevant factors as well, of course, such as the quality of the teacher and the teaching methods used. But by far the most important, to my mind, is to present the language when the brain is most ready for it.
The seed will grow if, and only if, it is planted during the right season. We can only hope policies in language education will catch up soon with this wisdom.
William S.Y. Wang is professor of linguistics emeritus of the University of California at Berkeley. He is the director of the Joint Research Centre for Language and Human Complexity of the Chinese University of Hong Kong