Are English standards really falling in Hong Kong? Don't believe all you read

Andrew Sewell says using average scores or anecdotal evidence to gauge language proficiency is misleading, and we may come up short if we search for real evidence of declining standards

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 October, 2015, 12:46pm
UPDATED : Friday, 09 October, 2015, 12:46pm

This is normally the time of year when EF Education First, an international language training organisation, releases its annual survey of English proficiency levels across the world. Test data is used to produce league tables, the implication being that slipping down the rankings - as Hong Kong did last year - is like being relegated from the Premier League of advanced countries and cities.

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If there is one issue upon which people can be expected to agree, it is that Hong Kong's English proficiency level is falling. We are told that if we don't catch up, there'll be hell to pay, as Singapore, South Korea and any number of mainland Chinese cities overtake us.

Not so fast, I argue. Something that is definitely falling in these discussions is the standard of evidence for declining proficiency, along with the amount of reflection on what "proficiency" means in today's world.

Being 'correct' or sounding native does not always equate with the ability to communicate effectively across cultural boundaries

The test-based rankings produced by EF do not provide convincing evidence, partly because they drastically over-simplify the nature of language proficiency. Average scores are misleading. Saying that the average proficiency level of a country is 2.5 is rather like telling a pilot that the average height of a mountain in China is 2,500 metres - what matters is the height of particular mountains.

Language proficiency is situation-specific, and there may be good reasons for it being unequally distributed. Some countries and regions might be better off with "tall mountains and wide plains" - a few highly proficient speakers and a majority with minimal skills - others with "low hills", or basic competence spread widely across the population. Test scores tell us nothing about the actual contours of proficiency in Hong Kong.

Another major limitation of the survey is that traditional proficiency tests rely on native-speaker English for their benchmarks. The major function of English today, however, is to serve as a lingua franca among non-native speakers. Adopting a native-speaker target may be unnecessary and even counter-productive. Being "correct" or sounding native does not always equate with the ability to communicate effectively across cultural boundaries.

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When I attend international conferences, the speakers who cause the most furrowed brows among the audience are often the native speakers. They speak too quickly. Vowels get reduced almost to nothing, and inconvenient consonants disappear. They use idiomatic language that is beyond the comprehension of many listeners.

The other kind of evidence that appears in discussion of "falling standards" is anecdotal: in the past, things were much better, and people had no trouble recruiting expert speakers of English or finding someone to take their order. Again, anecdotal evidence has its limitations. Has any generation ever felt that language skills are improving?

READ MORE: Hong Kong must change how English is taught to raise standards

Linguists in Hong Kong tend to see the "falling standards" debate in a different way - more people speak English than in the past, so their shortcomings are more visible to the casual observer. Signs and notices written in so-called Chinglish - yet another form of evidence presented by the falling standards lobby - are one indication of this, but they do not prove that proficiency is declining in any meaningful way. Amusing, perhaps; evidence, no.

This is not to suggest that we can be complacent about the way English is taught and learned. But instead of succumbing to alarmist claims of falling standards, Hong Kong could take an active role in researching the nature of proficiency and competence in today's globalised world, and in developing innovative ways to teach them. What many young people in Hong Kong lack is not so much communicative competence as communicative confidence. There should be no room for the kind of language education that alienates students and undermines confidence by focusing mainly on errors.

The discourse of "declining English proficiency" is so entrenched that the actual results of the EF survey will make little difference. If Hong Kong has risen in the rankings, we will be told that we need to avoid slipping down again, and if it has fallen, the season for blame apportionment will begin in earnest. In either case, I suggest that we take a good look at the evidence and the issues before jumping aboard the "falling standards of English" bandwagon.

Andrew Sewell is an assistant professor in the Department of English at Lingnan University