HOW CAN WE possibly fill the pages, Hong Kong’s hard-pressed news hounds ask themselves, as the summer rains pelt steadily down, nothing much of genuine interest seems to be happening around town, and even the excitement of a typhoon on the horizon is frustratingly absent. Ah – that’s it. Bingo! How could we have forgotten? It’s time – once again – to revive the annual moan about Hong Kong’s collapsing English-language standards.
Always good for a few pages of tidily manufactured controversy, this reiterated jeremiad will, in turn, generate a week’s worth of heated letters-page accusations and equally terse rebuttals. Typing fingers get to work with a will, the copy pot starts simmering and, before long, commentaries are rolling off the presses.
These lamentations usually come towards the end of summer, when Hong Kong’s various councils have recessed for a prolonged holiday, and legislators and government administrators have decamped to Canada, Australia, the United States or Europe for a few weeks respite from Hong Kong’s chronic political dysfunction.
Like the famed swallows of California’s San Juan Capistrano, which miraculously depart and swarm back whence they came year after year, hot-weather dirges about declining English standards have been a well-worn subject in Hong Kong’s English-language media for decades. Not surprisingly, the Chinese-language press doesn’t give the topic nearly as much attention.
A few reliable talking heads – mostly plummy-voiced, long since retired, female government administrators – get themselves quoted at fluently stentorian length, dolorously lamenting the grievous slippage of linguistic standards since they left St Scratchitt’s Girl’s College back in the 1950s, in the days when a cheongsam was still a required item in any well raised Hong Kong Chinese lady’s wardrobe.
The most reliable moaners from this constituency are those who previously attended (and presumably benefited from) elite local schools, but who – tellingly – chose to send their own children nowhere near those institutions. For sheer cant and hypocrisy, the mere fact that these superannuated trouts dare open their mouths should arouse heated public comment. But somehow, it never does.
None of this mattered back in the ’50s and ’60s, when most Hong Kong school leavers (those fortunate enough to have attended school at all) were absorbed into factory jobs and other manual occupations. Being able to hold a conversation in a foreign language to which they had little exposure made no difference to an individual’s employability.
But as Hong Kong evolved towards a services-based economy, and industry relocated to China, the local English-language situation assumed some importance. By the ’90s, more comprehensive English-language skills had become vital for the local economy. Rote-learning education has generated a supply of white-collar workers for shops and offices who can string a more or less coherent English sentence together, but not much else.
What few in authority wish to admit openly is that at the higher levels of Hong Kong’s local education system, the collapse in English-language standards is already three-decades-old news.
Sixty years ago, Hong Kong’s top secondary schools and only university (the University of Hong Kong) offered a high-quality education that was well regarded both locally and overseas. Now – right to the top – Hong Kong’s educational institutions are nothing special when benchmarked against the better overseas schools. And everyone knows it, however much political and institutional expediency makes certain interested parties loudly proclaim to the contrary.