Last week a clip of a press interview with a student leader went viral. The student leader’s broken English was most depressing. He could hardly finish a single sentence in English and had to supplement his broken English with Cantonese and ask his friends for help to translate Chinese words into English. One wonders how his English could be this bad, given that he must have studied English for at least 12 years. I recall that a university student union president also could not effectively communicate in English at a press conference.
One reason why the English of Hong Kong students is so bad became apparent when the results of the “benchmark test” (formally, the Language Proficiency Assessment for Teachers) for teachers intending to teach English were released. They showed that a mere 50.2 percent passed the written test, 78.3 percent passed the listening test, while 62.3 percent passed the spoken English test.
The saving grace is that teachers are supposed to have reached Level 3 proficiency in the test before they can teach English. If they fail, they will not be allowed to teach English. But I discovered that exemptions from this requirement are given to those who hold “a relevant degree plus relevant teacher training”.
One wonders how good “proficiency at level 3” is, and how good those exempted really are. But the fact is that today we are witnessing students in University Grants Committee-funded universities with substandard English. This shows that the system is failing us.
This is a serious problem, because English proficiency is fundamental to the competitiveness of Hong Kong. Hong Kong is a world city and a global financial center. We should not be complacent about being “third in Asia” in its IELTS score, after Malaysia and the Philippines (2018 data). Singaporeans are known to be head and shoulders above Hong Kong people, and Singapore does not show up in the ranking. Hong Kong’s 2018 IELTS score is higher than the mainland’s 5.78 and Taiwan’s 6.1, Hong Kong’s benchmark must be other world cities and other leading global financial centers.
They (Hong Kong youngsters) should also open their eyes to how modern China learned from its mistakes, and how it eventually succeeded in producing the starkest economic miracle in human history, eradicating poverty for 850 million people in 40 years according to the World Bank
I am more worried about some Hong Kong people’s arrogance and conceit than with our standard of English. If we know our limitations and strive to overcome them, there will be hope for a better tomorrow. But if we refuse to admit our limitations, to work hard, and to face competition, then the prospects for Hong Kong will be grim.
It is nice for our youngsters to shoot for the stars and dream big. In the last few years, I have seen many youngsters in Hong Kong talk big but act small. They talk about democracy; they talk about fighting for a better Hong Kong; they talk about justice; they talk about human rights. But have they done the homework to understand what democracy is, what justice means? Have they the open mind and the humility required to find out how such countries as the United Kingdom and Japan rose to preeminence in the 19th century, and how the United States rose to surpass the UK in the 20th century? How the US stole technology from Nazi Germany (“Operation Paperclip” involved more than 1,600 German scientists, engineers, and technicians being taken from Germany to the US after World War II); how the US cheated the natives who lived in the Marshall Islands and tested atomic and hydrogen bombs multiple times there; how America engineered multiple regime changes in different countries? It is perfectly fine for them to look at modern China’s errors and blunders. But they should also open their eyes to how modern China learned from its mistakes, and how it eventually succeeded in producing the starkest economic miracle in human history, eradicating poverty for 850 million people in 40 years according to the World Bank. We must remember China was about as poor as India in 1950.
One of the common complaints among employers in interviews I have conducted in recent years was the attitude of their young employees. The trait that they valued the most was a willingness to work hard and the initiative to learn. While many complained about a lack of language proficiency, most were more concerned about whether youngsters had the courage to face challenges and if they had the humility to learn.
I do not intend to downplay some of our youngsters’ achievements. I recall how pleasantly surprised I was when one of my students used to come to my office and easily spent an hour discussing philosophy, politics, and various social issues in English. He spoke particularly good English. He told me he came from a local school but had worked hard using the electronic equipment that was available in the market to improve his pronunciation. After graduating from Lingnan University, he got offers from the law schools of both the University of Hong Kong and the Chinese University of Hong Kong. His example shows that if one is keen to learn English, one should have no problem in acquiring proficiency. The fact that even many teachers are below par shows that too many people in Hong Kong just will not make the effort to learn. That is sad.
The author is a senior research fellow at Pan Sutong Shanghai-Hong Kong Economic Policy Research Institute, Lingnan University.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.
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