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English in Hong Kong may be getting better, so forget the nitpicking

Paul Stapleton says there may be signs of an actual improvement in how the locals are speaking English, and that most of the complaints are coming from native speakers who can’t be bothered to learn any Cantonese

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 March, 2018, 12:11pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 March, 2018, 7:02pm

Almost like clockwork, the quality of spoken English among locals raises its head periodically in the media, as it has for the last generation or more, and as it did in these pages recently. Invariably, whenever this topic is brought up in Hong Kong, it is to lament declining standards, which apparently were much higher in the good old days. Most often, front and centre in this collective moan are native speakers of English who seem to be able to instantly cherry-pick a recent instance of miscommunication by locals speaking English.

Perhaps it was when a local waiter got the native speakers’ order wrong in a restaurant, or maybe when the waiter responded with, “it doesn’t matter”, after spilling soup on them. Little language faux pas like these stand out in the native speakers’ collective consciousness, and are quickly used as evidence to affirm that the English language ability of local Cantonese speakers is in precipitous decline.

Anyone who has lived here long enough will have heard the same lament numerous times. But if, in fact, this continuous decline were really true, at this stage virtually none of the local population would be able to mutter more than a few words of English.

What is curious is that native English speakers are usually the ones to promote this narrative of decline. You know the type. They feel enormously proud when they manage to utter jo sun (good morning) when entering their workplace in the morning. However, putting together even a three-word sentence in Cantonese is far beyond them.

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Somehow, they have forgotten that although Hong Kong has two official languages – Chinese and English – for all intents and purposes, we live in a Chinese city. And just like in the English native speakers’ hometown abroad, shouldn’t the maxim be: if you don’t speak the native tongue, you’d better learn it quickly? But somehow, that rule doesn’t seem to apply to them in Hong Kong. And moreover, they feel privileged to such a degree that they can criticise the locals’ struggles with English.

For all intents and purposes, we live in a Chinese city

In fact, Cantonese is not a particularly difficult language to learn to speak (writing is another story). The grammar is relatively simple, which is why Cantonese speakers often make tense and word endings errors when speaking English. Unlike English, there’s no nasty irregular past participles to memorise in Cantonese. Singulars and plurals? Meh. Cantonese doesn’t even bother to distinguish between “he” and “she”.

True, Cantonese tones are a nuisance, but by adding an extended “aaah”, or “laa” to the end of any sentence, you can sound almost like a native speaker. OK, that’s an exaggeration, but with a little effort, my meagre two tones (out of the official six) usually manage to do the trick for me in most simple conversations I have had.

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On the flip side is the learning of English. Besides all of the vexing inflections in its grammar, English also has its own set of challenging pronunciations. For example, the pesky interdental fricative, or the “th” sound in the word “three”, poses problems for many learners of English. So it’s not as if English is particularly easy for local Cantonese speakers to pronounce.

On the issue of declining English standards in Hong Kong, it is actually enormously difficult to measure whether this decline is real or not. There are no standardised tests that any local population is required to take. And ranking lists, such as the EF English Proficiency Index, are unreliable because they are based on self-selected test takers. Thus, we are left with those unreliable anecdotes from native English speakers.

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However, as the head of the Department of English Language Education at Education University, Hong Kong’s main provider of teacher training, I may be in a position to provide some evidence that is better than anecdotal. Year after year, we notice that a greater proportion of our students, pre-service English teachers, are steadily getting higher scores on the IELTS, a widely recognised international English test. Not only that, but we are also raising our entrance standards for applicants submitting their English scores on the school-leaving Diploma of Secondary Education exams because scores are rising.

And while these are just two small measures related to our future English teachers, they are surely significant. In fact, I would contend that they are a bellwether for standards in Hong Kong as a whole among the younger generation.

So the next time you hear the familiar grumbling about our declining English standards, instead of joining the narrative, cherry-pick an instance in your memory when you were pleasantly surprised by a local’s level of English. You should be able to think of at least a few.

Paul Stapleton is head of the Department of English Language Education at the Education University of Hong Kong