Hong Kong must not lose sight of its competitive advantages as a bilingual city

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 June, 2015, 3:13am
UPDATED : Thursday, 18 June, 2015, 9:02am

The government likes to portray Hong Kong as a city where the English and Chinese languages are widely used. Ironically, there seems to be a growing tendency for officials to communicate in Chinese only. From speaking in public to writing blogs, the use of English has become increasingly rare. The trend is not only a deviation from the official policy of bilingualism, it also alienates non-Chinese speakers and undermines our image as an international city.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, for instance, delivered 61 speeches in Chinese in the 12 months to the end of May, compared to 28 in English during the same period. Only six were delivered in both languages or had English translation. His predecessor, Tung Chee-hwa, used English more often. Just nine of his speeches delivered in 2004 were in Chinese only. Those in both languages or with English translation numbered 49. Another recent trend is the use of blogs by ministers which, unsurprisingly, are primarily written in Chinese. Sometimes an English version is provided later.

The Basic Law says English may be used as an official language in addition to Chinese. The two are also declared official languages for the purposes of communication and for court proceedings under the Official Languages Ordinance. Given the equal status, the government is expected to treat both languages with equal importance. The Civil Service Bureau has confirmed that all bureaus and departments have the duty to disseminate information bilingually. While government websites and papers are usually available in Chinese and English, speeches delivered in the legislature do not always have written records in both languages.

The use of English in Hong Kong has, indeed, been an issue of concern since the handover. The predominant use of Chinese in official communications has given the impression that English is no longer important. The switch to mother-tongue teaching has further fuelled the perception that the standard of English is falling. The government may be right in saying that such a claim has yet to be backed by concrete evidence. Nonetheless, it is in our interest to maintain a high level of proficiency in both languages. At stake are our business competitiveness and cosmopolitan image. The declining use of English at the senior echelons of the government sits oddly with its policy of promoting bilingualism. It is incumbent upon the government to take the lead and set a good example.