Much ado about nothing?

Hong Kong should stop ‘gnashing its teeth’ over a mythical decline of English standards in the region, argues Richard McGeough

I do speak English, you know!’ That was the defensive reply I received from a Hong Kong taxi driver one night a few years ago when attempting to give directions in my faltering Cantonese. Hong Kong must surely be the only place on Earth where attempts to communicate in the local language are positively discouraged. I wouldn’t expect the same reply in Paris.

As you will have read elsewhere by now, it’s twenty years since Hong Kong left the British Empire and became a Special Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China. English remains an official language, yet a widely held view among residents of Asia’s self-proclaimed ‘world city’ is that English standards have been declining since the 1990s. Hong Kong is apparently losing its competitive edge to Singapore, South Korea and mainland Chinese cities as the go-to place to do business in an English-speaking environment in East Asia. And there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

The local press typically goes to town every November when the results of EF Education’s annual survey of international English standards is published. Yes, Hong Kong has slipped a few places down the rankings (it was thirtieth out of seventy counties surveyed in 2016, compared to twelfth in 2011 – apparently behind Japan). ‘Arrest the undeniable decline in English standards in Hong Kong,’ cried a leader in the South China Morning Post. The US Chamber of Commerce was quick to agree that there’s a problem.

But let’s back up for a moment. Is there really convincing evidence for this supposed decline? The brouhaha about the EF Survey is played down by EF Education itself every year – quick to concede that a self-selected online test is not necessarily representative of the population as a whole. The local exams authority points to an upward trend in English results in public exams over the past five years. All university education in Hong Kong remains English medium, and there has been a huge expansion since the early 2000s in the number of young people receiving a university education. The most recent census figures suggest that the proportion of English speakers has risen slightly since the early 2000s – 46 per cent now report that they can speak English.

“Ask for directions on any street in Hong Kong, you’re more likely to get a comprehensible answer than you would in Japan or South Korea ”

Ask for directions on any street in Hong Kong from anyone middle aged or younger and you’re much more likely to get a comprehensible answer than if you tried the same thing in Japan, South Korea or Taiwan.

This is where I believe the soul-searching is misplaced. Hong Kong typically sets its sights unrealistically high on native proficiency.

Hong Kong made the transition from a manufacturing-based economy to a service-based economy a generation or two ago. Service jobs are more likely to require some English – just not necessarily fluent English. To the casual observer, the travel agent who arranges your visa for a business trip to the Chinese mainland in halting English may seem a deficient English user. But she communicates clearly enough and there are no misunderstandings. I would call that more than adequate, and I’m thankful that she doesn’t for a moment expect us to conduct the entire transaction in Cantonese.

This is not to say that there aren’t problems and challenges. Teaching standards could be improved. I’ve seen first hand in schools the sort of language teaching that alienates learners and undermines confidence by focusing too heavily on errors. At the other end of the scale, official written communication in English is too often in a near-impenetrable formal style. The plain English movement has done much to dispel this problem in core English-speaking countries yet it remains in Hong Kong as an increasingly curious relic of the colonial era. Those with the highest proficiency are not always the most effective communicators.

English undoubtedly remains hugely important in Hong Kong but the question of how much is enough will persist. I take a market-led view: Hong Kong has just the level of English that it needs. If it needed more, employers would pay more to secure it. As it is, Hong Kong remains one of the easiest places in Asia to communicate in English – as that taxi driver I encountered would doubtless point out.