Why are Hongkongers so afraid to speak English?

A look at the reasons the city keeps lagging behind other Chinese cities such as Beijing and Shanghai in English proficiency

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 March, 2018, 2:56pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 March, 2018, 1:37pm

I bet most of you would be taken aback if you were told to “shit down” and “eat your foot”.

I was horrified years ago when I heard a teacher utter those words to a primary school pupil, but in fact she meant to say, “sit down and eat your food”.

It is quite common for non-native English speakers in Hong Kong to mix up words like “sit” and “seat”, “food” and “foot”, and “chip” and “cheap”, especially since vowel sounds such as those found in “sit” and “seat” are perceived differently. However, this confusion is not a fault of the student but of the teacher who allows her charges to keep making such mistakes.

When I was travelling with my American friends in mainland China in the mid-1980s, we were constantly approached by local pupils who wanted to practise speaking English. They took whatever opportunity they could to engage us with whatever few English words they knew.

After each encounter, my friends would often comment on how wonderful it was to see students so eager to practise their English. In retrospect, they were very brave for having the guts to approach a stranger, let alone one who spoke a foreign language.

This culture of commitment certainly has paid off. Today, many mainland Chinese students speak relatively fluent English. And even for those who don’t, they rarely shy away from an opportunity to practise their linguistic skills.

English skills are essential for Hong Kong to remain a ‘world city’

In Hong Kong, however, it’s quite a different picture. I often see locals speaking in Cantonese to people who are obviously not Cantonese speakers. And even for those who try to speak in English, they seem to lack the confidence to make mistakes and revert to speaking Cantonese. This is rather surprising, considering that both English and Chinese are the official languages here.

Hong Kong prides itself as “Asia’s World City” and being an international finance centre. But when it comes to the language of business and diplomacy, it’s below par and not measuring up to its international reputation. English proficiency is not a measure of linguistic supremacy but rather a reflection of a city’s willingness to communicate in an increasingly interconnected world.

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According to the EF English Proficiency Index 2017, which surveyed 80 countries and territories, Hong Kong ranked 29th with a score of 55.81. Meanwhile, Singapore came first in Asia with a score of 66.03, placing it fifth worldwide. Even Shanghai finished ahead of Hong Kong, checking in at 56.76.

The index revealed that of the 80 countries and cities surveyed, Singapore was among a small handful of countries that showed significant improvements in English proficiency while most places’ scores were static.

Sadly, it’s not the first time Hong Kong has been outpaced by its sister cities. In 2014, Hong Kong scored 52.50 as compared with Shanghai’s 53.75 and Beijing’s 52.86.

Sometimes, it’s not just down to a teacher’s linguistic inadequacy; students also have themselves to blame.

Learning a second language is not just about endless studying. You need to have the bravery to immerse yourself in a new and alien culture. You also need to have a thick skin, as making mistakes is inevitable. Some of us forget that even when we were learning our first language, we made mistakes, but these moments helped us become fluent speakers.

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Unfortunately, many Hong Kong students don’t seem to have a high tolerance for embarrassment nor a great deal of cultural curiosity. Their interest in cultures other than their own are often limited to pop culture, which includes fashion, music, celebrities, lifestyle and so on.

A government-funded Native-speaking English Teacher (NET) Scheme for public-sector primary and secondary schools has been in place for nearly 20 years and was established in the hopes of encouraging English teaching and increasing exposure to daily English-speaking.

Yet it seems the NET Scheme has fallen short of its targets. Why? Is there some systematic failure in our education system? Given Hong Kong’s long-standing tradition of rote learning, its pupils are constantly subjected to repetitive drills and consequently deprived of the opportunity to go out into the world to apply their language skills in a practical manner.

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Rote learning doesn’t build self-esteem, which is the accelerator that drives motivation. Confidence and motivation are two simple, core ingredients needed for supporting language learning, or any kind of meaningful learning.

This shocking language inadequacy is strongly indicative of the fundamental fact that many of our young people lack self-confidence. Only when we develop a generation of positive, confident young people can we confidently build a positive future for Hong Kong.

Luisa Tam is a senior editor at the Post