Every day, Yannie Mak, a 23-year-old executive officer working for the government, holds her smartphone and WhatsApps to her friends by inputting Chinese characters.
“I don’t like using English to communicate. Instead, Chinese is much more familiar and pleasant to express my feelings,” said Mak, referring the language being used for daily communication with friends.
When she is in office, the written communication between her and colleagues are mostly in English. But in terms of daily conversation with colleagues, she only uses Cantonese, the mother tongue of most Hong Kong-born Chinese.
“The email communication in English has enriched my vocabulary in working context”, said Mak.
She said that it is unnecessary for her to write or speak English after office hours. “Frankly, I don’t like English at all,” said Mak.
While Mak’s experience in the daily use of English is common among office workers, it has been a heated debate in recent years on whether the English standards of Hong Kong people are declining amid fewer chances to use English in daily life.
Yet there is no strong evidence to show the declining trend, the fact is that English standards in Hong Kong have not been improved for a decade.
According to the test results of the IELTS English proficiency test for final year local undergraduates from 2004 to 2014, the writing and speaking, the weakest among the four-part test, had not improved.
In another study conducted by The University of Hong Kong, only around 6% of Hong Kong people are considered speaking English well.
Some people argue that the mother-tongue education policy implemented across the secondary schools hampered students’ English proficiency. However, Mable Chan, a research assistant professor from the English department of The Hong Kong Polytechnic University said this argument could not be verified.
“We still need findings to determine if the use of CMI might be one of the factors shaping the English standard of students in Hong Kong,” said Chan, referring CMI as Chinese as a medium of instruction in secondary schools.
After the handover in 1997, the then-Education Department forced some secondary schools to switch the language of instruction from English to Chinese in teaching non-language subjects for students’ better understanding the content of various subjects. The mother tongue education policy caused an uproar among schools and parents at that time as they wanted students to be more competitive with the frequent use of English.
The learning attitude may be one of the factors contributing to the English standards. Veronica Chow, an English teacher working for two years in a secondary school with low academic achievement, made an observation on students’ learning.
“Students from a third-tier school have no motivation to learn English. They didn’t realise the importance of the language,” said Chow.
The motivation may only begin when the students graduate and become part of the labour force. “Many of my students realised the importance of English after graduation as they need to use English for writing business letters and qualifying for promotion,” said Chow.
“The purpose of learning English is basically a need basis, but not many people are really interested in the language”, said Chow. She opined that the English standards of Hong Kong people could not be improved too much if people are not eager to learn.
Many people may want to know how to improve the English standards. Chan expressed that exposure to English is important and there are many opportunities for the general public to expose more to English.
Other than watching English TV channels, listening to English radio programmes and reading English magazine, Chan suggested using a tool called corpus to learn English in different contexts. “Corpus is another source which provides authentic examples of how words/expressions/phrases are used in a native way,” said Chan.