Opinion: If Hong Kong is to stay successful, good English is essential

The slide in English language skills in Hong Kong has long been a popular topic of discussion in the local community, particularly among companies.

This deterioration is contrary to the government’s language policy, which aims to enable Hongkongers to be trilingual in Cantonese, Mandarin and English, and literate in Chinese and English. Many believe more needs to be done to improve English standards, enhance our trilingual culture and sustain our status as a leading international centre.

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.

But the changing dynamics of the global economy – including China’s emergence as the world’s second-largest economy and the largest exporter of merchandise – are shaping the linguistic environment of international business. These factors contribute to the need for Hong Kong to maintain the highest possible trilingual standards.

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.

The traditional focus on written, rather than oral, skills is not the most effective approach to English education. Photo: Shutterstock

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.

In the last academic year, native English-speaking teachers left schools at a record rate. The attrition rate rose in primary schools from 11 per cent in 2021-22 to 18 per cent last year, and in secondary schools from 13 per cent to 16 per cent. This is affecting the quality of English language education in our local schools.


Is Hong Kong’s education system failing non-ethnic Chinese children?

Is Hong Kong’s education system failing non-ethnic Chinese children?

We are emerging from one of Hong Kong’s most challenging periods with a clearly defined trajectory of economic transformation, focusing on critical domains like innovation and technology to drive our development, and complement our position as one of the world’s most dynamic international centres.
We are also evolving as a significant force in culture and creativity and are tasked with fulfilling that role for the nation. English proficiency is essential if we are to engage effectively with our international partners, share the China story with global audiences and perhaps, to some extent, combat the misinformation and anti-China sentiment in some Western media.

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.


Cantonese or Mandarin? A debate in Hong Kong education since 2008

Cantonese or Mandarin? A debate in Hong Kong education since 2008

The government has promoted Hong Kong internationally to attract new talent, reverse the outflow of professionals during the pandemic and supplement our immediate and future requirements. Capability must be matched by diversity in talent inflow, reflecting our long-term objectives. English proficiency within our trilingual policy is an essential factor.
It is worth noting that English is an important part of the Chinese education system, and is a core subject from the third year of primary school. It is a mandatory component of the national college entrance examination, the gaokao, and can significantly influence admission into higher education institutions. The number of students studying English in China is estimated to be at least 200 million.

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

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