HK faces challenge to retain English

Liz Gooch

The English proficiency of Hong Kong people not only lags behind Asian cities such as Singapore and Manila, but is in jeopardy of being overtaken by the mainland's leading cities, according to former security chief Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee.

Mrs Ip said Hong Kong faced a 'monumental challenge' in maintaining its grasp of the English language.

Mrs Ip, who returned from her master's studies at Stanford University in July, said one of her teachers, a linguistics professor, believed that the proportion of Hong Kong's population which was 'truly bilingual' was no more than 2 per cent.

'The English language proficiency of the average man in the street is on the decline,' she said in a speech at the Y's Men's Club of Hong Kong on Thursday.

'One hears complaints about the poor command of English of local graduates from multinationals and our own local employers.'

Mrs Ip said while Hong Kong did not lack older Chinese people who were more comfortable with English than Chinese, examples of young people were 'few and far between'.

Mrs Ip blamed several factors for declining English standards, including a reduction in the number of native English teachers, the implementation of mother tongue education and the emergence of a strong Cantonese popular culture.

She said while the baby boomers who attended Catholic or protestant schools were taught by native English speakers, ageing of teachers and decolonisation, as well as the Education and Manpower Bureau's policy requiring principals to retire at the age of 60, caused many of these teachers to leave Hong Kong.

Mrs Ip said since mother tongue education was implemented, most schools had used Cantonese as the medium of instruction.

'By reducing exposure to English to instruction in the English class only, students' exposure to the English language has been greatly reduced, with the result that many students are reluctant to use the language outside the classroom, out of shyness or unfamiliarity,' she said.

Mrs Ip said creative measures were needed to improve the standards of English language teaching, such as giving rewards to successful English teachers, increasing the number of NETs and providing opportunities for students to be immersed in an English-language environment such as overseas programmes.