The standard of English in Hong Kong is steadily declining. Most people in other Asian cities, such as Singapore and Manila, speak fluent English. Even on the mainland, the level of English is nearly as high as in Hong Kong. Former secretary for security Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee said Hong Kong was facing a 'monumental challenge' in maintaining its grasp of the English language. Mrs Ip has just completed a master's degree at Stanford University in the US. She said her linguistics professor believed that no more than two per cent of Hong Kong's population was 'truly bilingual' ( in English and Cantonese). 'The English language proficiency of the average man ... is on the decline,' she said. Many older Chinese people are actually more comfortable expressing themselves in English than in Chinese. But examples of young people with this standard of English are 'few and far between'. Mrs Ip blamed a reduction in the number of native English teachers, the use of mother tongue education and the popularity of Cantonese entertainment and culture. Many people who are now middle-aged were taught by native English speakers. But these English teachers got older and after the handover, many of them left. 'Although the education authorities did try to retain native English teachers by introducing the Native English Teachers [NET] scheme, one per school is clearly inadequate,' said Mrs Ip. She said most schools now choose to use Cantonese as the medium of instruction. 'Students' exposure to the English language has been greatly reduced . . .' The development of Cantonese popular culture and entertainment has also reduced young people's exposure to English, Mrs Ip said. When Mrs Ip was growing up, children usually watched English television programmes from the US with Chinese subtitles. The 'pervasive Cantonese-speaking environment [makes] it hard for students learning English to immerse themselves in an English-speaking [situation] outside their classroom', she said. Mrs Ip said creative measures were needed to improve the standards of English teaching, such as rewarding successful English teachers, increasing the number of NETs and providing opportunities for students to be immersed in an English-language environment such as 'study abroad' programmes.