English Skills in China and Hong Kong

Ordinary Gweilo’s post about ludicrous translations of Chinese menus makes me want to rant on the poor standard of English in Hong Kong these days.

Before I do that, I just want to remark that good translation work depends very much on a good understanding of both Chinese and Western cultures and the ability to master both the Chinese and English language. In my opinion, the general standard of translation in the Mainland is below par is because the majority of ordinary Mainland Chinese (even the fairly well educated ones) are still very much strangers to Western culture and are unable to speak simple English, let alone master the language.

Those lucky enough to have received Western education overseas and good exposure to Western culture would usually end up working for multinational corporations either in Hong Kong or the Mainland, or stay and live abroad altogether, thus leaving the domestically educated, whose standard of English cannot be anything but sub-par, taking on less well paid jobs in government and public institutions. Therefore I am not surprised to hear that people working at places like the Beijing Tourism Bureau are not up to the task of producing good translations and their work often tends to be hilarious.

It is a good thing though that at least the authorities are aware of China’s English and translation skill deficiency in general and are taking steps to improve on it. Hopefully, the Olympics are going to bring about a general elevation in China’s standard of English and understanding of Western culture, amongst other things. Let us face it, China is still a developing nation which has yet to catch up with and learn from the English-speaking world in a lot of areas. Let us also be aware that English-speaking businessmen and professionals from the West are scrambling to learn the Chinese language because they want to learn from and about China. So there is no question of any loss of face for the Chinese trying to learn English and the Western culture. It is merely a two-way exchange that would enhance mutual understanding and respect.

Ironically, the development in Hong Kong seems to be running in reverse gear. Ever since the implementation of Tung Chee-Hwa’s ill-advised policy of teaching in the mother-tongue, the standard of English among secondary school and university students went from bad to worse. In recent years, there have been abundant reports that multinational firms are constantly complaining about the acute shortage of local staff with reasonably good English skills, both written and spoken. These go some way to show that that policy has done more harm than good.

It is simply paradoxical for Hong Kong to claim to be an international financial hub on the one hand, and on the other to have a dearth of suitably qualified staff whose basic skill sets should include good English skills.

Before over-zealous patriots start throwing stones at me for daring to promote the language of the hateful colonial gweilos, let us ponder for a moment on the pragmatic side of the issue. Using the words of my former boss, “It is only in the interests of Hong Kong people to speak and write good English. After all, English is the international language used in the business, finance, science, technology and medicine arenas. Being able to master the language is a prerequisite to a successful career or enterprise.”

It would really serve no purpose to use excuses such as nationalism, decolonization, respect for Chinese culture etc. etc. to deprive Hong Kong people of their right to properly learn to master the English language, spoken and written, which has more or less been hampered by the teaching in the mother-tongue program.

My nephew is one of the victims of the society slighting the learning and usage of the English language, made even worse by that program, in the days following the handover. His parents sent him to Vancouver to continue schooling here last year because of total frustration with Hong Kong’s education system. At grade 10 (equivalent to Form 4 in Hong Kong), his English standard was found to be far below that required for that grade and as a result he had to take extra-curricular English lessons. After struggling for a year, he made some progress and got just passing grades in English at his final exams. If he can’t catch up with his classmates in his grade 11 and grade 12 years, he will not stand a chance of reaching pre-university standard of English and will possibly be declined university entry because of it.

I can now understand why some parents in Hong Kong are willing to fork out a fortune to try to get their children into English-speaking international schools.