Students may be getting worse at speaking English because they are not encouraged to use the language in school or university classes. In a survey of language experience and proficiency, first-year university students said the most frequent activity they remembered from their Form 6 and 7 classes was 'listening to teachers'. Students might even be given the impression that speaking would interrupt the class as they were rarely invited to speak or ask questions, the survey showed. The project, funded by the Research Grants Council, surveyed 2,156 students from Hong Kong University, Chinese University, City University and Baptist University, and 437 teachers from the first two institutions. Responses showed that the structure of the classes may have inhibited students from using English. Listening to teachers came top of the list of most frequent activities in the last two years of secondary school, followed by writing essays, listening comprehension and reading comprehension. Group discussion only came fifth. Responses from teachers revealed that five per cent of lectures and 15 per cent of tutorials were not conducted in English at all. Students therefore lacked confidence in using English, particularly in unplanned situations. Their own average assessment for spontaneous speaking was 3.7 on a six-point scale - with four being equated to 'able, with some difficulty'. University of Hong Kong's English Centre director William Littlewood said students should be encouraged to express their ideas using the language. 'Students should be given the idea that their speaking up is a valuable contribution to the discussion instead of an interruption,' he said. The survey recommended more systematic discussion at university level about the role of language in learning.