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As English declines in HK,
the drawbridge is going up

English is a passport to the world and must be revived in Hong Kong to help this 'World City' find its groove. China's own student long march showed how.

Hong Kong, December 2022

HK students drea, of the future

Bright Hong Kong students may miss out on global opportunities without a stronger focus on English language, the lingua franca of global commerce

IT IS an odd reflection of our times that while several Hong Kong institutions rate high on top world university lists, the level of English language in the city is steadily dropping. This may be pooh-poohed by starchy politically correct sorts but it is a generally accepted perception and not entirely anecdotal.

Studies have noted the steady demise of English yet, like the Titanic, a lingering forward momentum conveys a false sense of security. On the 2023 QS World University rankings Hong Kong has five institutions in the top 100 (Singapore has two). The city also has four top-100 placings in two other major surveys. This was rightly highlighted by Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu in his inaugural policy address where he focused on “unleashing the potential of students" and attracting fresh talent.

Dropping English proficiency

But something is awry in the engine room. Education First's English Proficiency Index (EF EPI) for 2022 — based on the Standard English test results of 2.1m adults from 111 countries — places Hong Kong at 31 in its world ranking compared with Singapore at 2. This may not appear too shabby with Switzerland and Italy for company. Yet, in 2011 Hong Kong was ranked 12. In 2012 it slipped to 25.

Vijay Verghese

Vijay Verghese

Emerging from the Covid silo, multinationals and local SMEs in need of multilingual talent are scraping the barrel. Bright students and trained professionals are emigrating. For many businesses, declining human capital is an existential problem

This much-vaunted 'World City' banks on its international competency founded on English, the lingua franca of global commerce, but Britain is no longer managing the switchboard. Emerging from the Covid silo, multinationals and local SMEs in need of multilingual talent are scraping the barrel. Bright students are emigrating. For many businesses, declining human capital is an existential problem.

Whither English? The abrupt and poorly managed switch to Cantonese mother tongue instruction in secondary schools in 1998 was an embarrassing own goal.

As the territory hit this iceberg, its schools  then had to adapt to "biliteracy and trilingualism". The intent, sensibly, was to promote fluency in English and Chinese with conversational ability in English, Cantonese and Putonghua. But, lacking clarity and with huge variance in its adoption, the policy made a pig's breakfast of things. Whereas pre-1997 about 90 percent of secondary schools taught most subjects in English, by 2019 just 30 percent used English as the medium of instruction. The territory retreated into a shell, a far cry from its can-do chutzpah of the Eighties.

Hong Kong had a long colonial history. Yet, it has motored on with Cantonese. Many from neighbouring Guangdong escaped here to avoid painful cataclysms as a new Communist China took shape. This reinforced cultural conformity. Ranks closed further when social upheavals spilled over the border, encouraging a siege mentality as Hong Kong struggled to survive on the rump of an unpredictable dragon.

Raising the drawbridge

Times have changed. Attitudes have not. Therein lies the rub. Part of the population has embraced all things Chinese while the other half, shaken by the protest fallout, is raising the drawbridge. It is telling that Hong Kong students abroad often opt for Cantonese-language associations, completely insulated from host country culture, simply because of reticence when it comes to speaking English. A 2021 higher secondary school survey revealed that 65 percent of students thought the English they were taught lacked real life application. It is time to bell this cat.

English proficiency and teaching should be incentivised while promoting Putonghua and protecting Cantonese culture. There is no contradiction here. This would help stretch intellectual horizons and offer a broader understanding of things. In schools across the world, this was once referred to as general knowledge. It helped separate class from crass.

It is time for Hong Kong to fully embrace multilingualism. This is the norm in much of Europe. Belgium has three official languages, Switzerland four. India has a bewildering 121 languages, 22 of these official, and thousands of dialects, while Singapore has four official languages. The more varied, earlier, and faster this acquisition, the broader the horizons available to a child and, arguably, the greater the earning power and security for children, their parents, and future families.

Lacking technical research in Chinese, in 1978 paramount leader Deng Xiaoping encouraged a student long march to foreign universities. The success of that knowledge transfer is keenly evident today in China's economic heft.

The HKSAR government can revisit this issue with clear resolve and the right messaging to encourage not just language competence but a sense of inclusivity and integration. The city must come together and heal to make the most of its prodigious talent.

The second Long March

Despite its seemingly odious imperial baggage, English remains a rich and robust language greatly influenced by a range of classical sources, occasional overlords, and its former colonies. English contains words freely plundered from French (which remained the official language in England for roughly 300 years from AD1066 to AD1362), Arabic, Hindi, and Chinese among others. This accommodative nature is one reason it has stood the test of time and become the global language for trade and discourse.

To be sure, English has been under pressure with the shredding of the globalist fabric and the emergence of strong nationalist leaders demanding a return to the mother tongue and mythical pasts. Russia has effectively moved the clock back to some manner of stumbling autarkic autocracy. Turkey (now Türkiye) is loosening its secular moorings and tossing out anglophile baggage. China is flirting anew with Mao and anti-imperialist rhetoric. India is in the grip of nationalist fervour tinged with religious overtones. The world resounds with the sound of doctrinaire padlocks clicking shut. Much of this involves language and its use in changing or entrenching power structures.

Following the Hong Kong street protests, the United States once again became the favoured Svengali for any apportioning of blame for everything from the city's misfiring malcontents to other less-than-patriotic sorts. Yet, American and UK universities remain in great demand, and rightly. These universities offer not just the best in modern pedagogy but also full immersion in the English language that greatly benefits prospects for many international students. Language is not an issue of kowtowing to this or that country but of amassing knowledge.

China showed how. As the young communist country grappled with reconstruction, it was apparent much technical research was bypassing it as material was unavailable in Chinese. In 1978 this prompted paramount leader Deng Xiaoping to encourage a student long march to foreign universities. The first batches were mostly older or married persons with a high likelihood of returning and the success of that knowledge transfer is keenly evident today in China's economic heft.

Hong Kong is a luxury yacht adrift in a pond. It must find direction, purpose, and a route back into international waters. Ironically, English is its passport back to the world community where it can also become China's most potent ambassador.

Vijay Verghese started out as a reporter for the Times of India, a national daily, in 1979. He moved to Bangkok and thence to Hong Kong in 1984 as editor and publisher of a range of news, business, travel and lifestyle publications including Business Traveller, HOLIDAY Asia, and Asian Business. He launched Dancing Wolf Media in 2002 and runs the online magazines and when not dabbling in avatars, music and virtual guff.

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