More effort needed to make Hong Kong truly trilingual

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 September, 2015, 2:03am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 September, 2015, 2:03am

Hong Kong likes to promote itself as a trilingual city, with Cantonese, English and Putonghua commonly spoken among the population. But those who have first-hand experience in communicating with locals may think otherwise. Although native English and Putonghua speakers generally can get by without difficulty, the truth is that there are considerable gaps in proficiency. Trilingualism remains a goal rather than a reality.

A University of Hong Kong study commissioned by the government's Central Policy Unit has shed light on the latest situation. Although more than 90 per cent of those aged under 30 speak English and Putonghua, up from 70 per cent in the 2011 census, only 27 per cent are considered able to speak English at least "quite well", compared to 68 per cent for Putonghua, according to the university's social science research unit. The rise owes a lot to Putonghua being made part of the school curriculum. Youngsters generally can communicate in the language. But the findings also give cause for concern. Although nine in 10 can be somehow considered trilingual, proficiency levels still leave much to be desired. Some 17 per cent of the respondents rated their spoken English as good to very good. But a language test showed that fewer than six per cent had actually attained those levels.

English is the world's business language. As an international business hub, Hong Kong can ill afford to see English standards slip. Putonghua, on the other hand, has also become more important, thanks to China's growing international stature and business opportunities. It is in the city's interests to continue brushing up on English and Putonghua.

Currently, there is no lack of measures to promote the use of English and Putonghua in schools and workplaces. But the study shows that there is no room for complacency.

The city's unique history and status mean we are well positioned to become a truly trilingual city. But it can only be achieved by making more efforts to close the gap.