Hong Kong’s sad state of English: How our readers see it

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 May, 2015, 6:30am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 February, 2016, 11:41am

My column last Friday on Hong Kong’s appalling English standards sparked quite a debate on our website and on social media, reflecting how strongly people in this city feel about the issue. Having shunned Facebook and Twitter all these years, I found myself receiving an education on the significance of the thousands of “likes” the article received.

So this week, instead of going on my usual rant, I’m doing something different and highlighting some of the feedback we received. I admit this is a dangerous game, considering some of the haters and trolls on the prowl in cyberspace, but most of it was genuinely constructive or thoughtful commentary, and I found a wealth of information in the emails and messages we received. I think they reflect our society’s attitude to the problem, analyse the causes and even offer solutions worth noting.

“Yingnam Fong” has an interesting take on a “sort of class system” in the past dominated by English-speaking expatriates and local elite which is now outdated after Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty: “Hong Kong is not Singapore. The Hongkongers can live the same life without the need to learn or speak the language.”

Then he gets into an argument with someone over why the word “expatriate” is selectively used to describe Westerners and well-heeled immigrants, and the original topic is forgotten.

Reader “lui.thw” turns the tables on us whingeing expatriates: “When I was in Britain I was told that I had to respect the local language and speak English. I am just curious to (sic) why when they go to a foreign country they don’t need to respect and speak the local language?”

“Laugh at HK if you wish. We laugh back at the expatriate population who live and work here for decades and still can’t master Cantonese or written Chinese,” fires back “mercedes2233”. Guilty as charged – I really have no excuse. But that’s a topic for another column.

“Mongkok_Wong” pulls no punches: “Learn to live the change, you English colonialists still claiming the benefits here.” My riposte is to quote “coffee_bean” who gets the point I was trying to make: “Please, Hong Kong, stop pretending you are a World City, and admit you are ‘just another city in China’. I’m fine with that too.”

Reader “wkyken” agrees that Hong Kong is no world city: “There really is no reason Hong Kong can’t speak English just as well as Singaporeans do. It requires leadership to take a different attitude.”

And speaking of leadership, an old civil servant friend of mine who’s now a senior journalist at a local newspaper sent me an email saying the government has some explaining to do for not using English as much as it’s supposed to: “In fact it just might have violated the Basic Law or Joint Declaration.” Or the Official Languages Ordinance, which stipulates that both English and Chinese should be used by the government as official languages with equal status.

Reader “chuchu59” cites the problem of young jobseekers with poor English-language skills: “As a person who is mainly involved in recruitment I dare say the standard of English of most university students has fallen down the gutter. When I tried to converse with them in English you could see them trembling.”

“Ramsay” takes aim at the education system: “We need to raise the bar in the HKDSE English exam. As it is now, students can pass with bare minimum vocal interaction.”

Another reader criticising the education system is “macoverton”: “Given the HK government’s total lack of support to teaching Hong Kong’s future leaders in either English or Mandarin (all instruction in public schools is now basically in Cantonese), the future for Hong Kong is not bright.” You could blame it on the government’s mother-tongue teaching policy, which many educators see as counter-productive.

It’s because of the rush “to make themselves seem more Chinese, less Western, and hence more acceptable to mainland authorities”, says “mymak”: “English is viewed in Hong Kong by a great many students as just another subject that they have to pass an exam in. Few of them see it as an opportunity to improve their living standards.”

Reader “lbsaw” brings the criticism closer to home: “Yes, without a doubt, the standard of English in Hong Kong has deteriorated significantly. Even amongst the readers of SCMP who post their comments…” Lol. And ouch.

And finally, “asiaseen” hits where it hurts: “The SCMP is not exactly a paragon of virtue. Check the log-in panel, it says ‘Forget password’.”

Touché – pardon my French.