The slide in English language skills in Hong Kong has long been a popular topic of discussion in the local community, particularly among companies.
English became the dominant language in international trade and finance in the latter half of the 20th century, and has played a vital role in Hong Kong’s development as a prominent hub for trade and services. It is critical to preserving our competitive edge against regional rivals.
So, what must we do? Issues we face include our examination-oriented approach to teaching English, which prioritises rote learning and test preparation, and has traditionally focused heavily on written, rather than oral, skills. This is not the most effective approach to teaching English because of its inherent weakness in developing comprehension and communication.
Underpinning the problem are the worryingly low standards of English language teaching and the need for ongoing professional training of English language teachers.
More than half of those who sat the Language Proficiency Assessment for Teachers failed the written section – that’s 54 per cent, up nine percentage points from the previous year. A third failed the oral test of the assessment conducted by the Education Bureau and the Examinations and Assessment Authority.
We also have a shortage of native English teachers, which intensified during the pandemic. This will take some time to resolve, despite the offering of attractive salaries.
To achieve our long-term objectives, we must increase our competitiveness in key areas such as finance, trade, logistics, professional services, tourism and hospitality.
This requires a highly skilled labour force capable of driving innovation. Our trilingual policy is essential to maintaining our status as a key international hub.
Visit any major Chinese city, and the number of young people keen, able and proud to converse in English is evident, which was not the case even 10 years ago.
Our economic prosperity is aligned with the unique opportunity that “one country, two systems” provides. But more effort is required to improve our trilingual capabilities and maintain a competitive edge over our rivals.
As a matter of urgency, we need to re-evaluate all aspects of our English teaching methodology and redress the decline – the benefits to our social and economic prosperity will follow.
Dr Jane Lee, JP, is the president of Our Hong Kong Foundation and founding CEO of Hong Kong Policy Research Institute