Pronunciation errors: do they point to a decline in Hong Kong’s English standards?

A recent survey found that one in two Hongkongers mispronounced all 10 common words they should have known, raising questions about whether English standards are declining

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 April, 2016, 5:22pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 April, 2016, 10:59am

Concerns over perceived falling English standards are not new in the city, but when a recent survey revealed that one in two Hongkongers mispronounced 10 out of 10 commonly used words, it set alarm bells ringing again.

The survey, conducted by market research company MPEG, quizzed 300 working adults aged above 18 who had an educational level of at least Secondary 5 on the pronunciation of words such as “triangle” and “southern”, with standard British, American and Canadian pronunciations accepted.

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Prime English Learning Centre, which commissioned the poll, said these words were considered to be examples that would exist in the vocabulary of secondary, or even primary students.

Although academics have questioned the validity of the survey given its small sample size and possible limitations on the testing procedures, the findings have reignited the debate over what role English plays in the city.

While there are no widely accepted studies comparing English pronunciation standards over the years available in Hong Kong, educators the Post spoke to are mostly of the view that pronunciation standards have dropped.

These educators view pronunciations of two key English varieties as accepted standards - Received Pronunciation and Standard American English.

Received Pronunciation is the so-called standard form of British English pronunciation, based on educated speech in southern England, which is widely accepted as a standard around the world. Standard American English is the mainstream accent of American English.

A teacher who has worked for nine years in a public school that uses English as a medium of instruction said she observed that while students are more ready to speak in English now, pronunciation standards have dropped.

“Students are less aware of accurate pronunciation and this could be due to them focusing on using the language for communication rather than achieving precise pronunciation,” she said.

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Alan Chan, an instructor at popular tuition centre King’s Glory Education who is also commonly known as the “heavenly king of English”, agreed that the overall standard of English pronunciation had dropped.

“It could be caused by the language being deemed less important now compared with the time when Hong Kong was a British colony, and how people are now less Westernised in their popular culture preferences, with more people interested in Korean popular culture for example,” he said.

Both also noted growing polarisation, with a disparity between those who spoke English like traditional native speakers – such as Britons and Americans – and the rest, whose pronunciation was worsening.

The two educators attributed the former group’s pronunciation to them receiving training and drilling from native speakers since they were young.

But Andrew Sewell, an assistant professor in Lingnan University’s department of English, said there had not been “convincing evidence “ of falling standards of English pronunciation, noting in fact a modest increase in pronunciation standards for last year’s Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education exam and the IELTS language test.

The Education Bureau also said that there had been no concrete evidence or widely recognised research showing falling standards of English pronunciation, adding public assessment data at different key stages had shown over the years that students’ overall speaking performance remained steady.

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While the opposing view is likely to continue to be heard in the foreseeable future, there have been calls instead to consider whether it still made sense to look to the traditional native English varieties as the benchmark for good pronunciation.

A recent survey by the University of Hong Kong’s Social Sciences Research Centre pointed out that “the demand from many industry sectors is not for a ‘native-like’ proficiency in English, but for ‘effective communication’.”

The Education Bureau told the Post that with English being an international means of communication and Hong Kong a world city, students should be exposed to a variety of accents so they could communicate across cultures.

“Schools are advised to make the most of the authentic learning resources available on the internet or in the community to raise students’ awareness of the varieties of English,” the bureau said.

As a linguist, I have [observed] that many critics of so-called Hong Kong English speak with Hong Kong English accents themselves
Academic Andrew Sewell

It also pointed to a study in the UK, which concluded that there was no longer a “superior” variety of English. It said it was “important that we recognise the roles and functions that different varieties of English fulfil in different social and cultural contexts”.

Sewell said the reality was that unless Hong Kong people were not born in, or not living in the city, they would speak with a local accent.

“As a linguist, I have [observed] that many critics of so-called Hong Kong English speak with Hong Kong English accents themselves,” he said.

Sewell also pointed out that one of the many reasons behind the portrayal of falling standards is the desire of commercial language teaching organisations to make a profit out of people’s linguistic insecurity.

By constantly calling out “errors” in people’s English, commercial language teaching organisations ensured they had an inexhaustible supply of free raw materials, he noted.

But Chan believed it was still important to follow standard varieties of English.

He pointed to Hongkongers themselves mocking mainlanders for their different way of pronouncing certain words, and with Hong Kong being an international city, it would help if people spoke English closer to standard varieties.

While Sewell believed that it was inevitable for Hongkongers to speak with a local accent, he warned against taking a stereotypical or overgeneralised view of the local accent.

“There are many kinds of local accents. You can have a local accent and be highly intelligible, and you can have a local accent and not be understood, even by your fellow Hongkongers,” he said.

The former included stable patterns of word stress in Hong Kong, such as stressing the third syllable of “informative”, which Sewell said was derived from the stress pattern of “information” and was used by nearly all his students.

He believed that this pronunciation was “more logical” and often easier to understand than the pronunciation given by dictionaries, which places the stress on the second syllable of “informative”.

“In my view, we need to focus on the features that cause intelligibility problems,” he said.

Instead of adopting a limited focus on “English proficiency”, the linguist said the city should “see multilingualism and interculturality as being among Hong Kong’s key strengths”.

“As a world city, language use in Hong Kong is incredibly complex, fluid and creative. It often involves combining elements from different languages. In the education system, however, languages are kept separate from each other – easier to teach and test, but incredibly demotivating for many students. We need to find ways of making language learning closer to the actual needs of Hong Kong students and Hong Kong society,” he said.