Jake's View

Opinion: Hong Kong has as much English fluency as needed

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 May, 2017, 6:28pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 May, 2017, 11:39pm

Nearly half of first-time parents in Hong Kong whose mother tongue is Cantonese spend 15 minutes or less a day speaking English to their children, a study has found. An expert in early childhood education warned that 15 minutes was not enough for children to grasp a language, and recommended three hours as ideal. -- South China Morning Post , May 17

Three hours? The authors of this study from academia need to be reminded that in the modern urban context, any child of talking age who can consistently enjoy three hours a day of close personal interaction with his or her parents is fortunate indeed.

Why ruin any of it then by conversing in a language with which both parties have only halting familiarity?

This is a time to acquaint children with all the subtlety and deep intricacy of their society. A parent who tries to do it in an unfamiliar language can only offer them bland homilies. What a waste.

But I understand the common motivation. English is the language of commerce. If you want your children to live in comfortable circumstances they must learn fluent English. Start them early then. That’s how the reasoning goes.

And I’m not entirely sure it’s true. Yes, there are advantages in learning English, but not necessarily in learning it to the extent of near native fluency.

The world has long had languages of commerce and mostly they served best in a primitive rather than a well developed state.

The obvious example is Lingua Franca, a combination of Italian, French, Greek, Spanish and Arabic formerly spoken by merchants in the Eastern Mediterranean.

It died out eventually. Others evolved and thrived. The obvious example here is English itself, a Saxon/Danish creole through which invaders and the invaded communicated in first millennium England.

It then acquired a French overlay and further evolved to become the language of Shakespeare.

But it was good enough for merchants of different languages to deal with each other for many hundreds of years before that.

The common language of commerce is money. Learn a few common nouns and verbs in another language, learn to count in it and you can buy and sell almost anything in that language.

Yes, that sort of pidgin language is crude. We laugh when we hear pidgin English. Yet pidgin English serves the people of New Guinea perfectly well in overcoming the difficulties of their 850 different languages.

I think the greater shortcoming is actually the polar opposite. You have to wonder sometimes why so many foreign companies active in Hong Kong fill their senior positions here with people of their own native language, or accent, when local natives can do the job better and at lower cost.

It’s a matter of trust, of course. People everywhere tend to place more trust in others of their own culture. But there is also a racist tinge to this and I have never been able to work out how inherent trustworthiness is necessarily proportional to common fluency.

My point is that if I am right, and it is not, then the simple dictates of survival in commerce will lead to a gradual reduction in the number of expatriates in high level jobs. In fact, I think that this trend is already discernible.

And if I am right that a passing acquaintance with English, rather than a high degree of fluency, is sufficient for commerce, then there is no need to subject children to daily three-hour harangues in English. Then Shanghai is putting too much effort into learning English rather than Hong Kong too little.

But there is always a simple commercial test of this proposition. Is a high degree of fluency in English so valuable that employers are willing to compensate their employees for the full cost and effort of acquiring it?

And the simple answer is that they are not. I think it’s clearly evident in the job market that they will pay for the degree of English fluency required in the jobs they offer, but no more.

For most jobs, it isn’t much. In other words, Hong Kong has as much fluency in English as it needs and need not devote more resources to it.

I wonder whether even 15 minutes a day at home isn’t too much.