Hongkongers' English language skills rank only 25th out of 54 non-English-speaking countries, losing to Asian competitors such as Japan and South Korea, in a survey by a language education company.
Education First described the result of its survey as "alarming", warning that Hong Kong could lose its edge as an international city after dropping 13 spots from the previous survey.
The poll does not measure English speaking skills, focusing instead on listening, reading and knowledge of grammar.
That might explain why the result seemed contradictory to some Hongkongers' experience in Japan, South Korea and other countries - where they could barely communicate with local residents in English, acknowledged Joe Chiu Sung-kei, country manager of Education First.
Hong Kong scored 53.65 points out of 100. The company arrived at the score by analysing online and written tests it offered from 2009 to last year.
Sweden tops the list with 68.91 points, followed by Denmark with 67.96.
According to its promotional material, Education First operates 400 language schools in more than 50 countries.
Hongkongers' proficiency was described as "moderate" in the survey. It ranks seventh in Asia, losing out by five points to Singapore, which ranks first.
The other Asian countries that finished ahead of Hong Kong are Malaysia, India, Pakistan, South Korea and Japan. The mainland ranks 36th, second-last in Asia.
Chiu said some Hongkongers might have shifted their focus from learning English to Putonghua, causing their drop in rank.
Dr Cheung Chi-kim, a teaching consultant with the education faculty at the University of Hong Kong, said the city still had an edge because English remained compulsory in the local curriculum. But he noted a growing use of Chinese in both government administration and the entertainment industry, which might be responsible for less exposure to English.
"Some parents spend HK$40,000 on English teaching material for their children," he said. "But actually, they could just take them to see a film, and they would learn well from it."