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  • Dec 25, 2014
  • Updated: 10:35am
NewsHong Kong

Hong Kong's English language skills branded 'pathetic' as Chinese has 'negative influence'

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 November, 2013, 11:29pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 November, 2013, 12:44pm


  • Sliding quality of its English education : 58%
  • Rising popularity of Putonghua : 6%
  • Bigger influence of the mainland: 29%
  • Other (please comment): 7%
6 Nov 2013
  • Sliding quality of its English education
  • Rising popularity of Putonghua
  • Bigger influence of the mainland
  • Other (please comment)
Total number of votes recorded: 986

The English-language skills of Hong Kong's adult population have slumped to the level of South Korea, Indonesia and Japan, according to new rankings of 60 countries and territories.

Despite rising in the global rankings for English proficiency, over the past six years, the city's actual score has dropped and it now sits fourth in Asia.

Experts put the blame partly on the switch from teaching mainly in English to mainly in Chinese since the handover. They said English skills must be improved if job-seekers were to remain competitive with mainlanders, whose English skills were improving.

Anita Poon Yuk-kang, associate professor in Baptist University's department of education studies, said mother-tongue teaching had had a "very negative influence" on the efficiency of English learning. She said having two standard written languages - English and Chinese - and three standard spoken languages - Putonghua, Cantonese and English - had further lowered the importance of English.

Business consultant Joseph Luc Ngai said the performance of Hong Kong job applicants was "very pathetic", with weaknesses in both English and Putonghua.

"Language ability has become a basic requirement [in job seeking]," Ngai, director of McKinsey and Company's Hong Kong practice, said. "There is no option but to improve Chinese and English at the same time. Too many people are fluent in both."

While mainland China ranked 34th, just above Thailand, the study by language learning company EF Education First showed its English skills have been improving.

The annual rankings cover countries and territories in Europe, Asia, North Africa and Latin America where English is not the native language.

Although Hong Kong ranked 22nd among all countries and territories - three places up from last year - its score, at 53.5, has fallen a full point since the first survey in 2011. South Korea, Indonesia and Japan were ranked, respectively, 24th, 25th and 26th. Malaysia, ranked 11th overall, came first in Asia.

Watch: US accent booms in Hong Kong language schools

The rankings are based on tests taken last year by 750,000 people aged 18 and over.

The company also analysed the trends of English proficiency in these countries and territories over the past six years, based on test data from almost five million adults. The minimum sample size in each country or territory was 400 and the tests covered English vocabulary, reading, listening and writing.

Poon said that with the influence of mainland tourists and more frequent business exchanges between Hong Kong and the mainland, more parents, job seekers and employees had focused on learning Putonghua.

Ngai said if Hongkongers wanted a language advantage over mainlanders, they needed good English, as their Putonghua would, at best, put them on a par with mainland graduates.

He said many potential employees he interviewed were poor at writing e-mails in English, with many grammatical and spelling errors, while others, although fluent in English, were "very mediocre" in Putonghua.

Smaller European countries proved to be the most proficient in English, occupying the first seven places and led by Sweden. The analysis showed that they believed better English could help them improve their international competitiveness.

France was ranked one lower than mainland China on the list, making it the worst English-learning country in Europe.

Examples of the English language proficiency tests


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This article is now closed to comments

On a daily basis , Hong kong people don t like to talk with foreigners , they are shy or afraid of foreign people in general .
They like to stay together in group in their confort zone and are egocentric self centered people.
Most people only read Chinese newspapers and watch Local Cantonese Tv, and never or very rarely watch international media tv .
Their english will never improve with this kind of attitude.
In Mainland China, actually English is improving a lot and people are more open to foreigners then in Hk. This is my real life observation . i have been in hk since 13 years.
Don't make this an issue of politics or refer to Colonialism. Its simply a question of 'What language do I need to get a job'' If Hong Kong is to continue as an International city then English will continue to be a requirement. If on the other hand you see your future as a provincial city in China, serving Chinese tourists, then please learn Putonghua.....and yes, I know the previous sentence reflects a certain bias!
Some HKG people have a wrong idea of the term "Native English Teachers" Unfortunately some educational institutions/Kindergartens and even business institutions in HKG hire Educators who have no formal qualification in teaching English. They are hired because of their color or association with a Country perceived to have a high level of English. A qualified Educator does not have to look Native to be a good English Educator. Many of the worlds best Professors, Educators, Scientists and Doctors (teaching in USA/UK included) are Indians. They don't look Native but they are the best at what they do. One of the worlds top university is in India. Drop the term "Native English Speaking Teachers/Educators" and look for qualified and deserving educators, rather than for appearance ! HKG people are very hard working and not lazy (as commented before) when compared to many countries. It is not fair to the image of Hong Kong to be termed "pathetic" just because they don't speak a 2nd language well. I can say from experience, HKG people put far greater effort in learning English than the effort we expats put in learning Cantonese or Mandarin.
With English you can work with global corporations from across the world.
With Mandarin you can only work in Mainland China.
The fact is, English is the lingua franca of this era. Despite China's growth, it is highly unlikely Chinese will be adopted by other countries anytime soon.
1. Local schools are divided into quality levels, Band 1, Band 2, Band 3 means that Hong Kong has deliberately decided that some children are not deserving of a quality education, in any language.
2. The best time to introduce second language learning is at a young age. The highest qualified and paid teachers need to be in kindergarten and not at the higher levels. This is where the problems begin as the children learn so very well the poor quality English that remains with them the rest of their lives.
3. Speaking Chinese using English words is not the same thing as learning English but this is exactly what the children are learning to do at a very young age. Recognizing and stopping this practice must be an on-going focus when teaching English.
The switch from English to Chinese medium schooling should rightly be seen as one of the worst post-handover decisions in Hong Kong.
Since the handover English language education in HK has been blighted by the ineptitude of "patriotic" and politically correct appointed officials and bureaucrats in Education Bureau, mainly because they chose to see English as the language of the former colonial power.
English is a language, not a nationality. It is the world's business lingua franca. Get over it.
Most Singapore taxi drivers speak better or fluent English than hk university graduates, I wonder why we call ourself as Asia World City...actually more chinese in mainland speaks better English as many of them studied and worked overseas than hk students studying and working aboard. Hk edge is getting lower and lower. Most MNC are hiring mainland chinese in China now vs 10 yrs ago as their English improve a lot.
When reading about band 1, 2, 3 in HK schools I cannot help to think about the caste system as written in the novel Brave New World. Alpha, betas (band 1) and then delta, epsilon, gammas (bands 2 & 3). Simply put, being put into band 2 & 3 means you're a slower learning (politely speaking) and your chances of getting into university is pretty much shot.
I was a pretty dumb kid in Canada, couldn't really score high in grade school. But in the last year before university I really pushed hard and got really good results, and accepted into a prestigious and well-known university. My story could not have happened in HK as I would have been put into a Band 3 school, declared invalid and banished into obscurity. Probably would be cleaning toilets for a living instead of running my own business, paying taxes, contributing to society in my own way.
Serious re-thinking needs to happen in HK's education system.
Thats because in order for a foreigner to learn to speak, read, and write, including use a Chinese word processor, it takes a decade. It is for that reason, it's not a practical language to learn and will never be widely used outside of China. English has become the global standard of communication. This is why even Italian Bankers use English when dealing with the Russians. The Chinese know it and every factory has at least one English speaker that deals with foreign clients.
Anyway, how important will Mandarin be when China implodes. The jury is definitely still out on that one.



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