Hong Kong's English language skills branded 'pathetic' as Chinese has 'negative influence'
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.
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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.
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- Sliding quality of its English education 58
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