Appalling English standards in Hong Kong: the biggest culprit is ...

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 May, 2015, 6:30am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 February, 2016, 11:41am

I had an appointment in an unfamiliar part of town the other day, and was at the mercy of a taxi driver to get me there. I started giving him directions in my smattering of Cantonese when he interrupted cheerfully and confidently in English to assure me he would take me to my destination.

When I complimented him on his command of the language, he said he was learning and practising, and never missed the chance to try out his English whenever a non-Chinese passenger climbed into his vehicle. I couldn’t help thinking: “If only our government officials had this guy’s attitude.”

Let me say this with absolute conviction and justification: The standard of English in this former British colony is appalling, and the biggest culprit you can blame for this sorry state of affairs is the Hong Kong SAR government.

I’m not speaking as your stereotypical whingeing expatriate bemoaning the loss of the colonial era, now that Hong Kong is well and truly part of China.

I’m just saying if most people feel Cantonese and Putonghua are more important than English in what is essentially another city in China, and that’s the “reality” we non-natives should face, then say so. I’m perfectly fine with that.

People like me will go gently into the night. Just don’t pretend this is a bi-lingual town, or “Asia’s World City”. Don’t keep paying lip service to the importance of English to us as an international language while giving it no importance at all in practice.

In the nearly two decades since Hong Kong’s handover to Chinese sovereignty, I’ve watched the SAR government systematically ignore and undermine the use of English.

Except for press conferences to announce major policy decisions once in a blue moon, nearly all of the government’s interaction with the media and the public is conducted in Cantonese without simultaneous interpretation in English.

Yes, the Information Services Department does run an English-language website and government departments do issue press releases in English, but that’s far from adequate.

READ MORE: The Hong Kong government's language barrier

Just last week, after the police fiasco in arresting the wrong man in a murder investigation and making him do the perp-walk without even realising he was autistic, the whole town was waiting for an explanation and possible apology from the force.

A Chinese-language police statement was released at night, which the television stations immediately interpreted as the widely demanded public apology.

They didn’t bother to release a statement in English, and we had to call the head of the Police Public Relations Branch to find out that it was “an expression of regret” and not a formal apology. It would have been lost in translation otherwise.

To put it into context for our readers from outside Hong Kong, making a public apology is a big deal in this part of the world. It’s a loss of face, above all else.

We’re only talking about the little old Hong Kong police force here, but on a larger scale, this cultural taboo is evident in such sticking points as Japan’s refusal to say a straightforward “I’m sorry” to China over its wartime atrocities, even at the risk of further antagonism or open conflict at a national level. That’s why the clarification in English was so important in the police case.

I’ve banged my head against this wall of passive resistance many times in my career.

Last year, when I was still in charge of ATV’s English news, I decided to make a stand and called out former Law Society president Ambrose Lam on air for refusing to answer a reporter’s question in English at a press conference.

What I found particularly galling was Lam’s curt reply that he had already answered the question in Cantonese and she should get it translated.

I didn’t realise I had tapped into a wellspring of public concern over this issue – we were literally flooded with messages of outrage against Lam and support for our stance. It was a real eye-opener.

To be fair to Lam, he’s not the first person to be criticised for displaying this strange aversion to English in public. Financial Secretary John Tsang did it once on my watch to another reporter, telling her to get his reply translated. The difference was that unlike Lam, Tsang was pleasant about it, apologising and claiming to be in a rush.

Now he’s back to floating important policy ideas in Chinese-only blogs, along with the rest of the ministers. What’s with that, really? Is it so unthinkable for these people to simultaneously release an English version?

They have a whole bunch of English-proficient staff on the payroll, many of them former expatriate journalists, whose job is to do just that. Put them to work, for God’s sake.

There’s something terribly wrong with our education system when it’s churning out graduates who need serious help with their English.

This is not something you can pin entirely on our schools and teachers, although they have plenty to answer for. The government has to take the lead – and I don’t mean with half-baked education policies such as mother-tongue teaching which, far from improving the situation, has proved counter-productive.

It also doesn’t help that our youngsters are not helping themselves. During the times I’ve taught students or given motivational talks to them in Hong Kong, I’ve often come across this curious phenomenon in which those who are bold enough to speak in English in class are silenced or discouraged by peer pressure.

They’re seen as smart alecks or teacher’s pets by their “cooler” classmates. Go figure.

It’s quite telling that I have to refer to a taxi driver’s shining example as proof that Hong Kong’s English-language conundrum can be solved. It’s mostly a matter of attitude.