English, Cantonese, French, Putonghua: What 30 years at the Hong Kong Institute of Languages has taught about polyglotism in Hong Kong

French couple who set up school say interest in learning languages is actually on the rise

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 December, 2015, 3:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 December, 2015, 5:53pm

While concerns about the declining standard of English in Hong Kong might be on the rise, it's not all bad news. It appears Asia's self-styled "World City" is home to a growing population of aspiring polyglots.

According to the Hong Kong Institute of Languages - which marks its 30th anniversary on Tuesday - more people are signing up to learn a foreign language.

"In the past, the few people who spoke English spoke it better. Now more people speak English, and while the fluency level may be lower, is that good? Or is it bad? It's difficult to say," said Dominique Chasset, who with her husband set up the institute and still run it today.

Her husband, Christian Chasset, said most teenagers in the city could speak Cantonese, Putonghua and English, so the proficiency level for each language may vary.

The problem, Chasset said, lay partly in the fact that English - one of the two official languages - had been sidelined by the government. "Since the example comes from the top, it doesn't give much incentive for people to practice it," he said.

Dominique said schools play a crucial role. "The schools are too exam-oriented. They don't give the opportunity to really learn the language as a language, and to evolve and practice it."

The Hong Kong Institute of Languages, one of the oldest private centres in the city, currently teaches seven languages. But it was not always like that.

Founded by Dominique and Christian - who met as tourists in Hong Kong in 1983 and then became partners in life and business - the business started in a small room and only French lessons were on offer.

But that soon changed. "At one point, we had more than 700 students, who every week would take French classes with us, because at the time most of the ESF [English Schools Foundation] students were British, and French was taught in the primary school in the UK," Dominique recalled.

As the 1997 handover loomed, the Chassets realised they would have to adapt and add new languages. "We knew that those people wouldn't remain in Hong Kong ... so we introduced English and Mandarin. As Hong Kong was becoming Chinese, everyone wanted to learn Mandarin," she said.

After the handover, a surprising demand emerged. "It was very funny, because as soon as 1997 came, many expats wanted to learn Cantonese, so we introduced Cantonese."

In recent years, they said, the appetite for European languages had increased. Most students are learning French, followed by English. "Mandarin is still strong, but people also want Spanish and German," Christian said.