ARE HONG KONG STUDENTS' English standards slipping? The answer is yes - and no. If participants' outstanding performances in the Talk To Win English-speaking competition are anything to go by - local students can speak and use good English. Organised by the South China Morning Post, Radio Television Hong Kong and the British Council, the event aimed to promote communication skills and critical thinking through discussions of a series of pop classics. The difficult decision of selecting the winners fell on three prominent Hong Kong personalities - former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang, Post Editor Thomas Abraham and British Council director Desmond Lauder. 'My fellow adjudicators and I have been impressed by the very high standard of English [of the participants],' said Mrs Chan. Dubbed by Time magazine as Hong Kong's Iron Lady, Mrs Chan, however, admitted: 'My observation would be that the standard of English in Hong Kong, over the past 20 years, has, on the whole, deteriorated.' She attributed the cause of the problem to a lack of opportunities to use English. Emphasising the importance of practice, she said: 'You really have to persevere and seek opportunities to speak the language.' She added that the biggest mistakes in learning English were reluctance to speak up because of shyness and the perception that speaking English was not patriotic. 'That is a whole lot of rubbish,' she said in response to the latter. Mrs Chan said proficiency in Chinese and English could broaden one's career choice and skills in both languages were equally important. 'I think that you have to regard learning English as something to be enjoyed,' said Mrs Chan. 'It helps if you have a thick skin. By that I mean you should not be afraid of making mistakes. We make mistakes and learn from them.' Mr Abraham gave another tip on learning English - besides the skills to master a language, organising one's thoughts was also important. 'Fluency and ideas go together. What you said will be meaningless if you lack either one.' While songs can soothe and help listeners improve their language skills, Mr Lauder particularly recommended folk songs. 'The lyrics of rap songs, for example, are not really meaningful in comparison to folk songs which encourage people to think.' Do you think the above suggestions for learning English are interesting? Ho Chuen-hei of Wah Yan College (Hong Kong) - which emerged first runner-up - supported the idea of learning English through songs. Apart from reading English newspapers, he said creative activities such as reviewing songs, films and books were important, too. The grand final of Talk To Win culminated with St Francis' Canossian College and Wah Yan College (Hong Kong) debating whether Simon and Garfunkel's hit The Sound Of Silence was about individuals or should be assessed by its historical context. Extracts of the discussion will be published in the final piece of the Talk To Win column on Sunday Young Post this week. Cynthia Yeung, Carmen Chan Ying-chi, Carmen Wong Hoi-man, Victor Lee Siu-hing and Leung Sin-yee are Young Post student reporters.