Is Shanghai really doing better than Hong Kong at English?

  • Mainland city has scored higher on a global language proficiency index but experts say it ‘doesn’t describe the true picture’
  • Test looked at reading and listening abilities, not speaking and writing skills
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 November, 2018, 10:33pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 November, 2018, 10:17am

Shanghai may have outperformed Hong Kong in a global English proficiency ranking for a fifth straight year, but experts say that does not mean people there can communicate in the language any better than Hongkongers.

The mainland city scored 57.91 out of 100 on the annual index compiled by EF Education First – just higher than Hong Kong’s 56.38, Melissa Lam, general manager and chief representative of the company’s China office, said on Wednesday.

The international language training firm bases the index on its free online English test which adults take voluntarily to assess their listening and reading abilities. This year, 1.3 million people whose mother tongue is not English sat the test – 30 per cent more than last year. Their average age was 26.

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Sweden, the Netherlands and Singapore topped the ranking, with scores of 70.72, 70.31 and 68.63, respectively. And out of the 88 countries and regions where people sat the test, mainland China was 47th for English-language proficiency with a score of 51.94 – putting it in the category of low proficiency overall.

Shanghai has ranked higher than Hong Kong in the index since 2014. Lam said that was because of Shanghai’s growing middle class, who were increasingly sending their children abroad to study if they could afford it.

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“Ninety per cent of these students are self-funded and they are very motivated to go overseas. And most of them go to English-speaking countries,” she said. “There is a big investment in English-language training in Shanghai.”

Students in Shanghai also had the advantage of being able to focus on Mandarin and English, compared to the three languages spoken in Hong Kong – Cantonese, Mandarin and English. “I think that helps people in Shanghai to concentrate more on their English,” Lam said.

But language specialist Cai Jigang said the English proficiency index “does not describe the true picture” when comparing Shanghai and Hong Kong.

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“For example, I wonder who actually took this test [in the two cities]? How old were they?” said Cai, a professor at Fudan University’s College of Foreign Languages and Literature.

Cai said the test assessed grammar, vocabulary, reading and listening skills, which were generally the areas the education system focused on in China.

“There was no speaking and writing assessment in this test – and these are the two areas where Chinese schools fall down,” he said. “Many Chinese students can’t actually communicate well in English.”

Lu Jianfei, an English-language professor and cross-cultural researcher from Shanghai Normal University, said the latest ranking reflected Shanghai’s steady progress, and that it was gradually catching up with Hong Kong, a former British colony.

But he said there was still a big gap in language proficiency between the two cities.

“I’m sure most of the people sitting the test were young people, like university students who are good at English and have strong motivation to learn the language,” Lu said.

English was not used as much in Shanghai, where there are fewer foreigners living and working than there are in Hong Kong, he said.

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“Some people in Shanghai – including public servants, shop owners, restaurant workers, bus and taxi drivers – are very poor at speaking English, and they can’t communicate with foreigners at all,” Lu said. “Shanghai just can’t compete [with Hong Kong] in this area, so really it has no reason to be complacent about this.”

The test also found differences in English-language proficiency depending on where people lived in China. On a scale of five – ranging from “very low” to “low”, “moderate”, “high” and “very high” – proficiency in the southern and central parts of the mainland was deemed low, while in Beijing and in the Yangtze River Delta region, levels were moderate. Shanghai was rated very high.

Meanwhile, Shenzhen, Nanjing and Guangzhou saw big improvements in their scores from a year ago, according to Lam.