English Skills and A Culture of Apathy

A blogpost at Joceyland attributed Hong Kong’s generally low English levels to four main causes (in the comments section): an influx of not-well-educated mainland migrants, the post-handover mother-tongue teaching policy, ineffective English teaching methods used in schools and the general miserable state of the education system.

Having previously covered the second cause in “Mother-tongue Teaching A Flop” and dealt with the issue of Hong Kong kids’ lack of reading interest in “Uncultivated Reading Culture”, I found the last cause cited by the blogger to be worthy of further deliberation. During a casual discussion at a lunch gathering yesterday with two of my primary school teachers, they offered some insight into the subject.

Before going into that subject, I’d just like to dwell a little on the generally dwindling interest in the English language.

With the retreat of British government officials beginning on July 1, 1997 and the in-tandem retreat of British-owned corporate entities, British influence on Hong Kong’s society understandably started to recede. Hong Kong parents in general, rightly or wrongly, anticipated that the use of the English language would lose its importance both officially and commercially. This perception (or misperception) was further affirmed with the Tung administration scrambling to implement the “mother-tongue teaching program” as soon as the British were gone. Many parents, rather than spurring their kids to improve their English, encouraged them to learn Putonghua instead, thinking that that would be more practical and trendy when they eventually entered the labor force, either in Hong Kong or better still, in Shanghai or Beijing. In other words, there would seem to be no pragmatic reason for their kids to learn English properly.

But those parents’ estimation had at least one serious flaw, and that is, it omitted the assumption that mainland youths were becoming more and more motivated to perfect their English standards and thus very competitive in the eyes of international employers anywhere in Greater China – employers whom parents would love to have their kids hired by. Moreover, those parents seemed to have forgotten that Hong Kong has always been one of the world’s important financial centers, and the world financial industry is one dominated by the English-speaking world and anyone aspiring to enter this industry cannot hope to succeed if he or she has poor English skills.

As for the miserable state of the education system, my primary school teachers are of the opinion that a lot has to do with a general decline in the sense of responsibility in society. In the course of their teaching career, they used to take very seriously the success or failure of their students at the secondary school entrance examinations and they only had their students’ interest at heart. (Of course it is exactly because of their dedication and loving concern for their students that they have earned their students’ respect and love, even after forty to fifty years!) They and their peers were the ones who wouldn’t mind giving extracurricular lessons in their own free time to students just to try to push for perfection in students’ performance. But that legacy of passion and ethics just vanished in later generations of teachers.

The lunch chat inspired me to draw a casual correlation between the dismal state of Hong Kong’s education system and a permeating indifferent attitude of Hong Kongers.

I can recall the time between the signing of the Joint Declaration (1982) and 1997 when many Hong Kongers were thrown into total disorientation and deep insecurities regarding their future prospect – having to decide whether to emigrate or not to emigrate. Everyone seemed to have taken on a short-term attitude about everything in life – nothing was certain any more and no long-term planning was possible, including career planning. I think it was from that time on that Hong Kong core values began to fall apart at the seams. Hong Kong people started to look for short-term speculative profits in the stock and property markets instead of working steadily towards building a working career. Teachers were just one such group of people. Gradually the reluctance to take responsibility became so pervasive that it started to take root in society at large to form a bad culture of callous indifference. Hong Kong’s education system is just one of the many aspects of society that have suffered from such a culture.

For Teacher A, his motto at work was “common sense, flexibility, sense of responsibility and a passion to help” Have we seen any of these qualities being displayed by educational professionals in the last two decades? Of course, there are always exceptions, but these are hardly in sufficient numbers to have the ability to swing the pendulum back. And teachers should not shoulder all the blame either – administrators, politicians, students and parents are just as blame-worthy – they all wallow in nonchalance and do not take their responsibility seriously.

Doesn’t Joyce Lau’s blogpost about her brother’s encounter with Hong Kong education personnel tell us how hopeless the system has become? Should we be surprised that Hong Kong’s English levels, amongst other things, are declining?