Monday, 18 April 2016

Hong Kong's Plunging English Standards

People in Causeway Bay and Mongkok were asked to pronounce English words
It is not surprising that English standards have fallen in Hong Kong in the past 20 years.

When I first arrived in the mid 1990s, secretaries spoke perfect English on the phone. Now you must speak Cantonese to ensure you are understood.

And the latest news is that the average person's pronunciation of basic English words is described as "shocking" and "disappointing".

A recent test asked 300 people above the age of 18 who had an educational level of at least Secondary Five, including some undergraduates and postgraduates, in Causeway Bay and Mongkok to pronounce 10 commonly used words, like admirable, southern, estate, suite and fiance.

The company says falling English standards is "shocking"
Nearly half of them scored zero.

No one got them all right, while only five got 50 percent right.

The study was funded by Prime English Learning Centre -- obviously a ploy to market itself as the place to improve one's English skills -- and its head Wennita Fong was horrified by the results.

Fong said many of the mistakes came from placing the stress on the wrong syllable, using hte wrong vowels and not being familiar with loan words, or words adopted from a foreign language.

She said the standard of English pronunciation had fallen, probably because of incorrect pronunciation by primary and secondary teachers, and the prevalence of internet slang.

Fong warned Hong Kong people's job competitiveness would be hampered if English pronunciation was not improved, as the centre's students cited being at a disadvantage in job interviews and passed over for promotion because of their poor English pronunciation.

"One student even pointed out he felt threatened by his mainland colleagues' better English standards," she added.

Children must understand the importance of learning English
One Hong Kong senior manager at a multinational bank said impressions counted and speaking good English was a criterion when hiring.

"Recently, I was hiring a management trainee and interviewed seven candidates. There were three local graduates but they all could not pass my interview. One of the reasons was that their English was not so good," he said.

Meanwhile lawmaker Claudia Mo Man-ching, who has been critical of falling English standards and usage in the city, said English education in Hong Kong focused too much on grammar and writing, and not much emphasis on speaking the language.

It also depends on the willingness of the person to learn English -- if they are keen to make foreign friends or improve their job prospects, then they will try hard to improve their language skills.

But if they don't see the importance of learning English, they will just learn enough to get by. While Hong Kong claims to be an international city, there's a vast majority of locals who hardly every interact with foreigners or use English in their daily lives.

When people don't see the importance of English -- or worse -- see it as a vestige of Hong Kong's colonial past -- that will be the beginning of the end of the city's future.

Hong Kong people need to know English at a minimum, and other languages like French, Spanish and even Japanese or Korean would be a plus.

This also indicates local residents' attitude towards others -- that they are very insular and don't look outwards, which is also sad.

So in the meantime can we get our English pronunciation right at least? That way we can least communicate with others more effectively? Maybe then we'd get more tourists coming our way?


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