English Language Proficiency Continues to Decline in Hong Kong 2014

The English language standard in Hong Kong continues to fall even though more and more business is on a global level. As an international financial centre, Hong Kong vies with other Asian cities such as Singapore and Shanghai for trade and investment. This article looks at the background of the problem and possible solutions.

An analysis of 750,000 adults taking English tests in by English First (EF) was published in their 3rd Edition English Proficiency Index Report 2013 (http://www.ef.se/epi) . The results compiled the outcomes across multiple Asian countries and are able to show the language ability according to geographic location. According to the report, Hong Kong now lags behind Malaysia and Singapore (both in the EF "High Proficiency" band) when it comes to English proficiency and is on a par with Japan, and South Korea (all in the EF "Moderate Proficiency" Band) which have normally been assumed to have a "low" level of English. European countries such as Sweden, Norway and Denmark had the highest proficiency in the report.

The reasons behind this decline are numerous and include focus on the need for Putonghua before the handover of Sovereignty from the British Colonial Government to mainland China in 1997 as well as the emphasis put on Chinese Medium teaching. In 1997 the Hong Kong Government released a directive promoting the compulsory change to Chinese medium teaching (http://www.legco.gov.hk/yr97-98/english/panels/ed/papers/ed1508-6.htm). Even though this was later watered down to simply "guidance" over 70% of HK's primary and secondary schools were forced to use Chinese as the language of instruction.

A university study on the effects of language education and language use after the handover concluded that "The language policies in this period are more balanced between Chinese and English, and maybe at times more inclined towards Chinese."(Anita Y.K. Poon, Language policy of Hong Kong: Its impact on language education and language use in post-handover Hong Kong, Journal of Taiwan Normal University: Humanities & Social Sciences 2004, 49(1), 53-74).

Students, the general population and the workforce in Hong Kong have to use two written languages (i.e. English and Chinese) plus three spoken languages (English, Cantonese and Putonghua). The rapid influx of mainland tourists into Hong Kong has also placed the emphasis on the need for Putonghua proficiency for hospitality, tourism, service and retail sector staff, and hence a move away for the need of fluent English. The rise in mainland tourists arrivals looks set to increase further past the 40 million level in 2013 (http://www.gov.hk/en/about/abouthk/factsheets/docs/tourism.pdf). The spoken language in most offices seems to be Cantonese although English is used for written communication - mainly for convenience as it is easier to type in English. Unfortunately English is rarely spoken in local homes where Cantonese is used and where Chinese language media predominates.

HKEnglish.com's own observation is that mainland Chinese have better English grammar skills than locally educated Cantonese students. Even when local HK Students go abroad for their secondary and tertiary education the underlying grammar errors continue. In addition local Hong Kong students tend to have persistent difficulties with English pronunciation and intonation even after spending up to 10 years in an English speaking country such as Canada or Australia. The number of students scoring low in the IELTS Speaking and IELTS Writing exams in Hong Kong also reflects this trend.

So how can Hong Kong students move forward with their English learning? The most efficient method is to enrol for a Private English course where students have 100% of the teachers attention with immediate feedback on mistakes and guidance for correction. HKEnglish offers a wide range of English language courses including Business English, IELTS, TOEFL, Pronunciation & Accent Reduction as well as Business Soft Skills such as Presentations & Public Speaking, Negotiation Skills and Job Interview Training.

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