Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Why I Still Have a Job in HK

We are not surprised at reading today that the English-language skills of Hong Kong's adult population have slumped to the level of South Korea, Indonesia and Japan, according to the latest rankings of 60 countries and territories.

While English proficiency has increased in the city over the past six years, the actual score has dropped to fourth in Asia.

When I first came to Hong Kong to work in the mid 1990s, receptionists who answered phones spoke perfect English. Several years later I had to speak Cantonese to them in order to get through to the people I wanted to talk to.

And it's getting worse, mostly because of the education system changing abruptly. When English levels dropped, the government thought it would be better for students to learn in their native tongue. How do you teach English in Cantonese? Even the teachers had to rewrite all their lesson plans and figure out how to even present material in a different language.

And because of the handover, the need for students to learn Putonghua became a must, further adding to the complication of learning languages.

Anita Poon Yuk-kang, associate professor at Baptist University's department of education studies, said mother-tongue teaching had a "very negative influence" on the efficiency of English learning. This on top of having to learn Putonghua lowered the importance of English.

But what's frightening is what McKinsey and Company business consultant Joseph Luc Ngai says about local job applicants he sees. He says they are "very pathetic" in both English and Putonghua.

"Language ability has become a basic requirement [in job seeking]," Ngai said. "There is no option but to improve Chinese and English at the same time. Too many people are fluent in both."

China ranks 34th, above Thailand, while Hong Kong is 22nd, followed by South Korea (24th), Indonesia (25th) and Japan (26th). The rankings were done by language learning company EF Education First of countries and territories where English is not the native language.

The rankings are based on tests taken last year by 750,000 people aged 18 and over. They were tested on English vocabulary, reading, listening and writing.

With more mainlanders in Hong Kong, Poon said more locals focused on learning and speaking Putonghua. But Ngai said if Hong Kongers want to have a language advantage over mainlanders, their English needed to be good.

He explained many potential employees he interviewed were poor at writing emails in English with many grammatical and spelling errors, while others were fluent in English, but "very mediocre" in Putonghua.

It's a scary assessment of Hong Kong people's language abilities, but also proves why people like me still have a job in the city. Now if I could only muster up enough determination to learn more Putonghua...!


  1. Something I've noticed about many Hong Kongers is that they see English very much as a foreign language -- and colonial vestige even. In contrast, I think people in many other countries are increasingly seeing English as an international language -- and yes, there's a difference there.

    Also, local friends have told me how it's been drummed into them that they have to speak super grammatically correct English rather than English that can be understood. Consequently, they worry so much about grammatical rules and such that they find that their ability to plain communicate gets affected.

    1. Hi YTSL -- I think you're probably right on the second part. In China there were many who were afraid to speak English to me for fear of making a mistake.

      But for me speaking Cantonese here, I made and continue to make mistakes and try to learn from as many of them as I can remember! It all comes down to practice and a willingness to speak.

  2. Re speaking Cantonese: I think for me it's a question of practicality -- I speak Cantonese to people whose English don't seem as good as my Cantonese but speak English to people whose English is better than my Cantonese, if you see what I mean.

    Again though I think it also stems to my not thinking of English as this awful imperialist, etc. tongue. As in - if an English speaker came to Malaysia and tried to speak to me with horrible Bahasa Malaysia (as has happened) or Hokkien, I'd tell them to just communicate with me in English!

    On another note, I find myself now often in situations where I'm speaking English and the other party is speaking Cantonese and we're both okay with the conversation!

    1. I try my best to speak as much Cantonese to people as possible but then in professional situations I prefer English to make sure I get everything correct. When I hear new vocabulary or how things are phrased I try to use it next time to expand my language ability. My accent is still not quite right, but feel that in Hong Kong I should speak the language!

    2. Hi once more The Fragrant Harbour --

      I see where you're coming from but for my part, I rather prioritize communication over linguistic pride. The thing with English in Hong Kong is that: a) it IS one of the official languages of Hong Kong; and b) if Hong Kong really aspires to be a "World City", then its people should be more accepting of the English language than it currently is -- otherwise, among other things, it really will be giving international companies, etc. one more reason to relocate to Singapore or elsewhere.

    3. Yeah I agree with you, but when it comes to making people feel comfortable, speaking Cantonese has helped me get "in" with people much faster than with English...

    4. Hi again --

      I think speaking Cantonese can be a nice icebreaker. For me, my tools are talking about Hong Kong movies, Canto-pop and places which supposedly only locals know with people... ;b