It’s not just Carrie Lam: Hong Kong as a whole seems to have forgotten the importance of English

Philip Yeung says the chief executive snapping at a reporter after an English-language question was more than a faux pas – it shows that the prioritisation of English in this bilingual city has been steadily diminishing

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 July, 2018, 3:47pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 July, 2018, 8:57pm

Usually circumspect in speech, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor uncharacteristically put her foot in her mouth in a recent media session. Visibly annoyed, she refused to field a question from an English media reporter, calling it “a waste of time”, and claiming it had already been covered in Cantonese. Facing a firestorm of criticism from the English-speaking community, Lam, to her credit, apologised.

Was it a Freudian slip that reveals a deep-seated official attitude, or a momentary lapse? John Tsang Chun-wah, the former financial secretary, also famously brushed aside a question in English in 2008 but did it with a smile. That was bad enough. Lam, our top leader, did it with a snarl. Senior officials now prefer to speak from the safety of their personal blogs, usually in Chinese, avoiding the messiness of a media Q&A. This is localism’s new official face.

When it suits them, our leaders like to traffic in our bilingual character. But they forget that being bilingual is not something you brag about; it is something you practise. Bilingualism is an untidy package that comes with its own inconveniences.

If Lam thinks speaking in two languages is an annoyance, she should put herself in the shoes of federal Canadian leaders for whom bilingual communication is mandatory, with their messages repeated word for word in both English and French.

In Canada, Lam’s refusal to speak bilingually would be political suicide. But not all bilingualism is created equal. In our house of linguistic union, English is increasingly being treated as a concubine whose status is less than secure.

There’s no disputing Cantonese is the mother tongue of Hong Kong

Inevitably, after the British left, English has visibly lost much of its lustre. Suddenly, grammar mistakes crop up everywhere, even in public toilets. We now have police who can’t cope with English-speaking tourists in distress. Members of the Civil Aid Service openly refuse to speak English.

The Legislative Council is but a Cantonese echo chamber. We don’t even have a token David Li Kwok-po to remind us that English still matters in Legco. And, not long ago, I received an invitation from the Central Policy Unit, the government think tank, written only in Chinese. Officialdom is inhospitable towards English.

Twenty years after the handover, Hong Kong is still struggling with its political schizophrenia: while “one country” stipulates unity, “two systems” embraces diversity. Officials are getting jittery about singing Hong Kong’s uniqueness, as if it were a code for separateness.

Pragmatics, not politics, should prevail in debate over Chinese characters

By doing so, they are doing Hong Kong and China a disservice, for, if we dilute our bilingual tradition and abandon our global pivot, we would be less useful to the motherland. Think of the red-hot Belt and Road Initiative. How would you cultivate relationships with belt and road countries such as Malaysia or Pakistan except through English?

Contrary to popular perceptions, China celebrates its cultural diversity. If we sideline English, we discard our cultural identity, reducing us to just another mainland city, with a much smaller footprint.

Think also of the benefits of bilingualism. Mainland students are flocking here in droves, partly because our universities adopt English as the teaching language. Without fear of the epidemic of violence sweeping American society, they can immerse themselves in a bilingual environment without leaving China’s shores, and without incurring the costs of an overseas education. English sells.

Baptist University speaks the right language

Interestingly, after the colonists decamped, Hong Kong’s English-speaking population did not decline, with an influx of English-speaking domestic helpers from the Philippines demanded by our rising prosperity and a surge of asylum seekers from less stable English-speaking South Asia.

But their numbers do not make English more popular or prestigious, as it is no longer the language of the governing class. Rather, it is partly associated with the powerless and displaced.

Other factors contribute to the decline of English standards in this city. Demographically, Hong Kong is changing. Each day, the city takes in 150 mainlanders, mostly from the lower reaches of society who hardly speak a word of English. That is nearly 55,000 a year, or over 1.1 million since the handover.

If you venture beyond the tourist areas of Central or Tsim Sha Tsui, you are deep into the alternative universe of non-English speakers. In most districts, being bilingual is largely a myth.

Does it make sense for the government to promote us as a world city when it does nothing to promote the use of English among its residents? Either we are an international city, or we are not. English is a tool to connect with our diverse citizenry and the rest of the world.

Cantonese to stay on the tip of our tongues

Meanwhile, China is embracing the world even as we de-Anglicise ourselves. Its appetite for English is insatiable, with learners in the hundreds of millions. The best English-speaking students, including emcees on our campuses, are now mostly mainlanders.

Watch: Learn some Kongish, a new language mixing English and Cantonese

Even China’s first lady took a leap in language to make a maiden speech in English before a UN body. By contrast, our first female chief executive, a fluent English speaker, seems to be heading in the opposite direction.

English might have once been the language of conquest and colonialism. But it is the currency of international commerce. Lam’s apology, while welcome, is not enough.

What is called for is a change of attitude: English is not just for official window dressing but part of our identity, and speaking English is not politically uncool or redundant, and further, doing so is not a sign of disloyalty to the motherland.

Why Hong Kong's worsening English standards are nothing new

English is also not just how we gift-wrap ourselves as Asia’s world city, it is who we are as an international city. Speaking English or Chinese should not be a zero-sum game. Hong Kong has never been a typical Chinese city and should never try to be.

Philip Yeung is a ghostwriter to university presidents and business leaders. [email protected]