by Jonathan Yeung
Hong Kong has two official languages: English and Chinese. Legally, both languages are meant to have equal status. This is clearest on the streets, where all road signs are bilingual; English on top, Chinese on the bottom. Before 1997, when Hong Kong was a Crown colony, English was the language of government, commerce and prestige. People in my parents’ generation knew that to aim high, you needed to know English.
But in recent years, Hong Kong has suffered a major decline in English standards. Grammatical and spelling mistakes in English on official signs and documents have been on the rise. Government officials are less and less willing to speak English. The English-speaking media, once vibrant, now find it increasingly hard to report local events. Fewer and fewer people on the streets are able to communicate in English.
Since 1974, when Chinese was finally recognised as an official language by the colonial administration, the power of Chinese (specifically Cantonese) in Hong Kong has greatly increased. The year marked a victory: the indigenous language finally gained recognition in a territory ruled for so long by officials appointed by the Colonial Office. The two languages looked set to share Hong Kong equally.
Some treat the decline of English as a good sign, an indication that Hong Kong is shedding its colonial past. I don’t think so. The decline in English standards is only going to hurt Hong Kong’s reputation as an international city, and damage its competitiveness. For a territory that prides itself as ‘Asia’s World City’, we can’t do anything if we can’t actually connect to and communicate with the world.
To stem the decline of English, the government needs to create environments where Hongkongers can truly practice and hone their English skills. It also needs to set a good example; when even high officials are refusing to speak one of our two official languages, what does that tell the rest of society? Legislation needs to be passed that allocates more funding to the improvement of English language education.
I am not arguing for a return to a Chinese society that is dominated and run by an English-speaking elite. Instead, what I am saying is that a society which prides itself on its international status needs to hold on dearly to the very things that allow it to connect to the world. One of these things is multilingualism.
There are a myriad of problems that Hong Kong will need to deal with in the foreseeable future, not least its conflict with Mainland China. The decline of English is one of these problems. It’s one that is relatively easy to solve, but only if the government and people decide to recognise and prioritise it. As an international city, a melting pot between east and west, Hong Kong needs to give English the equal status it deserves.
One thought on “English in Hong Kong: The Unfortunate Decline”
An excellent and well-intentioned article. I find it saddening, of course, that the status of English has dropped so low in what was once Her Majesty’s “Pearl of the Orient”. I think it is, personally of course, most distressing when even officials and councillors in the Legislature are unwilling to use English in their own debates–it is as if the very idea of speaking the language is abhorrent to them, a most concerning proposition.
I feel, too, that the unwillingness to speak in English has really affected the image that Hong Kong has projected on the international scene. Take, for example, the eminent young man Joshua Wong (God preserve him!) who spoke at, I believe, the Union some time ago. While the cause he espouses is most impressive, his command of the English language I imagine will speak volumes to others of the standard of those who participate in his movement. While I am myself personally sure that this is not the case–there must be some intellectuals in any movement, after all–the image its leader presented did not help one iota towards crafting the image of those who campaign for democracy in Hong Kong in the minds of the common-folk. This trait (poor English, I mean) seems to be shared by other eminent leaders of student democracy in the local universities as well.
Perhaps it really is time to do something about it: as an expatriate to Hong Kong, I’d certainly appreciate it.
I remain, etc.,
George F.A.W. St. Claire