Let's admit it, Hong Kong's English standards will never rise

Michael Chugani says despite all the angst, extra lessons and pressure on children, Hong Kong should realise we're on a hiding to nothing by trying to raise standards for everyone

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 October, 2015, 11:46am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 October, 2015, 6:11pm

Sometime back, I asked a senior government official at a dinner function if he would come to my TV show. He replied sheepishly he didn't think his English was good enough. My first thought was it sounded like an excuse but then realised he was actually being quite candid. He seldom speaks English at length in public and I have to admit he lacks the fluency I would expect from a senior official.

Recently, I had a guest whose below-average grasp of the language triggered some viewers to suggest I invite only those who can speak English fluently. That is a tall order, with standards on a steady decline. Being Hong Kong-born and raised, I can alternate easily between English and Cantonese but now find myself speaking mostly Cantonese out of necessity. Shop assistants often start off speaking to me in broken English but don't hide their relief when I reply in Cantonese.

I now speak in Cantonese even with locals who can speak good English. Most of them prefer that anyway. How often do you hear local Chinese speaking in English to each other even if they are proficient in the language? I can imagine Executive Councillor Arthur Li Kwok-cheung doing that with former legislator Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee. Both are more comfortable speaking in English. But don't expect former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa to speak in English with protégé Leung Chun-ying, even though both speak the language fluently.

It is pointless for people to attend English classes but switch back to Cantonese once classes are over. You cannot improve your English if you think in Chinese

Legislator Michael Tien Puk-sun, credited with making TV stations carry English subtitles for English news broadcasts to help viewers learn the language, confessed to me some time back he too finds himself speaking mostly in Cantonese out of necessity to communicate with constituents. For years, I've pushed the government to use English more often since it's also an official language here.

I have even suggested that senior officials set an example by using English from time to time in the Legislative Council. The government is only paying lip service when it stresses the importance of English. The reality is that English is not even on the radar screen. MTR officials rush to go on Chinese radio phone-in shows to explain major service breakdowns but always refuse to do the same on English radio. Their mentality is that it's not worth coming on English radio phone-in shows because of the small listener base. I know this for a fact because I co-host an English radio show.

Hong Kong has long agonised over its falling standards of English. We tell ourselves English is the world's commercial language which is crucial for our success as an international city. We look enviously at regional rival Singapore where English is widely spoken. But perhaps it's time for Hong Kong to let go. Billboards and posters advertising English tutorials are everywhere. Parents exert pressure on children to raise their English standards.

But let's face it, overall English standards here will never rise. We have lost the cultural setting conducive to raising it. It is pointless for people to attend English classes but switch back to Cantonese once classes are over. You cannot improve your English if you think in Chinese.

Most of the young shop assistants who are relieved when I speak to them in Cantonese often floor me with their Putonghua fluency. Restaurant waiters and supermarket cashiers who once could string a few words of English together are now proficient in Putonghua. Perhaps it's time for us to believe an overall raising of English standards is impossible, that our success is not dependent on it. Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have succeeded without depending on it.

I don't mean we should abandon English altogether in favour of Putonghua. I'm just saying we should aim at targeted rather than a wholesale improvement of English. Turn out more people like Martin Lee Chu-ming, Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun and Occupy student leader Yvonne Leung Lai-kwok who are adept at learning English. And let go people such as Scholarism leader Joshua Wong Chi-fung who are less adept at learning it.

Michael Chugani is a columnist and TV show host. mickchug@gmail.com